CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- To paraphrase Forrest Gump, "Fisheries biology is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you'll get."
Case in point: While electrofishing the Elk River for muskellunge, Division of Natural Resources researchers turned up a whopping big paddlefish.
"It was between 4 and 5 feet long, and it really caught us by surprise," said Jeff Hansbarger, a DNR assistant district biologist. "We don't expect to find paddlefish in the Elk because they're big-river fish and are much more at home in waters like the Kanawha or the Ohio."
The paddlefish turned up during a routine Oct. 16 survey in the Elk's Sugar Creek section. During electrofishing surveys, DNR workers use generator-equipped boats to charge the water with electricity and stun nearby fish just long enough to dip-net them.
Hansbarger said the paddlefish are usually quite difficult to stun.
"Paddlefish and catfish are smooth-skinned, and as a result they don't take a charge the same way scaled fish do," he explained. "Electrofishing doesn't work well with them, and maybe that's the reason we don't see very many of them during our surveys."
The big paddlefish wasn't the first ever turned up on the Elk. Hansbarger said a few others have shown up during surveys, including two in one night from the Queen Shoals pool late last year. Bill Looney, an Amma resident who probably fishes the Elk as much as anyone, reportedly spotted a large paddlefish - possibly the same one captured in October - in the Sugar Creek area earlier this year.
Hansbarger believes the Elk River fish migrated upstream from the Kanawha River. DNR workers have been stocking paddlefish in the Kanawha and Ohio rivers for about 10 years, and by all accounts the stocked fish have thrived.
"Paddlefish tend to move around quite a bit, and chances are they're finding good water quality at the mouth of the Elk and are moving upstream," Hansbarger said. "Paddlefish feed on plankton, and the Elk has lots of it."
The Kanawha and the Ohio have many feeder streams, but Hansbarger said the Elk is the only tributary where paddlefish have been found - so far.
"So far it hasn't happened, but with our [stocking] efforts [in the larger rivers], they might eventually start showing up in other tribs," he added.
Even people who fish the Elk regularly and know it well have been surprised when they learned of paddlefish in the river.
"One of the volunteers who helped capture the big paddlefish, Sam Duffield, knows a lot of people along the river," Hansbarger said. "When he started showing that picture around, people absolutely freaked out. They had no idea something like [it] might be swimming around in their river."
Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231 or johnmc...@wvgazette.com.