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Kelly Bostian: Just how big can a Keystone paddlefish get? Only time will tell
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Kelly Bostian: Just how big can a Keystone paddlefish get? Only time will tell

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With the new home of world-record sized paddlefish in Tulsa’s backyard, we are now locked into a lingering question. Just how big can they get?

Biologists are understandably non-committal when asked for a prediction, but the fish, eventually, will tell us.

New world records set the past month remind us of how little we knew not so long ago and how much things have changed. Word of triple-digit paddlefish has become less rare and, thanks to fishing guide Jeremiah Mefford’s newfound skills with the relatively new Garmin LiveScope sonar technology, they were caught in the middle of the summer.

Remember when paddlefish snagging was done primarily from the bank and during the month of April? Wasn’t that long ago.

Behind the numbers of pounds and inches and exciting tales of bent rods and barrel-bellied fish is the progression in our knowledge of a fascinating prehistoric fish species staged with rapidly evolving technology and recreational fishing interest. The new 151.9-pound record caught Thursday opened a further doorway for discussion thanks to a little piece of metal applied to the fish’s jaw the last time it was caught — 23 1/2 years ago.

The old lip ring that somehow managed to survive, legibly, all that time was applied during an early Oklahoma State University study of paddlefish populations in Keystone requested by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Directing the study was then-OSU grad student Craig Paukert, currently a Ph.D. and professor of fisheries and wildlife at the University of Missouri. Working as one of his techs was then-undergrad Brandon Brown, now director of Paddlefish Research Center operations for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

When I called Paukert Thursday, he was over the moon.

“You really caught me by surprise,” he said. “This makes my day!”

“That was really a ground-floor study at the time,” Paukert said. “We knew there were some in Keystone, but we didn’t know anything about them. … The running joke was I was going to spend three years to write a thesis on how I caught three paddlefish.”

They did a little better than that. They set winter gill nets for three seasons, 1996-1998, and tagged 1,349 paddlefish, mostly large fish, but some — including one netted in the Salt Creek Arm just off Highway 51 at Mannford — that were just a foot or two long. That was a positive sign that the population had reproduced.

The tagging record showed the new world record caught Thursday by Ochelata angler Cory Watters was more than 25 years old. When it was tagged Jan. 4, 1997, it was 26 inches long from the eye to the fork of the tail and weighed 7.7 pounds. Thursday, it measured 54 ¾ inches and weighed 151 pounds 14 ounces.

“So it grew 28 inches and gained about 143 lbs!” Paukert noted via email.

Brown also got a kick out of the band report and said it shows how management of paddlefish populations can be complicated.

“A child born the same day Craig tagged that fish could conceivably have graduated from college by now. Looking at the age it takes them to reach sexual maturity and with so many years between successful spawns, when we talk about paddlefish management we have to be looking a long ways down the road.”

Crunching the behind-the-scenes numbers for the Wildlife Department is senior fisheries biologist Jason Schooley. He’s the one researching why Keystone’s fish are different than the more plentiful and better-known population in the Grand River watershed.

Schooley explained Oklahoma’s paddlefish in detail this month in an excellent article at The Fisheries Blog where he points out genetic and environmental differences for the fish — and some entertaining history about a 198-pounder supposedly speared in 1916 at Iowa’s Lake Okoboji.

As an Iowa native, I can attest that Okoboji is known for inaccurate fishing tales. Some day I’ll find an excuse to write about how as a kid I won a tackle box in a contest for the big white bass that I caught there — which was actually a drum.

The “198’er” is the biggest ever rumored (and roundly debunked), and Schooley offers no guesses on how big a Keystone paddlefish might get.

In his blog he notes, “in my experience as a paddlefish biologist, super-sized paddlefish in excess of 100 (pounds) seem to be nearly stretched to the limits of reason and biological plasticity… like a giant tadpole that might pop if they grazed a sharp object.”

Several factors make Keystone’s paddlefish different, he said in a Friday conversation. They are unique genetically in this state and like all living things are a product of their breeding and environment.

Most Keystone paddlefish likely only attempt to spawn every other year instead of annually and some apparently are not sexually mature until their 10th year, rather than their eighth, so they have more time to grow before spending energy on reproduction.

Unknown about the recent world records, because the fish were released, is whether they were male, female or sterile. Some of the largest paddlefish on record in Oklahoma were sterile. That meant they could build up fat while others spent their energy producing young.

And Keystone fish are different physiologically. “They just have gobs of fat,” he said. While the fish have a similar life span and growth rate to Grand Lake paddlefish, male Keystone fish are on average 8% heavier and the females are a whopping 22% heavier, he said.

“Where is that weight? It’s not in the eggs, it’s in fat,” he said. “They are getting so many more calories in Keystone, they have almost twice the fat content of paddlefish in Grand Lake, so obviously they have an abundance of resources to sock away that much energy.”

Just how much fat one of them will be able to put away — without popping — is something we will just have to wait to see.

Kelly Bostian 918-581-8357

kelly.bostian@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @KellyBostian

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