Even though Andy Belobraydic III had never been paddlefish snagging before, he knew monsters lurked below the murky surface of Missouri reservoirs.
“I had seen pictures and had watched videos of some of the huge paddlefish people catch,” said Belobraydic, 33, of Richwoods, Mo. “I thought, ‘If I get lucky, maybe I’ll catch a 50-pound fish.’”
Belobraydic got lucky all right. He more than doubled his goal.
Snagging with friends at Table Rock Lake last weekend, he winched in a true monster that still has fishermen across Missouri in awe. The paddlefish weighed 140 pounds, 9 ounces, and measured 563/4 inches in length and 433/4 inches in girth.
That fish broke the state record of 139 pounds, 4 ounces that had stood since 2002. It also is now recognized as the biggest fish of any kind ever registered in Missouri.
For many, it is proof that Missouri’s reputation as the land of the giants is indeed justified.
“Where else can you go and catch a 40-pound fish and it’s considered a small one?” said Trish Yasger, a fisheries management biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. “We have some of the best paddlefish snagging in the nation.
“It’s not that uncommon to see a 100-pound fish snagged. This was a fabulous fish. But I think there’s a bigger one out there.”
Before Belobraydic caught his fish, Jeremy Tracy of Warrensburg had already made waves by catching a monster of his own.
Fishing at Lake of the Ozarks on March 15, opening day of the paddlefish-snagging season, he hooked a giant in the opening minutes of his fishing trip.
When he landed the fish, he found that it weighed 116 pounds.
“I made my first cast, my line went down, I did two jerks and I had that fish,” said Tracy, 33. “It was the quickest hookup I’ve ever had.
“I’ve been snagging since I was a kid, and I’ve always dreamed of catching a fish like this. That’s why you put in so much work when you go snagging.
“There’s always a chance of catching a fish like this.”
Belobraydic and Tracy are among the legions of Missouri fishermen who can’t wait for March 15 to arrive. That’s when the paddlefish-snagging season opens each year at spots such as Table Rock, Truman and Lake of the Ozarks and their tributaries. Fishermen in every type of boat imaginable will bundle up and get out in the March weather, jerking huge hooks and heavy weights through the water,
Sometimes, it can be the equivalent of trying to find a needle in a haystack. But experienced snaggers know the holes where paddlefish traditionally hang out. And the electronics on their boats can help narrow that search.
Because paddlefish feed on plankton, fishermen leave the bait buckets and lures at home. Their only hope of catching one of these monsters is to snag it.
Once, when Missouri rivers were free-flowing, paddlefish would make successful spawning runs up waterways such as the Osage. When dams cut that path short, natural reproduction was virtually eliminated.
But the Department of Conservation started a stocking program that has paid huge dividends for fishermen. And the paddlefish have thrived in the Missouri reservoirs.
“The growth rates have been really impressive,” Yasger said. “The reservoirs have more food, more plankton, than a river. And they don’t have to fight the current in a reservoir.
“They really put on the weight in that environment.”
Belobraydic is certainly convinced. After he and his friends had caught several small paddlefish, one of the fishermen got snagged on a log and broke his line. Belobraydic was reeling in his hooks while the boat was idling when they all of a sudden dug into something.
“I thought I was snagged, too,” he said.
He was … on a monstrous paddlefish. Belobraydic watched as a snagger’s dream unfolded. The fish began actually towing the boat across the channel.
“I had that fish to the surface four or five times,” he said. “I told my friend to take a picture when it came up in case I lost it. I knew no one would believe me if I didn’t have some proof.”
Belobraydic eventually worked the fish close, where three fishermen teamed to flop it into the boat. A week later, he is still basking in his moment of fame.
“The great thing is, my 8-year-old daughter is going around telling everybody that her dad caught the biggest fish ever taken in Missouri,” Belobraydic said. “It was pure luck. But I’m sure glad it happened.”