Missouri paddlefish snaggers wait to catch a monster

Friday, April 15, 2011 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

WARSAW — It had been two hours since Steve Liles started jerking a heavy weight and three big treble hooks through the murky water of Lake of the Ozarks, and he was starting to feel the pain.

"This will make an old man out of you," joked Liles, 43. "This paddlefish snagging is work. I'm spoiled. I'm used to fishing for crappies. This is a little different than that."

When you're going after the biggest fish in the lake, you don't go to battle with a switch and a prayer.

A fishing rod as stiff as a pool cue, 100-pound test line, 16-ounce sinkers, 10-ought hooks — yeah, that's a little different than the ultralight equipment Liles uses for crappies.

Try fishing with that stuff all day. You, too, will feel the pain.

But it's worth it, Liles will tell you. When you go snagging at this time of the year at Lake of the Ozarks, there's always a chance of hooking into a giant.

"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack," Liles said. "But they're out there.

"I had my wife out here three years ago, and she hooked into a big one. She got it halfway in and said, 'I can't do it anymore. My arms are burning.'

"I told her, 'If you want to be a spoonbill snagger, you have to reel in your own fish.' She did, and it weighed 72 pounds.

"She still talks about that fish."

Now Liles and his friend, Albert Bailey, who both live in Peculiar, were looking for a fish like that. And about two hours into the trip, they found one.

As Liles maneuvered his boat through an armada of other snaggers one morning, he felt his line come to an abrupt stop. He was snagged on something other than a stump, rock or brush pile.

The braided line raced out of the reel as the giant made a run, and Liles held on. He and the fish played tug-of-war for a few seconds, but eventually Liles got the upper hand.

He looked down to see a giant gray creature slowly float to the surface, and he got excited.

"That's a good one," he said to Bailey. "We've got to get it in the boat."

Bailey scrambled for a gaff, then hooked the monster and struggled to lift it over the rail and flop it to the floor of the boat.

Once the paddlefish was in, Liles finally exhaled and celebrated the moment.

"We don't have a scale, but I'm guessing that fish will go 60, 65 pounds," he said. "That's what we came out here for."

Moments later, Bailey also snagged a paddlefish, though it was much smaller than the first.

"You measure mine in inches, not in pounds," Bailey said with a laugh.

Still, the two fishermen went home with plenty of meat for future fish fries and memories of another successful snagging trip.

They are two of many who look forward to April, when the Missouri paddlefish snagging season is in full swing. Thousands of fishermen descend on Lake of the Ozarks, Truman and Table Rock lakes and their tributaries in search of the fish of a lifetime.

They keep chiropractors in business by spending long, back-wrenching hours trying to snag into one of the monsters.

But the lure — the dream of catching a fish almost as big as some humans — keeps them coming back.

The Missouri state record is 139 pounds, 4 ounces, a fish snagged at Table Rock in 2002. But each year, a few fish in the 100-pound class are caught.

Bailey came close to that mark years ago when he snagged a 90-pound paddlefish on the Osage River at Taberville.

"I've been snagging in this area before Truman Lake was even built," he said. "My dad and I would come down here and snag off the bank when this was just a river.

"We'd catch some big fish. But there still are big fish out there."

Liles and Bailey hit traditional holes where the paddlefish gather as they make their spawning run. But they seldom have those places to themselves.

They and others often troll through those holes at slow speeds, jerking their hooks and heavy weights through the water in hopes of hooking a paddlefish.

The best chances of catching a big one usually come later in the season, when water temperatures exceed 50 degrees. The unseasonably cool weather this year has gotten the snagging season off to a slow start, according to fisheries biologists with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

But on this recent morning, many fishermen had paddlefish tied to the side of their boat, a snagger's status symbol.

"It's hard to believe that fish like this live in our reservoirs," Liles said. "I think that's why this spoonbill snagging is so popular.

"You have a chance of catching a giant."

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