By Brent Frazee
When Cody Vannattan launches his boat this time of the year, he has a simple goal – to guide one of his customers to the biggest fish in the lake.
An unrealistic aspiration? Hardly.
When Missouri’s paddlefish snagging season is under way, many fishermen—Vannattan included—dream big.
“I had this woman out last year who had always wanted to go paddlefish snagging, but had never tried it,” said Vannattan, who guides on Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Lake in Missouri.
“We got out there and she hadn’t had her hooks in the water for five minutes and she snagged into something big. Turns out, it was a 90-pound paddlefish. You should have seen the look on her face. She was just thrilled to catch something that big.”
Vannattan sees that look often this time of the year. He is in demand as a snagging guide, often running two trips a day during the season which runs March 15 through April 30.
Both Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Lake are known nationally for their behemoth paddlefish. The large reservoirs are stocked annually by the Missouri Department of Conservation, and both bodies of water are rich in the plankton that the prehistoric fish feed on.
A portion of those paddlefish grow to impressive proportions at Lake of the Ozarks, Truman and Table Rock reservoirs. The Missouri state record is 140lbs, 9oz caught in 2015 at Table Rock.
“We have some of the best paddlefish snagging in the country,” said Trish Yasger of the Department of Conservation. “Where else can you go and catch a 50-pound fish and it’s no big deal?
“I’m convinced that we still have 100-pound-plus fish out there.”
That’s where the big dreams come in. Every year, thousands of fishermen flock to Missouri to get a shot at one of those monsters.
They leave the bait buckets and tackle boxes full of lures at home. Paddlefish don’t bite on normal stuff; they feed on plankton. The only way to catch them is to drag hooks through the water and hope to run into one.
Those odds are increased in the spring when the fish make their spawning run up tributaries. They start to move when the water temperature climbs into the mid-40s and there’s adequate flow in the tributaries. The action often peaks as the water temp hits the mid-50s; that’s when the big sows join the guys and move upstream.
Paddlefish snagging isn’t for the weak of heart or body. It takes hours of jerking heavy weights and hooks through the water to finally connect. Sometimes it doesn’t pay off.
But there is always a chance of catching that fish of a lifetime. And Vannattan has developed methods designed to take some of the hard work out of it.
He uses Dipsy Diver planer weights designed to hold the hooks at a designated depth. Then he puts the heavy-duty rods in holders, trolls over channels and hopes to snag into paddlefish suspended in deep water.
He keeps close track of the fish as they migrate. He is on the water every day and once he locates a school of paddlefish moving upstream, he can stay on them from day to day.
“They’ll move a mile or more a day,” Vannattan said. “They’ll travel in loose schools A lot of times, we’ll hook up a couple times in the same general area.”
At Lake of the Ozarks, he fishes the channel from the 80-mile marker down. At Truman, he often concentrates on the Talley Bend area.
He relies heavily on his electronics. He can easily pick up the large marks the paddlefish make and knows he is in the right spot.
It’s hard to argue with success. He has guided customers to limits of two paddlefish almost every day this year. The biggest so far weighed 69 pounds. But he is confident that will be broken before the season ends.
Two years ago, the biggest fish one of his customers landed weighed 95 pounds. Last year it was 90 pounds.
Now Vannattan has his sights set on triple digits.
He has come close on several occasions—Vannattan landed a 97 pound paddlefish at Table Rock several years ago.
That’s where he learned how to snag. He tagged along with his dad from the time he was old enough to hold a fishing rod.
“When I was 11 or 12, I snagged a 79-pound paddlefish, and I was hooked,” said Vannattan. “I’ve always been drawn to fish that fight back.”
Today, that fascination still holds true. He guides customers to big paddlefish in the spring, then leads them to trophy blue catfish in the summer.
He and his wife also run Cody’s Bait and Tackle in Warsaw, which touches parts of both Truman and Lake of the Ozarks. Jessica runs the shop while Cody is out guiding.
It’s a busy life, but it’s one that they thoroughly enjoy.
“I’m very fortunate to be able to guide on lakes like Truman and Lake of the Ozarks,” he says. “There are some big fish out there. I just have to figure out how to catch ‘em.”
Cut for GAWGuide’s goal
Cody Vannattan’s goal each spring is to guide customers young and old alike to huge paddlefish at Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Lake. Vannattan (left) posed with a 9-year-old and his dad after the boy landed a 93-pound fish on Truman.