Is Oklahoma’s ‘Freshwater Shark’ Actually a Shark?
While most Oklahoma anglers are somewhat familiar with the humble spoonbill, even more people refer to the ancient species as our freshwater shark... but is it even related to sharks beyond being a member of the fish family?
There are several traits of the American Paddlefish that are shared with most species of shark. Paddlefish have a third eye like some sharks, as well as a pit over their gills called a spiracle, but it's the electro-receiving bill that confuses most people.
All of those black dots that line the head and rostra bill of a paddlefish can also be found on sharks. They're called Ampullae of Lorenzini. It's the organ sharks use to detect electrical signals from prey, like a heartbeat.
Since paddlefish are filter-feeders, they're not using these spots to detect crab and fish under the sand, but they do use them to find the food they do eat. Plankton.
So they're related to sharks?
Uh, no. I mean, they are fish made up of (mostly) cartilage and skin, sharing several physical traits and organs, but they're not related beyond that. Similar to ray-finned fish like swordfish and marlin, the paddlefish is more closely related to pufferfish than sharks.
Weirdly enough, the humble spoonbill is actually the oldest species in America. At 300 million years old, they've been around a lot longer than alligators or dinosaurs. They're also the last surviving member of their zoological family.
China also had a spoonbill, but they fished it into extinction.
Is it a protected species in America?
Sort of... Paddlefish are classified as "vulnerable" on the conservation list. They're found in 22 US states that branch waters of the Mississippi River system, but you can only fish for them in 13 states including Oklahoma.
Favored for their uniqueness, trophy size, and sweet meat, paddlefish are a pretty popular target species among anglers, but they aren't easy to catch.
You can't toss out bait on a hook to catch paddlefish. Being a filter-feeder, they won't eat a hook. Instead, anglers buy weighted hooks and try to snag them instead.
You just toss it out in the water and reel it in. When you feel resistance, you set the hook and hope you'll be eating spoonbill that night.
If you'd like to try your hand at catching an Oklahoma delicacy, there are several fishing charters you can hire to put you on the fish. I'd suggest looking around Facebook to find a highly-rated one.
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