Paddlefish Restoration at Caddo Lake
Sometimes the canary in the coalmine is a fish in a river. At Caddo Lake in deep east Texas, that fish – the paddlefish – is older than dinosaurs. Learn about efforts to restore this ancient animal to east Texas waters, and why the paddlefish is the “poster child” for restoring the health of an entire ecosystem. We also check in with siblings Cassandra and Christopher Neve of Austin who are trying to reconnect with the outdoors in 2019. And we hear from Tore Anderson of San Angelo and her life changing camping trip to Big Bend, in our Shout Out to the Wild segment.
Major support for this podcast comes from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation: Conserving Our Wild Things and Wild Places for Over 25 Years.
Mike Montane: They’re a little odd looking, and that’s what makes them endearing to people.
Laura Ashley Overdyke: I feel like when people are around the them, I mean, they are just in awe.
Tim Bister: It’s such a unique fish. You show a picture and people are actually going to be very interested in what’s going on.
Cecilia Nasti: Intrigued? Stay with us.
From Texas Parks and Wildlife…this is Under the Texas Sky …a podcast about nature…and people… and the connection they share…I’m Cecilia Nasti.
During this episode of Under the Texas Sky, my colleague, Aubry Buzek from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Press Office, takes us to deep east Texas and the ethereal, watery world of Caddo Lake…it’s where Parks and Wildlife and partners from the USFWS and Caddo Lake Institute are bringing back a fish as old as time.
Aubry Buzek: Sometimes the canary in the coalmine is a fish in a river. At Caddo Lake in deep east Texas, that fish is older than a dinosaur…
…and so weird looking that it’s instantly loveable when you see one.
Aubry: Their common name – paddlefish – and colloquial names – spoonbill cat or shovelnose cat – reference the most recognizable feature about the fish – the long, flat, bill-like snout that makes up one third of their entire body length. Their chubby gray body is entirely cartilaginous, meaning it has no bones, and they swim around with their huge, toothless mouth gaping open like a whale.
Mike Montagne: They’re a little odd looking, and that’s what makes them endearing to people.
Aubry: Mike Montagne [MON-tane] is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Paddlefish Restoration and Recovery Project Leader. In this podcast, we will hear more from him and others about how this strange-looking fish has become the poster child for restoring the health of an entire ecosystem.
Despite being the oldest surviving animal species in North America – old enough to watch the dinosaurs come and go – very recently human kind almost wiped paddlefish out from Texas completely.
At Caddo Lake, they began to disappear after changes were made to the watershed, particularly the construction of the Lake O’ the Pines dam in 1959 on Big Cypress Bayou.
Since paddlefish need pulses of water in order to reproduce, the interruption caused spawning to stop, and within a few decades, researchers couldn’t find paddlefish anywhere in the lake.[AB1]
In 1977, Texas began protecting the paddlefish, listing it as a state-threatened species and prohibiting anyone from catching, killing or harming them in the state, and in 2014, a paddlefish restoration “dream-team” formed to proactively reintroduce paddlefish to the cypress-lined waters of Caddo Lake.
Tim Bister: It started…with a lot of different groups getting together to think about what the natural flows need to be in the river to support a fish like paddlefish.
Aubry: Tim Bister is a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fisheries biologist who’s been involved from the beginning. Along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Caddo Lake Institute and many others, these groups organized to make a plan to save the paddlefish, and in turn, benefit all of the fish, wildlife and people that depend on the health of Caddo Lake.
First things first – to allow the paddlefish to survive, they had to work with managers of the dam upstream of Caddo Lake to establish a flow regime that mimics mother nature. Here’s Laura Ashley Overdyke, the executive director of the Caddo lake Institute.
Laura Ashley Overdyke: The dam pretty much completely stopped any variability in flow for this lake and lowered the amount of water coming into the system considerably, so in the flows project we have mimicked nature by having a springtime pulse of water. It does a lot of good for bottomland hardwood along the shoreline, but it also does a lot of good for paddlefish.
Aubry: Paddlefish don’t just need the springtime pulse of water to cue spawning, they also need a relatively hard bottom surface to lay their eggs on. Without much flow, sedimentation covers up that hard bottom.
Laura: Now that the flow has been returned and the spawning cue is there, also the scouring of the sediment is there… we also worked with the corps of engineers to put in some gravel bars so that they would most definitely have a place to spawn when they reach sexual maturity.
