Rural Missouri Magazine

Missouri's March madness
Spring ushers in spoonbill snaggin’ season on the Lake of the Ozarks

by Jason Jenkins

Fishing guide Anthony Ford of Warsaw, left, helps Dan Crader of Moscow Mills land a large paddlefish as Dan’s son, Jake, watches. This was the father and son’s first snagging trip.

In Warsaw, there’s nothing bigger than opening day of snagging season. Each March 15, this little town on the upper reaches of the Lake of the Ozarks is invaded by a flotilla of anglers. They come in search of one of the largest freshwater fish in the United States, the American paddlefish, also known as the spoonbill.

Although these aquatic behemoths — with their distinctive, spatula-like snouts — can weigh 100 pounds or more, paddlefish are filter feeders, eating tiny zooplankton suspended in the water. They won’t bite lures; you have to snag them.

“It’s the real ‘March Madness’ here on the Osage River,” says Anthony Ford, a full-time fishing guide from Warsaw. “Around here, snaggin’ season is the deer season on the water. It’s the biggest thing that happens. A lot of these businesses on the water, this is the biggest 45 days they have all year. It’s the busiest you’ll see these boat ramps.”

Most of the year, Ford’s clients visit Truman Lake and Lake of the Ozarks to fish for catfish. But from March 15 to April 30, the Southwest Electric Cooperative member fishes exclusively for spoonbills.

Each year, thousands of paddlefish fingerlings are reared at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Blind Pony Fish Hatchery.

Paddlefish are native to the Mississippi, Missouri and Osage river basins. Once abundant, the construction of dams on the Osage River flooded the fish’s historical spawning areas and blocked their migration.

In an effort to maintain the species, the Missouri Department of Conservation established a stocking program in the early 1970s.

“Today, we stock Table Rock Lake with 3,000 fingerlings annually with a pulse stocking of up to 6,000 once every three years,” says Trish Yasger, a fisheries biologist who oversees the department’s paddlefish program. “At Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Lake, we stock 15,000 a year in each reservoir with a pulse stocking of up to 30,000 every three years or so.”

The young paddlefish, which are raised at Blind Pony Fish Hatchery near Sweet Springs, reach a total length of 12 to 18 inches by the time they are stocked in the reservoirs in October.

Snagging paddlefish, a popular spring activity on the upper reaches of Lake of the Ozarks, Truman Lake and Table Rock Lake, doesn’t require much tackle. The standard rigging consists of two No. 10 treble hooks and a 16-ounce lead sinker.

It takes a spoonbill about eight years before it reaches the minimum legal harvest length of 34 inches, as measured from the fish’s eye to the fork of its tail. It is these fish that attract anglers during snagging season, which coincides with the annual migration that concentrates the fish. The migration is triggered by a series of natural cues, Yasger says.

“Increases in day length, water temperature and water flow are what get the fish moving,” she explains. “When the water temp is 50-55 degrees and you get a jump in flow of 2-3 feet, that’s when they really want to make that spawning run.”

Snagging doesn’t require a lot of tackle or other equipment. A 6-to-7-foot fiberglass rod, equipped with a saltwater reel, two large treble hooks and a lead sinker is the standard rig.

“You want that rod to be as stiff as a pool cue,” says Ford, who has operated his business,, for the past eight years. “As for the reels, I put line counters on all of mine. It takes the guesswork out of how many feet you have out.”

Ford recommends spooling your reel with at least an 80-pound-test braided line. He prefers PowerPro’s Spectra microfilament in Hi-Vis Yellow because it has the same diameter as 18-pound monofilament and the color makes it easy to see. Above a 16-ounce lead sinker, Ford ties two No. 10 treble hooks spaced 36 to 48 inches apart.

“You’ll want to retie your sinkers every 20 to 30 minutes so that you don’t lose them,” he says, adding that he’ll go through 3,000 yards — or nearly two miles — of line during a typical snagging season.

The minimum length for paddlefish on Lake of the Ozarks, Truman Lake and Table Rock Lake is 34 inches, as measured from the eye to the fork of the tail, making even the smallest legal fish too large for the average livewell. As a result, anglers tie snagged paddlefish alongside their boats using lengths of rope that leave the fish just slightly out of the water.

Successful snaggers know the key to consistently catching paddlefish lies in your willingness to work.

“If you’re not pulling, you won’t catch fish,” Ford says. “The hide on these spoonbill is tough. You have to jerk that treble hook into them.”

Good snagging form is rhythmic, resembling the motion of a pendulum. Once you feel your sinker hit the bottom, pull back forcefully on your rod in a sweeping motion. Then allow your sinker to return to the bottom and repeat, and repeat, and repeat until you snag a spoonbill.

Other recommended equipment when snagging includes gloves, a gaff to pull fish into the boat, a pair of pliers to remove hooks, a file to sharpen hooks, lengths of nylon rope to tie up fish and a knife.

While not required, an electronic fish finder takes the guesswork out of locating paddlefish. “I never put a hook in the water unless I see spoonbill on my graph,” Ford says. “For those 45 days, I watch it more than the TV in my house.”

Guides like Ford offer the ultimate in snagging accommodations; all you have to bring is your fishing license, food, drinks, appropriate clothing and a camera to capture the memories.

Though expensive, today’s advanced electronic fish finders take the guesswork out of deciding where to snag. The arched shapes in the bottom righthand corner of the graph are paddlefish making their way upstream.

Ford’s 26-foot, custom-built, triple-log pontoon boat is large enough to allow at least four anglers to fish comfortably. It’s equipped with a livewell that can hold up to six paddlefish and outfitted with the latest electronics, including GPS and side-imaging sonar.

Dan Crader and his son, Jake, booked a two-day trip with Ford in 2008. It was the first spoonbill-snagging trip for the father and son from Moscow Mills.

“You work at it, but it’s a lot of fun,” said Jake, who was 13 at the time. “The first one I snagged, it felt like I hit a log. A 50-pounder is about all I can handle.”

The Crader’s trip culminated with a fish story that many would find hard to swallow — but it did happen.

After snagging only one legal spoonbill the day before, the second day of the trip saw the pair boat several nice fish in the Osage River Arm of the Lake of the Ozarks. As the morning progressed, Jake snagged into something that pulled his line tighter than a guitar string, nearly jerking the rod from his hand. When his reel’s drag didn’t engage, the force snapped the line.

Jake Crader, Anthony Ford and Dan Crader pose for a photo after a successful day of snagging on the Osage River Arm of the Lake of the Ozarks in April 2008. The largest fish the Craders snagged was a 77-pound female.

While Jake was convinced he had hooked a big spoonbill, the adults in the boat believed he had snagged a stump on the bottom.

However, on the next pass over the same area, Dan snagged something. It felt like a fish, only different than the others. As he reeled in his line, the unmistakable bright yellow of a length of Power Pro line broke the surface of the water.

Amazingly, it was Jake’s broken line. As they pulled it in, hand over hand, they realized there was something hooked on the other end — a 77-pound spoonbill, the biggest catch of the day.

“I guess that’s what you call a team effort,” said Dan. “We’ll definitely have to come back again next year.”

For more details about paddlefish snagging regulations, get a copy of the Summary of Missouri Fishing Regulations, which is available anywhere permits are sold statewide.

On March 7-8 at the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World in Columbia, Anthony Ford will give free seminars on paddlefish snagging. For more information about Ford’s guide service, call 417-299-5714 or visit

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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