In the Arkansas River, just west of midtown Tulsa, a group of prehistoric fish has found themselves in uncharted water, so to speak.
The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife says there are possibly hundreds of paddlefish stuck and confused.
They almost look like sharks, swimming in circles and surfacing just below Zink Dam. Paddlefish biologist Jason Schooley says he’s never seen the species pool up so close to the city.
“This is part of their historic range - although it is a rare sight to find them in metro Tulsa,” Schooley said.
Paddlefish - also known as spoonbill because of their long, funny-looking snout - can be found in some northeastern Oklahoma lakes. They’re also common in the Missouri, Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers.
Schooley says the fish prefer to live spread out and in deeper waters.
“Where they're free to swim around, without bumping into rocks and artificial structures, and they'd be feeding on plankton, just growing and living a happy life,” Schooley said.
The paddlefish is a very primitive, native Oklahoma species that dates back 65 million years, according to Schooley.
Their instinct is to swim up the river, which is how the dozens - if not hundreds - of spoonbill ended up below Zink Dam.
“Normally they wouldn't be in this area, but the fact that we had so much water coming through the river all summer long, they pretty much found themselves in a predicament,” Schooley said. “We're seeing a bunch of paddlefish that may be a little confused.”
Because the water was up most of the summer, fish had more opportunity to make longer runs up the river; but now that the water has dropped, the paddlefish can’t make it over the dam.
Now they’re stuck in a small, deep pocket of water; and in some cases they’ve become stranded on rocks.
“There were paddlefish that were stranded in shallow water, where they could not get to deeper pools,” Fisherman Aaron Collins said.
Collins says he started noticing an influx of paddlefish in June after he accidentally hooked one while striper fishing. He says he's rescued close to 20 stranded spoonbill in the past month.
“You kind of go, 'All right, let's start moving paddlefish,'” Collins said. “They're kind of like the Eeyore of the river. It's kind of like this dopey looking fish, and they're cool.”
Paddlefish can grow to be more than 120 pounds - the biggest Collins rescued was about 40 pounds, he estimates.
“It's a fish that has now kind of been fooled into being in an environment it normally wouldn't be in. So it's sort of like, somebody's gotta do something about it,” Collins said.
The flow of the Arkansas River is often times dependent on hydropower generation. On Tuesday, the water was up and moving a little, as Keystone Dam released water upstream to generate power.
One might think the fish would follow the flow to go back where they came from, but Schooley says that’s not the case.
“They're still finding their way back here. For whatever reason they're cued to the flowing water, maybe they're finding more food or more oxygen,” Schooley said.
As long as Keystone Dam continues to release some water, Schooley says the fish should survive.
“As long as we keep getting those pulses of water, they're gonna get fresh water and oxygen and some food every day. But if this were a scenario where we had a hot summer with no water coming through, they probably wouldn't make it,” he said.
When asked about moving the fish to another location, Schooley said that’s not a viable option.
“It may be, kind of, a futile attempt because they're going to keep coming here. We could empty this out today, and tomorrow it’d be full of fish again,” he said.
The only upside to the spoonbill’s stressful situation, Schooley says, is it’s helping to educate the public.
“We're exposing a lot of people to the fact this species lives in the river and it's a part of the ecosystem - just like the shovelnose sturgeon and the American eel,” he said. “They really need this corridor to live their lives, so, if we change it, we could possibly impact those species.”
There are strict rules when it comes to fishing for spoonbill and games wardens will be closely watching the area.
You must have a special paddlefish permit. You can only keep two per year, but never on the same day, and some days it’s against the law to keep any.
Paddlefish live off plankton, so they won’t bite at a lure or bait. They're most widely caught while snagging with a rod, weight and treble hook.
Snagging is illegal on the Arkansas River between the Keystone Dam and I-44 river Bridge.
You can find more information about rules and regulations here.