Aubry: With these changes, things were looking up for paddlefish at Caddo Lake. Good flows? Check. Spawning habitat? Check. But one question remained, what happens downstream of the lake?
Tim Bister: If we put fish in, will they go over the spillway and can’t get back into the lake?
Aubry: There was only one way to find out – put some paddlefish in and track them.
Mike Montagne: At that point we implanted 47 paddlefish…with radio tags that lasted for one year. These fish were almost two years old, they were probably about 400 millimeters long, and so we released all those at Caddo Lake State Park and some of the town of Jefferson boat ramp.
Aubry: Well? What happened?!
Mike: What we found is in fact we could not say for sure that any of them went over the dam.
Aubry: Yay! What came next, Mike?
Mike: Let’s go ahead and try it again just to make sure. And so we implanted another 26 paddlefish that were a little over a year old and put them out as well, and in fact we could not prove that any of them went over the dam either.
Aubry: That’s great news for the baby paddlefish!
21 [SFX—Coo and Gurgle]
At this point researchers knew for sure that they could stay in the lake and survive. But there’s one more essential ingredient to the long-term sustainability of paddlefish populations at Caddo Lake.
Mike: They are a long-lived species, but we won’t know until they actually start reproducing and potentially recruiting into the population of whether those environmental flows are doing their job and are capable of sustaining paddlefish again. So we’re just now getting into the meat of the question – we are asking “will they stay there, will they reproduce, will they recruit into their population?
Aubry: Because paddlefish are large – reaching weights up to 200 pounds – and take up to twelve years to start reproducing, a fish hatchery can’t easily produce, grow, tag and stock adults into the lake to track their reproduction. In 2017, researchers decided to track adult paddlefish already thriving and growing in the lake for the final test.
Mike: From the radio tracking we were able to figure out that they like to hang out below the dam…So we took advantage when the Army Corps of Engineers stopped the flow coming out of the dam, so they could do some repairs on the dam, and lo and behold we caught a hundred and thirty paddlefish. We were shocked…
Aubry: Of those 130 paddlefish, they found many that had been opportunistically stocked over the years, along with several that were among the 47 tagged fish that were stocked in 2014. Now that they were four years old, they were over four feet long and big enough to put in four-year radio tags.
On another trip in 2018, researchers used electrofishing boats to temporarily stun…
…and collect more adult paddlefish below the dam to implant new acoustic transmitters that last up to 10 years. More than a dozen paddlefish have been implanted with the new tags, giving researchers even more insight into their spawning behaviors.
Mike Montagne: We can now put actual receivers in the water at those spawning areas that we’ve mapped out and see if those fish are using them. We are going to get some great information coming up here.
26 [MUS—Thoughts and Dreams]
Aubry: While tracking these adult fish remains an ongoing project, 2018 also kicked off the beginning of a 10-year stocking program that aims to place more than 100,000 paddlefish into Caddo Lake by 2028.
Mike: At that time Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery had just fulfilled its last obligation to the state of Oklahoma on their paddlefish rearing so they were going to have the ability to produce paddlefish for us at no cost to us.
Aubry: Producing paddlefish is no easy feat. As we’ve discussed, paddlefish require very specific conditions to spawn. These toothless Franken-fish don’t eat solid food either – in their natural habitat they primarily feed on zooplankton and insect larvae – so getting them to successfully eat artificial food in the hatchery setting is a very difficult task.
Mike: They’ve been doing it for a really long time, they’re about the best in the business at it and they’re one of the few hatcheries in the country…that rear paddlefish and stock them out in the wild, so they had a lot of experience doing it and they’re all doing it for us. People like to say “well you’re a paddlefish expert and I say, “I’m not a paddlefish expert, I simply chase them around and listen to the radio tags, the paddlefish experts for me they’re up in Tishomingo Fish Hatchery.
Aubry: With hatchery staff handling the most difficult task of producing and transporting the baby paddlefish to Caddo Lake, researchers and local citizens can gather together at least annually for the next ten years to participate in the fun part – releasing thousands of them at a time into their new home.
29 [MUS—Wood Culture]
Laura: It happened to me, and now I’ve watched it happen to every other person that’s come out to see one of these releases, it’s almost like the face that you have on Christmas morning, like, so excited. I feel like when people are around the paddlefish and see them, I mean, they are just in awe. It makes them almost like a childlike wonder at nature and at the world around us, and I just, I’ve seen some beautiful smiles on some full-grown people who have had a great time.
