Arkansas Fisherman Catches New State-Record Paddlefish by Accident

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The 31,000-acre Beaver Lake in Northwest Arkansas has been a top bass, crappie, and striper fishing spot for generations. The lake is known for its hot action for heavyweight striped bass, and big linesiders were the goal for fishing buddies Mike Schleeper and Tom Mayberry of Garfield, Arkansas, when they set out shortly after dawn Saturday.

“I’ve caught some 30-pound striped bass in June from Beaver Lake, and that’s what we were hoping for that sunny and hot morning,” Schlepper tells Outdoor Life. “We’d caught a couple small striped bass already — one on live minnow, another on a top water plug. We were trolling slowly in the lower lake in 30 feet of water. That’s when I got a hit on the minnow.”

The retiree said it didn’t run or fight like some of the outsize stripers he’s caught. But he knew it was big, and the fish keep surging away against heavy bait-casting tackle and 20-pound monofilament.

So he turned on his boat, a 24-foot Blue Wave center console, and followed the fish.

He fought the fish for a long time, still thinking it was a striper or perhaps a heavy catfish. Finally, 45 minutes after hooking up, he worked the fish to the surface and saw something he’d never seen before: a huge paddlefish.

Mayberry’s grandson stretches out beside the big paddlefish for scale.

Photo courtesy AGFC

“I’d never seen one alive or up close, but Tom fishes for them in Missouri and he was excited when he saw how big it was,” says Schleeper. “It was foul hooked, and my 5/0 single hook was just barely still in the fish … Tom was having a hard time handling it at the boat, and it wouldn’t fit in our net. I told him to just cut my line. But he knew we should haul it aboard and weigh it.”

The anglers worked a rope through the fish’s gills and out its mouth, pulling it into their boat. That’s when the hook popped out of its pectoral fin.

“We were really lucky to land it,” Schleeper said. “We quit fishing then because Tom insisted we have it weighed and measured.”

Schleeper phoned a friend at Hook, Line and Sinker tackle shop in the nearby town of Rogers, explaining he’d caught a giant paddlefish. His pal contacted the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Soon after Eric Gates, an AGFC biologist, called Schlepper. He told him to bring the fish to a FedEx office in Rogers where they had a certified scale for an official weight of their catch.

“We drove to the FedEx office and met Eric, who had a big tub to put the fish in,” Schleeper says. “We all stood in line inside the FedEx office with the paddlefish in the tub, waiting to use their scales.”

It took about 15 minutes to get their turn, and Schleeper says he got some odd looks from people inside the store.

“There was one FedEx employee who was a fisherman, though, and he was excited to see and weigh the fish.”

The paddlefish weighed 127 pounds 6 ounces on certified scales, with a 66.75-inch length and a 44-inch girth.

Schleeper’s fish easily tops the old Arkansas record paddlefish (also known as a spoonbill), which weighed 118 pounds. That was caught by Minnesota’s James Johnson in 2020, also from Beaver Lake. The pending IGFA world-record paddlefish weighs 164 pounds, 13 ounces and was recently caught on Lake of the Ozarks, just a few hours north in Missouri.

Snagged paddlefish are accepted for Arkansas records because the fish are plankton feeders and rarely strike lures or baits. Snagging is the most common method of catching them.

A man holds up a paddlefish in a metal tank in the back of a pickup.
Schleeper and his grandkids with the big paddlefish.

Photo courtesy AGFC

Schleeper says that even at age 65 he gets plenty excited catching big fish and will have a replica mount made by a taxidermist of his official state record paddlefish.

“I didn’t even know there were paddlefish in Beaver Lake, so the whole thing was a happy surprise for me,” he said. “I’ll put the replica paddlefish mount in my shop where I have several other big fish mounted, including some Beaver Lake stripers.

The presence of the prehistoric fish in Beaver Lake are the result of stocking in the 1990s, according to AGFC. Those stockings wwere conducted to ensure a source of paddlefish broodstock in case local river fisheries began seeing declines.

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“Thankfully, paddlefish continue to do well in other rivers, and the Beaver Lake fish were never needed,” AGFC fisheries supervisor for the region Jon Stein said in a agency statement. “However, these fish are producing great trophy potential for anglers.”

A recent regulation passed by the AGFC expands paddlefish opportunities by offering a limited, permit-based snagging season in the White River portion of Beaver Lake to target some of these giant paddlefish as they move upstream.

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