Snagging Paddlefish

By James O. Fraioli

Paddlefish Snagging
Because paddlefish aren't designed to feed on anything larger than microscopic organisms, they cannot be caught by conventional fishing methods.

From atop a stony pinnacle in Eastern Montana's Yellowstone River, I study the stained, roily water cascading beneath me. My right hand clutches a nine-foot Ocean Master surf rod with a meaty Ocean Master spinning reel loaded with several hundred yards of fluorescent green 60-pound test mono -- not your average tackle for river fishing. What dangles at the end of my line is even more unorthodox. A colossal 8/0 treble is tied a couple feet above a five-ounce lead sinker. Up ahead, a section of whitewater leads to Yellowstone's Intake Diversion Dam.

"Cast into those rapids, make long sweeps with your rod, and reel in fast," instructs 48-year-old Greg Post, a Montana native who operates the Concession Stand at the Intake Fishing Access Site (simply known as the Intake) which caters to over 3,000 anglers who arrive every spring to battle one of the most primitive and bizarre-looking freshwater creatures in North America -- the elusive paddlefish.

A scenic 17 mile drive north from the agricultural community of Glendive, the Intake is considered the "Paddlefish and Caviar Capital of the World." From mid-May through June, dense schools of paddlefish muscle their way up the Yellowstone River from North Dakota's Lake Sacagawea to spawn. According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, who monitor these paddlefish, a lack of suitable spawning habitats, overfishing and water pollution has reduced paddlefish populations in much of the United States -- except Montana. Here, healthy waterways and tight regulations birth ample fish year after year. In fact, the paddlefish from Lake Sacagawea are so abundant that a sustainable fishery has been thriving at the Intake for the past 45 years. And that's good news for anglers like me who want to land one of these prehistoric giants, which weigh from 20 to over 100 pounds (the largest paddlefish on record is 198 pounds from Lake Okoboji, Iowa. The Montana record is 142.5 pounds).

Snagging Paddlefish
After dislodging the treble, biologists record vital information and attach a metal tag to the paddlefish's lower lip.

"The reason for casting an exposed treble and not a lure or plug lies in the paddlefish's unique diet," says Post, who has been fishing paddlefish at the Intake since he could walk. "These enormous fish, which are older than dinosaurs and have an average lifespan of more than 60 years, filter zooplankton from the water with comb-like gill rakers by swimming with their bucket mouths agape -- similar to a basking shark." Because paddlefish aren't designed to feed on anything larger than microscopic organisms, they cannot be caught by conventional fishing methods. Instead, anglers eager to land a paddlefish must do so by snagging.

I make a long cast across the current and immediately reel in the slack. I watch my neon line intently as the sinker tumbles downstream followed by the trailing hook. I make long sweeps of the rod, just as instructed, always winding to keep the line tight. It takes only moments before my rod slams forward, sliding me to the edge of my slippery perch and almost into the river. Line screams off the reel as the paddlefish bolts upstream and swims for the far bank. I step back and brace myself on the cobblestone shoreline impressed with the fish's tremendous strength. The paddlefish, a mostly cartilaginous fish and distant cousin to the shark, turns and now fins downstream, stripping more line with a fury. The other anglers politely hold off casting as I shuffle down the riverbank, slowly gaining on my prize.

Fifteen minutes later, a two-foot canoe-like paddle breaks the surface. The paddle functions much like an antenna, containing sensory receptors that enable paddlefish to navigate the murky river. The paddle also keeps the fish level while it continually moves and filters plankton. The paddlefish attempts a final run but soon tires. "She's coming in," hollers Post who points to a large shark-like tail propelling the fish toward shore. Now feeling more like a tractor tire, I hoist the spent paddlefish into ankle-deep water and into the waiting hands of two biologists from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Snagging Paddlefish
An 8/0 treble tied above a five-ounce lead sinker is the typical snagging rig for river-run paddlefish.   

"She's a big one, fifty-plus, easy," Post says with a smile as the biologists secure the stout female, its gray scaleless belly laden with eggs. After dislodging the treble from the fish's blue-speckled gill plate with a pair of sturdy pliers, vital information is recorded and a metal tag is crimped in its lower lip. Results from this ongoing study suggest paddlefish are not overfished in Montana, especially since only five-percent of the total Montana paddlefish population is harvested for food and caviar every year.

After a couple snapshots, the paddlefish is released unharmed. This is just one of more than 250 paddlefish that will be caught and released at the Intake today.  

For years, paddlefishing at Glendive was primarily for sport and the fish's dense white meat, while the roe (eggs) from large females were discarded. In 1987, the Glendive Chamber of Commerce began investigating the possibility of paddlefish roe from the Yellowstone River being a salable commodity. Today, hundreds of pounds of paddlefish roe are processed every season at Yellowstone Caviar, a non-for-profit that blends conservation, scientific study and utilization of natural resources. Almost one-hundred percent of the roe is donated by anglers in exchange for free fish cleaning, wrapping and refrigeration of meat at the Intake concession stand during harvest season. The caviar is then trucked to Glendive, where it is processed and shipped to caviar buyers, who distribute the superior product to exclusive restaurants and caviar connoisseurs around the world.

For more information about Montana paddlefishing or paddlefish caviar, please contact the Glendive Chamber of Commerce at (406) 377-5601; www.glendivechamber.com. 

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