Mike: It’s really just kind of exciting that everybody is so excited about doing that. The paddlefish is kind of the focal species for that area, everyone can see the paddlefish and jump on board with it. It’s a little harder to go “oh, the water is supposed to flood right now.” But when they see the fish coming in they get excited about that, because it’s something tangible...”
Aubry: Stocking thousands of these little guys into Caddo Lake is no small achievement.
Laura: It’s sort of the fun, visible, touchable, tangible result of a lot of hard work.
Aubry: Although they don’t know it, they’ve become a poster child for restoring the health of the lake and internationally recognized wetland.
Tim: That’s an excellent way to look at it, a poster child, because it’s such a unique fish. You talk about paddlefish and you show a picture and people are actually going to be very interested in what’s going on.
Laura: While the paddlefish is the fish that we are really proud of restocking and enabling its success here there are so many other species that are benefiting from our flow regime or from reductions in pollution. But this one, it kind of all comes together, and to be able to restore something that has been around for 350 million years until very recent history…is really awesome and exciting. And it does tell us that we are on the path to a healthy Caddo lake system.
Aubry: Some may hear about the stocking and wonder when, if ever, Texans will be able to fish for paddlefish. In other states like Oklahoma, biologists are able to manage their unique populations with limited harvest opportunities available for anglers. The answer in Texas is, for now, not any time soon while populations are being rebuilt.
But if you do snag one on accident Mike has some advice.
Mike: You can’t decide what you’re going to catch before you catch it – you kind of have to take whatever you can get. So if you catch a paddlefish, which some people do, we have to make sure to let people know you cant keep these fish, you have to let them go. Because if you get caught with them it’s a big fine. Enjoy them, look at them, take a good picture of them and release them. And send us a picture – we would love to see it.
Aubry: Long term, researchers say it would be great if Texas had a robust enough population to allow for catch and release fishing. They are hopeful that successes at Caddo Lake could lead to other river systems replicating the improved flows and habitat restoration that are necessary to restore paddlefish in other areas.
Until then, don’t despair if you really want to meet a paddlefish. The Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens has a few on display, as does the Shreveport Aquarium in Louisiana. The partners that assist with stocking them, like the Caddo Lake Institute, also welcome volunteers at stocking events. If you want to learn more about paddlefish and even participate and contribute to their restoration… find links online at underthetexassky.org. I’m Aubry Buzek.
Cecilia: Now you have fascinating facts to share at your next get together thanks to Aubry Buzek and her paddlefish pals.
After listening to Aubry’s story, I was inspired to write—and now recite for you—a paddlefish haiku: Ancient paddlefish | Welcome back to Caddo Lake | We have your back, Jack.
If you can do better—and let’s be honest, you can—write a haiku about the Great Texas Outdoors, and share it at underthetexassky.org. Just click on the “Get Involved” link on the menu bar to find out how.
Your haiku could end up on a future podcast. We’ve got shows coming up on horned lizards, spotted sea trout and artists and musicians who have been inspired by nature, among other topics. Let your imagination run wild.
Coming up, we find out what Cassandra and Christopher Neve have been up to. They’re our 20-something-year-old sister and brother duo who are attempting to reconnect with the outdoors. But first…
This is Under the Texas Sky from Texas Parks and Wildlife…I’m your haiku hack…Cecilia Nasti.
Support from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation allows us to bring you stories from Under the Texas Sky. In fact, since 1991, the Foundation has raised more than $190 million to conserve the lands, waters and wildlife of our state. You can help by becoming a member. Find out how at WeWillNotBeTamed.org
Twenty-something-year-old siblings Cassandra and Christopher Neve of Austin decided they wanted to spend the New Year rediscovering the outdoors and all related activities. On our first podcast, called New Year, New Choices, they vowed to spend more time doing just that.
Well…best laid plans…as they say. The responsibilities of adulthood have become more complex for the sibs since they made that pledge. Coordinating their respective schedules so they can participate in outdoor adventures together has presented a bigger challenge than either of them previously anticipated.
Christopher went full-time as a paramedic since the podcast debuted, and then promptly injured his back, and was out of commission for weeks. Yet, he’s back on his feet—for how long is anyone’s guess. His first foray outside since his injury was to a neighborhood park to play disc golf with friends during an early spring cold snap.
