The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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March 22, 2013

Anglers pouring into Miami for prehistoric fish

MIAMI, Okla. — For the third straight year, brothers Dan and John Lee are spending vacation time together in Northeast Oklahoma casting for a freshwater fish that dates back to the Ice Age.

Dan Lee hails from Atlanta, Ga., while his brother, John, lives in Ashland, Kan., south of Dodge City. Along with Dan Lee’s daughter, Kristal, the Lee family will spend most of their seven days in Miami standing along the banks of the Neosho River, fishing for the river-feeding spoonbill.

It’s now that these primitive, ray-finned fish — distinguished by their wide mouths and spatula-like snout — are making their way upriver from Grand Lake to spawn.

Thousands of people are pouring into Miami — the self-proclaimed ‘Spoonbill Capital of the World’ — from at least a dozen states to snag the spoonbills, which can live for more than 50 years and can reach triple-digit weights.

“I love to fish, and I get to spend some time with my brother,” Dan Lee said. “We came over here (to Miami) and do this together, and we have a great time.”

Mostly, the Lee brothers release the paddlefish they catch. Occasionally, they’ll keep a good-sized fish. The largest fish Dan Lee has yanked from the bottom of the Neosho was a 48-pounder.

He doesn’t catch them because of their looks or their taste, which he doesn’t particularly like.

“Nah, it’s because they’re big,” Dan Lee said with a chuckle. “It’s a real pull. It’s a whole lot different. It’s a whole lot more work.”

“How many freshwater fish can you pull out of a river like this that weighs as much as” a small marlin or swordfish found in saltwater seas and oceans, Dan asked.

Two words — “You can’t.”

Economic boost

The focus of regional fishing activities is shifting from Grand Lake in neighboring Delaware County to the Neosho and Spring rivers in Ottawa County as thousands of spoonbills make their run from the nearby lake to spawn in the warm waters in and around Miami.

Thanks to these fish, Miami is receiving an early economic lift.

“It’s very unique,” said Shannon Thomas, marketing director for the Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. “As far as the number of fish and the opportunity people have” to fish them, “there’s nothing else like it.”

Anglers are coming in from Nebraska, Kansas, North and South Dakota and Iowa to claim their spots and troll the waters.

“It’s like bumper boats trying to get up the river,” Thomas said with a laugh.

Amanda Davis, the CVB director, said between 5,000 to 8,000 out-of-towners stay in Miami during the peak spoonbill spawning season, usually for a stay of between five and seven days. In all, Miami sees an annual increase of between 10,000 to 15,000 visitors.

Vickie Waggoner, manager of the Treasure Hunt at 430 N. Main St., has already seen a bump in sales activity.

 In just a couple of days, the store sold out its collection of paddlefish poles, sinkers and hooks — about 50. A second batch of 50 had just arrived Friday.

“This is a big deal for Miami,” she said. “It brings in a lot of revenue to the town from surrounding states.”

The Miami Wal-Mart Supercenter is the only place in town where the free spoonbill permits can be picked up. Anglers must have these to haul a spoonbill from the river bottom.

“Oh yeah, things have been busy,” said Kathy Thulin, manager of the store’s sporting goods department. “It’s unreal. Right now my main people are from Nebraska and Kansas.”

James Speakman, assistant manager of Miami’s Montana Mike’s Steakhouse, said the restaurant is expecting to see a surge in the number of visitors this weekend.

“Yeah, we’ll see a big increase. I started here two years ago and I’ve seen a jump (in business) when the spoonbills” make their run.

city, state partners

The spoonbill season has been a unique collaboration between the city of Miami and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. According to Brent Gordon, a research supervisor with the conservation department, the city permit to fish was abolished in 2008. Paddlefish anglers only needed an appropriate state fishing license and the Wildlife Department’s free paddlefish permit.

“The thing is, the fisheries are told all the time the hardest part of managing a fish population are the people who fish it,” Gordon said.

“What they (fishers) really want, and what we really want, is a population (of paddlefish) that is sustainable that can be passed down to their grandkids and their grandkids.”

From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. today, in what is being called an official “kick-off” event, members of the Miami CVB will set up a tent on the west side of the Neosho River in Riverview Park. A free lunch of hot dogs will be prepared by the Miami Fire Department, and spoonbill fishing information will be handed out and education sessions for kids will be offered. A series of drawings for prizes — a fishing pole, an ice chest, family passes to the city pool — will be given away.

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