By CHERIL VERNON
Every year, four Palestine women who have been friends since the first grade take a trip together.
This year the women, who all enjoy fishing, decided to take a trip to Grand Lake in Grove, Okla. to fish for paddlefish, also called spoonbill.
This was a first for the women (Gail Dressell, Cathy Crawford Richardson, Judy Hill Reed and Marie Brooks Griffith) — and something now that they plan to make an annual tradition.
“This was the most fun thing we have ever done — we have never laughed so much,” Dressell said as she showed off pictures from their trip. “We enjoyed the whole day.”
The State of Texas has protected the paddlefish since 1977. It is considered a threatened species. It is unlawful to catch, kill or harm paddlefish in Texas.
But in Oklahoma, licensed anglers can fish for paddlefish, using a technique called “snagging,” which uses treble hooks. Mondays and Fridays are catch and release only for paddlefish statewide in Oklahoma, but anglers are allowed to keep one paddlefish per day on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Paddlefish are the oldest surviving animal species in North America. Fossil records indicate that it is older than dinosaurs (300 million years). They also are one of the oddest looking fish species. Adult paddlefish can grow to seven feet long and weigh as much as 200 pounds.
“They date back to prehistoric time. The only bone in the fish is the jawbone. They are somewhat kin to a shark,” Dressell said.
The paddlefish are plankton eaters. They filter zooplankton (microscopic animal life) from fresh waters. To do this, the fish swim with their mouths open.
Due to the cold weather on their fishing trip on April 4, their fishing guide Mark Bolte took them to a river that feeds off the lake, where he instructed them in the “snagging” process.
“He drives the boat 2 miles an hour while we are using these heavy duty reels with a trebel hook and a one-pound weight,” Dressell explained. “When you hook one, he describes it as two cars driving 30 miles per hour hitting in a head-on collision. It’s a big fish.”
Richardson learned that first hand on the trip when her fish hit the line. It jerked her out of her chair and onto the boat’s deck.
“Adrenaline kicked in and she jumped right back up and reeled in the fish,” Dressell said proudly. “It wasn’t easy to reel them in, it was a battle but we did it. That’s what makes it so fun.”
With a river full of other anglers that day — all men — Dressell’s group of friends were the only females out that day on the river. In fact, their guide said it was the first time having a boat-load of women-only anglers.
“We held our own,” Dressell laughed. “When we were reeling in the fish and whooping and hollering, I’m sure we were a sight to see. We even caught one of the biggest fish of the day.”
Richardson caught the biggest paddlefish out of the group, weighing in at 56.5 pounds with Dressell’s catch weighing 51.5 pounds and Reed’s fish weighing 45 pounds. Griffith caught a 20-pound paddlefish, but it was released because of its age.
Uniquely, once the paddlefish are caught, they are taken to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s Paddlefish Research and Processing Center. The purpose of the center is to collect biological data that will help biologists manage this population of unique fish. When anglers bring in their fish, biologist can determine age, gender and reproductive success of paddlefish and use this information to make management recommendations to keep the population healthy. As a side benefit, anglers get their fish cleaned and ODWC personnel process a previously wasted resource (eggs) into caviar to generate funds to further paddlefish management and improve angler access.
“They filleted them for us while we watched. We came home with a tremendous amount of fish,” Dressell said.
The women left Palestine on April 3, driving seven hours for the trip, staying at the Candlewood Inn Resort and returning home on April 5.
“We’ve decided we want to do this annually but next time we want to fish for three days,” Dressell said.
All together the women represent 240 years of friendship. They all went to Four Pines School in the first grade, now called Westwood Elementary School and attended Westwood High School, where they were the first class to spend four full years on the high school campus (1961-64).
Last year, the women attended the International Music Festival in Lafayette, La. as their annual trip.
“I organized this fishing trip because it just sounded fun and it was,” Dressell said. “We had a blast and can’t wait to do it again.”