slate-colored above, lighter below; greatly elongated snout, long gill covers and a shark-like mouth; scaleless with a skeleton of cartilage


Paddlefish Distribution

Mississippi and Missouri Rivers as well as lower reaches of some larger tributaries of the Mississippi


zooplankton, insect larvae

State Record

107 pounds - Missouri River, Monona County , March 1981 - Robert Pranschke, Onawa, Iowa

Expert Tip

almost all paddlefish are caught by snagging below a dam in the spring


These fish are most often collected and observed in the Great Border Rivers; however, it is not unusual for anglers to take them in the lower portion of the Des Moines, Cedar, Iowa and, Skunk rivers. It was formerly rather common but is now absent in East and West Okoboji Lakes and Spirit Lake.

The color of the paddlefish is slate-gray to gray-blue above, fading to somewhat lighter beneath. They can be easily distinguished from all other Iowa fishes by the immensely elongated snout, extremely long gill covers and shark-like mouth. The skeleton is largely cartilaginous. Jaws and palate of young specimens are covered with numerous fine teeth, but the jaws become large, feeble and toothless as the fish reaches maturity. The body is naked, or scaleless. Paddlefish are in many respects one of the most primitive of fishes but are highly specialized in others. It is a remnant of ancient life, differing from other fishes by its elongated paddlelike snout, long gill covers and shark-like body form. It was formerly abundant in the Mississippi valley, but over-exploitation, changes in environmental conditions, or both, have reduced its numbers to a point where it is no longer common except in certain places along the river.

The large size and bizarre shape have made paddlefish particularly interesting to the layman and scientist alike. Specimens over six feet long have been taken from the state, placing it at or near the top of the list for "big fish" honors. The current state record is a 107-pound fish taken from the Missouri River in Monona County during 1981. Early growth of paddlefish is rapid with the fish reaching 10 to 14 and 21 to 24 inches in their second and third years of life. Seventeen-year-old fish average nearly 60 inches in length and weigh about 37 pounds. Paddlefish are long-lived fish with 20 years being common and 30 years or more not unusual. The larger individual fish are females.

Paddlefish feed primarily on zooplankton and insect larvae. The food organisms are filtered from the water by the gill rakers as the fish swims about with its mouth agape. They have no apparent home range and move about freely in shallow water or near the surface in slow moving current, where foraging conditions are favorable.

Different theories have been forwarded regarding the function of the paddle-like snout. It has been suggested that it is used to stir up the bottom to facilitate feeding, serves as a "rudder" to guide the fish and/or is a sense organ for the detection of food organisms. The paddlefish is not a bottom feeder and the snout possesses an elaborate system of sense organs, making the latter theory appear logical as the primary function of the appendage.

Paddlefish spawn in April and May when water temperature is around 55-60 degrees F. The spawning run up the larger streams is closely associated with periods of high flow. Spawning activity takes place over flooded gravel bars. It is assumed that the female starts spawning in the deeper water and completes a spawning "rush" at the surface of the water at which time rapid agitation of the caudal fin can be seen above the surface of the water. The female is accompanied by one or more males on this rush.

Studies in Iowa indicate that most male paddlefish mature at age VI and VII. Females mature at a greater age and produce approximately 7,500 eggs per pound of body weight. The fertilized eggs are adhesive and attach to the first material they contact. Hatching success is highest on clean-swept gravel where siltation is least and aeration is good. Paddlefish eggs hatch in seven days or less at temperatures of 65-70 degrees F. The larvae begin swimming immediately after hatching and are swept downstream into pool areas.


Present in these Iowa water bodies:
Lake/Stream County Location Acres/Length
Pool 19, Mississippi River Lee Amenities listed are at City of Ft. Madison boat ramp. Amenities vary by location in Pool 19 33500.00
Pool 16, Mississippi River Scott The amenities list are for Buffalo Shores campground in Buffalo, Iowa. Amenities at other locations in Pool 16 vary by location. 13000.00
Pool 17, Mississippi River Muscatine Amenities list for Muscatine City Ramp. This ramp is located in downtown Muscatine. Amenities vary by location in Pool 17. 7580.00
DeSoto Bend at DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge Harrison 5 miles west of Missouri Valley at DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge 811.00
Five in One Dam Linn On Cedar River under I-380 in Cedar Rapids 90.00
Missouri River (Sioux City to Little Sioux) Harrison Chris Larsen Park: 1280 Larsen Park Road/Sioux City, IA. Located on the Sioux City riverfront along the Missouri River. Larsen Park offers 110 acres on the Sioux City Riverfront. Managed by the City of Sioux City. 64.00
Missouri River (Council Bluffs to state line) Fremont Lake Manawa State Park: 1100 South Shore Drive/Council Bluffs, IA 51501 phone: 712-366-0220. Managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Lake Manawa State Park has boat ramps on the Missouri River within the park. 61.00
Cedar River (Cedar Rapids to Moscow) Cedar This stretch is found in Linn and Cedar County. A popular access is found in Palisades State Park which is on Hwy 30 between Cedar Rapids and Mount Vernon. 55.00
Missouri River (Little Sioux to Council Bluffs) Pottawattamie Wilson Island State Recreation Area: 32801 Campground Lane/Missouri Valley, IA 51555 phone-712-642-2069. Managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Wilson Island Recreation Area has 544 acres along the Missouri River near Missouri Valley Iowa. 53.00
Iowa River (Coralville Lake to River Junction) Johnson This stretch is located in Johnson County. A popular access is the Tailwater East Ramp located right below the Coralville Lake Dam, East of North Liberty and Coralville. 29.00
Percival Lake Fremont 1 mile north of Percival 20.00