When Steve Shutty hauled in a large pale-looking fish from the Missouri River, he knew he had a rare catch.
But he didn’t know just how rare.
He and his two fishing partners, Mike Keleher and Jim Pratt, found one of the “ghosts” of the Muddy Mo — a pallid sturgeon — attached to one of the hooks on their trotline.
That sturgeon not only was a federally endangered species, it was a size not often seen, especially in Missouri. It measured 50 inches, one of the largest ever seen in modern times in the Missouri section of the big river.
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The fishermen snapped a few photos, then gently released their prized catch back to the murky water.
“I’ve run trotlines for 40 years, and I’ve caught 16 different species,” said Shutty, referring to the method of fishing that entails using one main line with multiple droplines extending from it.
“But I’ve never seen anything like this. When we pulled it up, I knew it was a pallid sturgeon. But until I started researching it, I didn’t realize that this was a once-in-a-lifetime catch.”
Kyle Winders, large river ecologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation, confirmed just how unlikely Shutty’s catch was.
“Population estimates of adults (pallid sturgeon) in the Kansas City area are approximately two fish per river mile,” he said. “Fish records are not kept for endangered species, but this fish would likely be a Missouri state record.
“Pallid sturgeon are very rare. And fish of this size are even rarer.”
Larger ones have been caught in the river systems of Montana and North Dakota, Winders pointed out. Fish there have been documented at more than 65 inches long. But in the channelized stretch that flows through the Kansas City area, pallid sturgeon are scarce.
Shutty, Keleher and Pratt set their lines in Parkville not far from the boat ramp. Shutty has caught big catfish in a hole that lies along a steep bank, and he was hoping to catch more on the warm October day.
This time, though, that hole held something far different. The pallid sturgeon hit a line that was baited with a goldfish.
“It was hooked in the mouth,” said Shutty, 68, who lives in Kansas City. “Whether it was actually feeding or it got snagged when it was swimming past, I don’t know.
“It didn’t fight. It came right up, and we were surprised at what we had.
“It’s like I always say, you never know what you’re going to catch in the Missouri River.”
To further illustrate how rare that fish was, consider this. Winders and a crew of other fisheries workers for the Missouri Department of Conservation put in three days of sampling the stretch of the Missouri River that runs through the Parkville area about a week after the fishermen caught and released their fish. They collected only three pallid sturgeon, the biggest 36 inches long.
Interestingly, all three of those fish were tagged, indicating they had been stocked by the Department of Conservation.
Winders leads an effort in Missouri to bring the fish back. At one point, when the Missouri River was wild and unharnessed, pallid sturgeon apparently thrived.
Winders points to historic accounts of fishermen landing huge pale fish, which he assumes were pallid sturgeon, in the Missouri River.
But as the big river was tamed, the pallids suffered. The construction of dams on the upper end cut off the fish’s long-distance spawning runs. And channelization of the river for navigation removed valuable habitat the sturgeon required.
“There once were areas where the pallid sturgeon would spawn and their eggs could drift into quiet, shallow areas — ideal spawning and nursery habitat,” Winders said. “But with the increased flow from channelization, those areas disappeared and the eggs were just swept downstream.”
The result? A species in peril.
But not all is lost. Various agencies have combined to establish a recovery program. The Missouri Department of Conservation is a leader, stocking more than 160,000 pallid sturgeon in the Missouri River over the years.
Eggs taken from adult pallid sturgeon that are found during sampling are transported to hatcheries, where they can be hatched under a controlled setting. The fish produced are babied for a year before they grow large enough to stand a good chance of surviving when they are stocked.
The U.S Army Corps of Engineers also has begun modifying some of the wing dikes on the river to slow current and redirect it toward the bank, potentially providing new spawning habitat for the pallid sturgeon.
Recovery won’t come overnight, though. And the population of pallid sturgeon will never be what it once was, Winders said. Still, he holds out hope.
“It isn’t an easy solution,” Winders said. “The habitat on the Missouri River will never go back to what it once was when the pallids were doing well.
“But we’re still cautiously optimistic. We’re seeing some progress.”