Arkansas angler Bobby Chambers holds Oklahoma paddlefish he caught in Arkansas.
Saturday, May 8, 2021, 67-year-old Bobby Chambers of Havana, Arkansas, was snagging for flathead catfish in the Blue Mountain Lake tailwater on the Petit Jean River. An avid angler at this locality, he knew that what was on the end of his line was unusual when it ran downstream, which is uncharacteristic of the flatheads he normally catches. When he finally landed the 35-lb fish, he realized he had caught a paddlefish- a species that is rarely seen this far up the Petit Jean River. Chambers had a second surprise when he realized the fish had a band on its jaw indicating it originated in Oklahoma. After connecting with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, the band data indicated that the fish was originally captured in a net in Webbers Falls Reservoir, Arkansas River, in November 2018 as part of statewide reservoir population monitoring efforts.
The Petit Jean River is an Arkansas River tributary. This fish left Webbers Falls and traveled downstream passing through six navigational lock and dam structures, crossing the OK/AR state line, before eventually turning into the Petit Jean River and swimming 75 additional miles upstream and over at least one low-water dam to Blue Mountain Lake dam tailwater. All told, the journey was approximately 250 miles, which may qualify as the longest documented movement of a paddlefish banded in Oklahoma.
While this seems like a long distance for a fish to travel, it was no sweat for a paddlefish who boasts incredible migratory journeys of 2,000 miles or more in their native habitats like the Missouri and Mississippi river systems where barriers like high dams don’t hinder their movement. Ecological conditions in the Arkansas River since the fish was banded help explain the movement of Chambers’ paddlefish. Much of eastern Oklahoma and Arkansas experienced massive flooding in summer 2019. Floods like this distribute paddlefish over great distances in both upstream and downstream directions, depending on the timing. It’s likely that many Oklahoma paddlefish moved downstream with the swollen Arkansas River in 2019, but only a small fraction were banded, making Chambers’ catch highly unlikely and one to remember.
If you harvest a banded paddlefish, you can search for the band history here.