Some look to fishing for its poetry in motion, for the philosophical speculations and harmonious bonds it fosters between the angler and the natural world. Others prefer a more physical experience, one comparable to, say, a cage match with a T-Rex. If this describes you, consider heading east for a bout with the bizarre spoonbill paddlefish.
With a shark's body and the nose of a giant spatula, the spoonbill paddlefish, Polyodon spathula, is believed to predate dinosaurs by 50 million years. Once widespread, the massive and meaty fish has since been over-harvested, and today only two populations remain—one in China's Yangtze River, the other in the Missouri River system of Montana and North Dakota.
While the meat is considered delicious, spoonbill eggs are even more coveted for their resemblance to the Caspian Sea sturgeon caviar, which at $100 or more per ounce qualifies as one of the world's most valuable wildlife commodities.
But Caspian Sea sturgeon numbers have plummeted 90 percent in the last few decades, and sturgeon advocates have successfully redirected roe eaters toward paddlefish eggs. Connoisseurs who've embraced paddlefish roe—aka Yellowstone caviar—claim to suffer no loss in the quality of their delicacy.
Gabriel Kreuther, executive chef at The Modern in New York City, is a big fan of Yellowstone caviar. "It's pitch black," he told me by phone, "with a creamy feel and a nutty, grassy taste. It is something good, something delicate." A 2009 James Beard award semi-finalist, Kreuther serves Yellowstone spoonbill caviar on a cauliflower panna cotta with cockle clams and an orange emulsion, as well as with a tuna and scallop tartar and a salad of celeriac, oysters and almond crème.
While not endangered like its Caspian Sea brethren, the spoonbill has also suffered in recent decades as prime spawning grounds have been erased by development and dams. Still, more than 30,000 roam Montana's river bottoms, enough for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to allow fishing from May 15 to the end of June, or whenever the quota is reached.
That's not to say that landing one of these prehistoric monsters is easy. Regularly weighing more than 100 pounds and feeding exclusively on plankton, spoonbills refuse lures, and even the most wiggly worm or artfully-tied fly arouse nothing in these bottom-feeding vegetarians. Paddlefish anglers instead use heavy-duty fishing gear to hurl weighted treble hooks across the river, dragging them along the bottom and violently jerking their poles until they snag into a fish and yard it to shore, a battle that can last a half hour or more.
But once landed, paddlefish have become one of the simplest fish for anglers to process. Why? Well, nearly all of Montana's paddlefish angling happens at the Intake Fishing Access Site north of Glendive where representatives from the Glendive Chamber of Commerce Yellowstone Caviar Project are standing by to clean and wrap your fish in exchange for its eggs. They process the caviar (not a simple procedure) and sell it to benefit paddlefish research and conservation, sending anglers home with a few dozen pounds of quality spoonbill filets.
If snagging a paddlefish sounds like your idea of a good time, head for the Intake Fishing Access Site. Or if you'd prefer to just taste the eggs, contact the Yellowstone Caviar Project via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (406) 377-5601.