By Ed Godrey
Staff Writer

My spoonbill was No. 1111.
It was the 1,111 paddlefish (aka spoonbill, aka the Oklahoma marlin) that had been fileted this spring by state wildlife officials at Twin Bridges State Park, located at the junction of the Spring and Neosho rivers above Grand Lake.

"What a lucky number,” one of my fishing partners on Tuesday exclaimed, as if I had drawn four aces while sitting at the poker table.

I wouldn't have received such a fortuitous number, he explained, if I had been able to bring in the much bigger spoonbill that I had snagged earlier in the day.

He was trying to ease his guilt. The other spoonbill I had snagged, he let slip away into the Neosho River.

After sweating bullets and slinging a surf rod from a hilltop for more than an hour, I finally had hooked a good fish.

I had cranked and pulled the fish into the rocky shoreline below after a strenuous battle, only to have the tail-hooked Jurassic beast escape his clutches.

"The hook just fell out,” my butter-fingered friend said to me in a pitiful way.

I wasn't as disappointed over losing the fish as the thought of more fishing. My muscles were aching, but I trudged on, snagging a 23-pounder about a half-hour later and calling it a day.

It was a puny one by paddlefish standards. The state record is 121 pounds and the biggest spoonbill checked in at Twin Bridges this spring has been 73 pounds.

A 23-pound spoonbill still provided enough meat for a couple of meals, but no caviar. It was a male so there were no eggs for state wildlife officials to harvest, but they still cleaned my fish.

The state Wildlife Department is fileting spoonbills and packaging the meat for anglers this spring at its fish cleaning station in Twin Bridges State Park.

In exchange, they keep the eggs from female paddlefish and are processing them into caviar.

The process is fairly simple. The eggs are separated from the fish membrane, washed and salted.

The eggs are then allowed to cure for a few days and become caviar.

The caviar will be sold by the state Wildlife Department to a wholesaler.

The money earned will be used for paddlefish management, research and law enforcement.

The fish carcasses are being taken to a Carthage, Mo., plant where they are used to make heating oil.

Anglers can bring their paddlefish to Twin Bridges, but state wildlife officials are even providing free delivery by boating up and down the rivers to pick up fish.

They also will pick up fish at Miami's Riverview Park, where anglers line up elbow to elbow along the banks of the Neosho River when the spoonbilling is hot.

Richard Perry of Wyandotte remembers the time an angler got a treble hook in the ear.

"I've been fishing here for 30 years,” Perry said Tuesday while snagging on the banks of the Neosho River. "It can get kind of crazy down here.”

Anglers have been snagging spoonbills for nearly a month on the Neosho River but the best fishing is just around the bend.

In March, paddlefish start congregating, or staging, at the northern end of Grand Lake in anticipation of spawning.

When the warm spring rains arrive, they will shoot up river to spawn, but they don't leave at the same time.

"They kind of go in waves up and down,” said Brent Gordon of the state Wildlife Department, who is conducting research on paddlefish and collecting data from the fish brought to the cleaning station.

It's during these spawning runs when anglers frequently start snagging them in the river. The fishing usually is good through April and sometimes into May.

Richard Berry of Grove snagged a 30-pounder from the river Tuesday but said it felt more like 60 pounds on his line.

"I've been salt water fishing and did all kinds of fishing, but I never caught a fish as big as that on a rod and reel,” he said. "First, you don't know what you got. You don't know if you are hung up or got a fish. Mine just started taking off sideways. It was a battle.”

Mary Kidd of Neosho, Mo., landed a spoonbill about as big as her. The fish are wonderful to eat, she said, especially deep fried or baked with Italian dressing poured over them.

She will gladly trade any eggs to get someone else to clean her fish.

"I love the cleaning station,” she said.

"There is nothing that smells worse than a little drop of spoonbill blood.”