Friends Alec Riddle and Logan Thomas of Middleton, Wisconsin, went fishing in late July on the Wisconsin River below the Prairie du Sac dam, hoping to catch a big flathead catfish.
Instead, the two 15-year-olds landed and quickly released a huge paddlefish, an uncommon prehistoric fish that’s found only in large rivers like the Wisconsin, Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, and Yellowstone. Paddlefish are a “threatened” species in Wisconsin, and no longer live upriver of Prairie du Sac.
The boys landed the giant fish, which they estimated to weigh over 100 pounds and measure more than six feet, after a half-hour fight. They caught it by taking turns hauling it in by hand instead of with a rod and reel. More on that later.
Riddle and Thomas are experienced anglers who were taught by their fathers, Ray Riddle and Chuck Thomas. The boys are co-presidents of Middleton High School’s fishing club, which meets regularly during the school year for its 10 to 30 members. The boys caught the paddlefish from Chuck Thomas’ 21-foot bass boat, which they anchored over deep holes below the dam. They’ve used the boat regularly this summer to fish together, having passed the state’s boater safety course.
Riddle said they started fishing around noon that Thursday, and the action was slow the first two hours. After Riddle landed a 22-inch sheepshead (freshwater drum) and started unhooking it, the boys saw another rod bending slowly instead of the normal tap-tapping of a biting fish. Thomas grabbed the pole, set the hook and figured he had hooked a small catfish.
As Thomas reeled in the line, they noticed its hook had snagged a red braided fishing line, but they couldn’t see another boat within 600 yards. That could only mean the red braid had been snapped off or spooled in its entirety from an unlucky angler’s reel, so Thomas kept reeling. Once their line was close enough to the boat, they each grabbed the braided line on opposite sides of their fishing pole, unhooked it from their line, and challenged each other to see who could pull in their end of the braided line first.
At this point they thought they were racing to see who would claim a lost hook or lure on the line’s terminal end. About 20 seconds later, Thomas reached the short end of the braided line, only to find it held nothing.
Riddle kept pulling on his end, which felt like it was being pulled around a rock or sunken tree. When Riddle yanked hard to unsnag the line, which he estimated was 40- to 50-pound test, he realized they were fighting a monstrous fish.
“The line shot out of my hands like a truck was on the other end,” Riddle said. “We looked around for gloves, but didn’t see any, so we took off our shirts and used them to protect our hands from being burned by the line. We could feel every bump of the fish’s tail through that braided line.”
They fought the fish for about 25 minutes, spelling each other to spare their hands and energy, all the while trying to guess what was on the far end. Thomas has fished this area often with his father, and thought maybe it was a big muskellunge or paddlefish, because they had caught paddlefish occasionally. As the fight dragged on, Thomas ruled out muskies and guessed it was a sturgeon or paddlefish.
Finally, after pulling in an estimated 150 yards of the braided line, they got a good look and realized it was a giant paddlefish, far bigger than anything Thomas had seen before. Meanwhile, three men who were fishing muskies nearby motored over to watch the action.
“They had a bigger net than ours and offered to let us use it, but we didn’t want to ruin their net,” Riddle said.
After about another five to 10 minutes, the paddlefish finally tired enough to let the boys work it to the stern of their boat and tie off the braided line to a cleat. The line’s mangled hooks were buried deep in the paddlefish’s outer gill plate, and seven freshwater lampreys eight to 10 inches long wriggled from their anchor points on the fish’s body.
Working fast, Riddle grabbed the fish by its long snout (the paddle), and Thomas grabbed it high behind the gill plate to avoid harming its delicate gills. They quickly hoisted it onto the boat’s low-slung deck, removed the hooks and lampreys, and then Riddle bear-hugged the fish and hoisted it high as Thomas snapped photos.
Seconds later they slid it back into the water, helped it steady itself, and then got doused when it splashed free and swam for the depths. Riddle estimates they got the fish unhooked and back in the river in about 30 seconds, not taking time to weigh it or measure its length or girth.
“Logan lifted me in the air afterward, the same way he had lifted the fish, and said the fish weighed as much if not more than me, and I weigh 120 pounds,” Riddle said. “I’m five-foot-five, and the fish’s paddle was about a foot over my head, so it was at least six feet long. The fish’s belly was bigger than both of us combined.”
Paddlefish are seldom caught in Wisconsin, even by accident, partly because they’re relatively rare, but also because they feed primarily on plankton. They’ll also eat algae, mayflies, mayfly larvae, and small crustaceans. In the few places where they can be caught and kept during tightly regulated seasons, such as Montana, they’re usually snagged intentionally, although setlines can also be used.
Paddlefish can reach weights up to 200 pounds, but 60-pounders and less are more common. Their long nose-like paddle is actually called a rostrum, which is a highly sensitive antenna that helps them detect the tiny plankton they eat.
Riddle said this was easily the biggest fish either he or Thomas had ever caught, and made it clear he wasn’t taking credit for it.
“It’s important that everyone realize it was a combined effort,” Riddle said. “Without both of us working together, who knows if we would have caught it.”
Patrick Durkin of Waupaca, Wisconsin is a freelance writer who covers outdoors recreation for OutdoorHub.
Image by Logan Thomas