What was designed to be a pilot program to collect data on paddlefish has turned into a win-win situation for anglers and biologists alike.
The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservationís Paddlefish Research and Processing Center (PRPC) is open for its fourth season. But this is its first in a new $1 million, 5,000-square-foot facility located 4 miles north of its previous location in Twin Bridges State Park on SH 137.
Anglers can have their catch cleaned, filleted and vacuum-packed while ODWC biologists collect information on each fish, collect the eggs, or roe, from females, which is then sold to help fund the project.
"A lot of people said when we first started it Ďthey are just doing it for the money from the eggs,í" said Keith Green, a former game warden who now is paddlefish program coordinator. "The eggs have always been something that was thrown away. You canít sell them in Oklahoma. Itís really something that is being salvaged. They are going to a good cause. The money goes back into the wildlife department and it funds this project and other projects."
The roe is sold on the international caviar market, fetching more than $100 a pound.
One of those programs funded by the sale of roe is a telemetry system that monitors 30 of the big fish.
"There are a lot of things you can pull from that," Gordon said. "One is different flows, are the fish coming up? How fast once the flow goes down do they retreat? How far up are they going to spawn? Are they going up to spawn? What river are they going up?"
Fish can be checked in either by ODWC boats on the water or trucks in the parks or delivered by the angler.
They are tagged, and once checked in at the center, fish are weighed and measured, then the jawbone is studied to determine the age.
"That way, weíre not having to kill the fish for data," said Tim Miller, a paddlefish biologist over the caviar program.
Miller said the jawbone of a spoonbill will have growth rings, much like a tree.
Paddlefish, a.k.a. spoonbills or spoonies, can grow to well over 100 pounds and more than 5 feet in length.
They are known for their long paddles - or spoons - made of cartilage that extends from the top of their head.
Most of the fish are between 7 and 13 years of age. The majority of the males mature at 8 while the females mature at 10. The majority of the fish caught in the Grand River system are on their annual spawning run that happens once they reach sexual maturity.
The new facility has room for students from the University of Kansas who are doing a research project, looking at a parasite - pericardium - that attacks the spoonbill.
Another plus from the center: anglers donít have to discard the carcasses. The center takes care of that.
Currently, carcasses are hauled to Collinsville, where they are used by a pet food manufacturer.
"Now its getting utilized and not wasted," Miller said.
In the past, the carcasses were used to render the fat for bio fuel.
The PRPC is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturdays. The center is closed on Monday and Friday, which are catch-and-release days.
The center will be open through April 29.
"This center wouldnít be as nice as it is if we didnít know what we needed from the two or three years we were down there," said Brent Gordon, northeast region fisheries supervisor.
The PRPC is located on 10 acres of land. The old center was on a small area in the park.
As a result, parking was limited. Thatís not a problem at the new location.
"We donít have any parking problems out here … itís a lot safer," Green said. "Occasionally, we would have a vehicle stopped on the highway and they would have a boat sticking out onto the highway. That was one of the main reasons for leaving the facility down there."
"This is a lot nicer," said veteran spoonbiller Bill Boling of Neosho, Mo. "You can check on the status of your filets (on a television monitor) and its a quick turnaround, only about 20 minutes. We love it."
"I assure you there isnít another state that has paddlefish that doesnít dream of what we have," Green said. "They are so envious. As far as fish research goes, Oklahoma leads the bunch."
The old facility was designed to handle up to 225 fish a day, but the crew has processed as many as 516 on busy days. The new building can room to handle three times that number.
More than 800 fish have been processed this season and officials expected more than 300 will be checked in this weekend.
"This is a real change from down there," said Bobby Lee, who is one of only two processing room employees who have worked at the center for its entire duration.
Fishing has been slowed some by high water levels on the Neosho River. That has limited snaggers to boats or only a few land-based locations.
On a busy day, the shore of Riverview Park will be lined with anglers casting their rods.
The high water from the past weekís heavy rains helps bring a lot of fish into the river, Green said.
"All the boats are catching fish really good," he said. "Itís just when the park is flooded out, nobody can fish. They can get down behind the fire station and there off the park bridge - itís high on the side."