It’s paddlefish season in Montana. Programs to harvest the giant’s caviar and sell it have helped to create a model for sustainable fishing.
Janie Osborne for The New York Times
GLENDIVE, Mont. — Fishing here conjures images of waders and featherweight flies landing softly on lazy rivers, an irresistible lure for the one- or two-pound trout swimming beneath.
Catching a giant paddlefish weighing 50 or 100 pounds is an altogether different pursuit. And in an unusual twist, the end result is a bounty of an unusual delicacy: roe sold around the country as caviar.
“It winds up on cruise ships, it winds up in restaurants, it winds up everywhere,” said Dennis Scarnecchia, a professor of fisheries at the University of Idaho.
He supervises paddlefish caviar programs in Montana, North Dakota and Oklahoma, the proceeds of which are funneled into research and monitoring of these freshwater leviathans. He considers the programs “a model for sustainable recreational fishing.”
The highly regulated season for snagging paddlefish on the Yellowstone River, near the North Dakota border, opened on May 15, some 15 miles from this small town. Dozens of fishers, sitting in lawn chairs and standing in waders, crowded the tree-lined bank below Intake Diversion Dam, which provides water for irrigation.
It’s a festive affair, with signs greeting paddlefish enthusiasts who come from all around the country. They park trailers and tents beneath the brilliant green canopy of newly leafed trees, and the smell of campfire smoke hangs in the air.
The river is extraordinarily high and muddy this year, the color of chocolate milk. The fish are trying to spawn upstream but can’t get past the dam, so they stack up in large numbers below it.
Instead of flies, these fishers tie a large treble hook on the end of a heavy line on a large rod, the kind used for used for saltwater fishing. Below that they tie a quarter-pound of lead, or sometimes a sparkplug or piece of chain from a chain saw, to pull the hook down in the rapidly flowing water…