An angler fishing in the weekly Lake Jacomo Bass Tournament got quite a surprise recently.
Headed to his first spot that afternoon, Stephen Delgado left the main marina and headed to the northwest part of the lake to fish near some weed lines.
Drawing closer, he saw a large fish floating in the water. As he approached, his first thought was that it was likely a giant catfish.
"I remembered the state-record channel cat was caught out of Jacomo," Delgado said. "I've caught a few channels here and there, but nothing huge."
As the fish's big white belly came into closer view, Delgado noticed fins that didn't seem quite right for a catfish. When he pulled the boat alongside the creature, he was astonished to see that it wasn't a catfish at all, but a massive spoonbill — a prehistoric throwback of a fish whose native territory was once wide-ranging but today includes only the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and their tributaries and the Mobile Bay drainage basin in Alabama.
The fish hadn't been dead long because it wasn't swollen and hadn't started to rot. With no good way to measure it, Delgado pulled the fish close to the boat and rested his 7-foot, 4-inch bass rod alongside it for reference.
The spoonbill was almost as long as the fishing pole.
"The bill alone was probably close to 30 inches," he said.
Not knowing there were spoonbill in the lake, Delgado decided to do some Google searching and stumbled upon a decades-old story from the Independence Examiner. The article told the tale of a lucky angler who snagged a 100-pound-plus paddlefish (another name for spoonbill) while fishing for bluegill at Jacomo.
When asked about how the spoonbill got to Jacomo, local fisheries biologist Jake Allman indicated it was highly unlikely someone released it from another location, such as the Missouri River. But he dug up some old records to see for himself.
"Twenty paddlefish were stocked in 1974 from fish reared below Jacomo in some hatchery ponds the county operated," Allman said. "Only one was stocked in 1975, and the MDC (Missouri Department of Conservation) has never stocked them in Jacomo."
With a total of just 21 verified stocked paddlefish in the mid-1970s, the odds seem almost insurmountable that one could've survived this long. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says spoonbill can live up to 55 years, with most having an average lifespan of 20-30 years.
They can grow to over 7 feet long and weigh up to 200 pounds.
Multiple witnesses, including one of Delgado's friends, later returned with a scale and tried to hoist the fish out of the water. It was so heavy they couldn't do it — the scale was reading 90 pounds with the tail still in the water.
"To come across a fish like that and learn how few were stocked is truly a once-in-a-lifetime encounter," Delgado said. "The odds of it living that long and growing to that size seem astronomical. That fish could literally be the oldest fish in the lake.
"That's why I love fishing so much. You just never know what you'll come across on the water."