Christopher Neve: This is kind of the first time I’ve been able to get out and enjoy myself and not worry too much about my back…go to a little neighborhood park and try to disc golf. Okay…man, it’s cold. [CHAINS RATTLE]. Oh no. Mine came out. There! I did it.
Let’s just say Christopher will never become a Disc Golf pro…but at least he got outside. Meanwhile, as an AP Human Geography teacher, Chris’ sister, Cassandra, helps to expand young minds by day…and at night helps diners to expand their waistlines as a server at a local restaurant.
39 [SFX—CM Classroom Ambience]
Even so, she didn’t mind spending an evening with her mother Jen preparing and enjoying a meal at Central Market during a Wild Game Cooking class.
Cassandra/Jen Neve: Which I would never have taken had you [not] suggested it. Because I would have thought it was how to butcher your deer and cook it in a stove. And, you know—nothing that I necessarily do. But it actually looks really awesome; some really cool recipes.
Jen: I think it’s a lot of fun. I think the class is really well structured. And I think what it really has brought home to us is there’s so many different things you can do. So, this is really exciting to see a different level of cooking brought to wild game.
Cecilia: Cassandra and Christopher promised me that they would do their best to visit state parks together in the months ahead, as well as challenge themselves to try new activities. We’re rooting for you, Neves!
By the way, Texas Parks and Wildlife collaborates with Central Market to offer those wild game and fish cooking classes every other month at seven of their locations. A TPW volunteer is on hand at each class to provide background on the agency, wildlife management and to answer questions about the proteins on the plate. That night is was duck, quail eggs, wild boar and venison. We have a link to the cooking schools at undertehtexassky.org.
It’s time now for our Shout out to the Wild segment. It’s where you get to share your experiences about the Texas outdoors—whether they are funny, heartwarming, inspiring, or cautionary. Or you can just let us know what you love about the natural world of the Lone Star State. Do that at undertehtexassky.org and click on the “get involved” link on the menu bar—Tore Andersen did.
Tore Anderson: Hi. I’m Tore Anderson. I’m from San Angelo, Texas. And I want to tell you about my very first camping trip ever. And it happened when I was 25.
Growing up I had really bad eczema, and could never really be outdoors for very long, or my skin would break out into these awful rashes and hives. As I got older, and my skin calmed down, I had always wanted to embrace the outdoors and go camping, but I didn’t know how, and I thought it was just too late for me. My boyfriend is a member of the Stewards of the Wild, Fort Worth Chapter, and has introduced me to so many great opportunities to be outdoors that are available and enjoyable right here in Texas. Recently I was able to go camping for the first time—for real—in Big Bend, and I absolutely loved it. It was a life-changing experience that I will never forget. Now, I am finally able to attend camping trips with my best group of girlfriends—one who happens to be a new Texas State Parks Ambassador. We’re planning a girl only camping trip to Brazos Bend State Park soon. I just thought I’d reach out and share my experience. You’re never too old or too inexperienced to enjoy the outdoors. There’s always time to try something new and find a new passion. And in Texas, we have so many opportunities to enjoy nature at every level—beginner or expert, young or old. So, I challenge everyone to go out there and enjoy camping….and maybe I’ll see you on the trail!
Cecilia: Thanks, Tore. I’m feeling inspired get outside now, how about you? If you want to inspire or entertain others with your experiences in the Texas outdoors, go to underthetexassky.org and click on the “get involved” link, and share your Shout Out to the Wild.
And so, we come to the end of another podcast. Under the Texas Sky is a production of Texas Parks and Wildlife and is available for streaming or download at UndertheTexasSky.org or wherever you get your podcasts.
We record at The Block House in Austin, Texas. Joel Block does our sound design.
Thanks again to Aubry Buzek for the paddlefish restoration story.
I’m your producer and host, Cecilia Nasti, reminding you that life’s better outside when you’re Under the Texas Sky.
Major support for this podcast comes from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation: Conserving Our Wild Things and Wild Places for Over 25 Years.
Join us again next time for Under the Texas Sky.
[AB1]Source: “In 1959, Ferrell’s Bridge Dam was completed creating Lake O’ The Pines, and the paddlefish fishery began to decline, and by the 1980’s no paddlefish have been collected.” https://www.fws.gov/refuge/caddo_lake/wildlife/paddlefish.html