Prehistoric monsters are a thrill to hook

 

April 14, 2023

Contributed

Bret Baker struggles to contain his excitement over the enormous spoonbill the Baker crew battled over spring break.

Winter has officially worn out its welcome in the Baker household, and we decided to do something about it over spring break. Half our crew - Jamie, Josh and I - traveled to the Osage Arm of Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri to chase prehistoric monsters.

I first got the itch to chase spoonbill, aka paddlefish, last winter. We tried unsuccessfully to battle one in northern Oklahoma last year, but our luck would shift dramatically in the late March sunshine and muddy waters of southern Missouri.

Fishing for a spoonbill is a bit of a misnomer. Because they are a filter feeder, focused mostly on algae, they don't strike any traditional lures. Therefore, spoonbill fishing is actually spoonbill snagging. The traditional approach is to cast a heavily weighted sinker into a deep river hole and snap a large trailing treble hook in an attempt to connect with the cartilage along a spoonbill's side. The angler must commit to every swing of the rod - halfhearted effort is rarely rewarded.

We hired a guide for our adventure, and our approach differed from the norm. We trolled 5- to 7 mph and deployed a unique setup. Dipsey Divers - usually associated with achieving trolling depths on the Great Lakes - were used to deliver large treble hooks, one just above the dipsey, and another 3 feet up the line, toward the bottom of the water column. We ran a four-rod spread, and when one rod began to bounce vigorously in its rod holder, we knew the fight was on.

The main goal was to allow Josh to catch the first several fish, and if we got into a bunch of them, Jamie and I would take a crack at it. The first couple of fish were on the smaller side, but still exciting.

As the fish got bigger, I got more interested in giving Josh a break and battling a few myself. The power of a spoonbill, hooked sideways in the heavy current, is an arm-numbing tug of war. The fish were all hooked cleanly by one side of a treble, allowing us to catch and release a dozen spoonbill over the course of an afternoon. These fish averaged 25 to 30 pounds, but it was a true river monstrosity that made our trip unforgettable.

Three hours into our outing, the starboard rod began to bounce violently. As with any hit, the other three rods had to be cleared before the fight could commence. Jamie hopped into my seat and held tightly to the bouncing rod while Josh and I cleared the other rods. I grabbed the rod and helped her as she began cranking on the unseen beast. Fighting the other spoonbill felt like pulling a microwave from the depths; this one felt more like a refrigerator hooked sideways. As Jamie cranked, I held on. After several minutes, as the muddy brown water slowly transitioned to the gray side of the monster, I abandoned my wife and the fishing rod. I stood high on the back deck as Jamie slammed into the side of the boat, pinned by the weight of the behemoth. It felt like hours, but the colossal spoonbill was out of the water and in the boat within 30 seconds of breaking the surface.

As Jamie started to count her bruises, I felt a rush of adrenaline. For two years we had chased this fish, and here it was, directly at our feet. The giant bulged in all directions; the mass and length proved difficult to comprehend. Josh was given a pass on his language as he dropped a few expletives, pure excitement pumping through his veins also. I bearhugged the spoonbill in its entirety and heaved it skyward. Screaming to the fish gods, I was able to hold the massive fish for a few quick pictures. Our guide, also shaking with excitement, attempted to weigh the giant, but his 80-pound scale proved insufficient.

To keep a spoonbill in Missouri, it must measure at least 34 inches from its eyes to the fork in the tail. This measurement leaves out about 6 more inches of the tail and the entire length of the large paddle jutting from the skull. Our spoonbill taped out at 55 inches, from its eyes to the fork in the tail ... the entire fish was well over 6 feet in length. We let all of our other fish go, but this one made the trip back to Cloquet with us.

Contributed

Joshua Baker, 17, of Cloquet, displays the unique filter-feeder anatomy of the giant spoonbill.

We tried to fry some of the spoonbill, mixed in with some crappies. It wasn't terrible, but the texture was strange, more like a pork chop. We tried "poor man's lobster," my favorite way to make any fish palatable. Boiled in 7-Up, nobody particularly cared for the culinary offering. Finally, I smoked it on the Big Green Egg, and it turned out pretty tasty. I will be smoking batches throughout the spring, using up the gallons of fillets we brought home.

The remainder of the spoonbill I buried in the snowbank in the backyard, where it awaits pickup by Neff Taxidermy. I decided to surprise Mrs. Baker with a mount of our trophy. The entire composition of a spoonbill is almost entirely cartilage. The skull and paddle are bony ... and will make an interesting European mount, allowing us to relive our battle in the future. As the days heated up the past week, I was forced to smuggle the carcass to the downstairs freezer where it's hidden under a pile of Kettle River pizzas.

If you happen to run into Mrs. Baker this week ... let's keep that little secret to ourselves.

Bret Baker is an award-winning outdoors columnist. Email him at [email protected] with fishing questions or story ideas.

 
 

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