By Robert Lucke
Paddlefishing is like no other kind of fishing in Montana according to Kent Gilge, fish biologist with the Havre office of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Nor are paddlefishermen like other fishermen types.
Paddlefishermen are dedicated. In fact I think they are addicted to paddlefishing, said Gilge. They schedule time away from work every year to come over here and spend some time fishing. Most enjoy the challenge and are not too upset if they go home empty handed. They are very tough. They have to be because just getting into and out of the area they fish in is not easy with the mud in the spring.
Paddle fishing in this part of Montana is done during an all year long season in the Missouri River from the Fred L. Robinson Bridge, east to the upper reaches of Fort Peck Lake. Most paddlefishing is done on the north side of the river in a twenty mile stretch east of the bridge. The whole area is south of Malta.
Paddlefishermen do not even catch their fish in a traditional method. They snag sixty to seventy pound fish using huge hooks.
The type of fishing done to catch a paddlefish is not easy.
Paddlefishermen just whip out their line blindly into the river and start jerking it, Gilge continued. It is really physical.
Physical or not, folks come from all over to paddle fish in the Missouri south of Malta.
Paddlefishing is good fishing during certain water levels. Most of the year paddlefish stay in the murky depths of Fort Peck Lake. However, each spring, like clockwork, when the Missouri waters reach 14,000 cubic feet per second, the fish swim upstream to spawn and that is the time they are best caught. Normally that occurs around the latter part of May. However, last year it did not occur until the end of June and this year, it is occurring now. The later the large flow occurs, the worse the fishing. Because of the late flows, the catch last year and this year have been below normal in the Missouri. Still though, paddle fish are being caught this year, this late in June.
This year is an exception. Fishermen are still catching paddle fish. Flows are such that fish have just started to move, continued Gilge. This year paddlefishing should be better than last year but still not as good as average. I think this should be a fair year for paddlefishing, but not a good year.
In the rough country of the Charles M. Russell game preserve, most fishermen like to rough it when staying overnight in primitive camping sites.
You might see a few Winnebago types but not many in that area, said Gilge. Most people are tent people and a lot of them just sleep in the back of their pickup trucks.
Are these prehistoric looking monster fish of any use when caught other than the thrill of catching a fish as long as the angler that caught it?
Connoisseurs of caviar on cruise ships and in New York City can find Yellowstone River paddlefish eggs sharing the shelves with Russian beluga and Caspian ossetra two of the worlds huevos primeros, wrote Todd Wilkinson in an article entitled Plight of the Paddlefish. Gourmet chefs have told us our paddlefish roe ranks right up there in taste with the Russian brands, said John Trangmoe, executive director of the Glendive, Montana Chamber of Commerce.
According to record books the biggest paddlefish caught was along the upper Missouri in 1973, and weighed 142 pounds. It is not uncommon for a paddlefish to live for forty years and attain weights of 120 pounds and reach lengths of six feet.
And with great tasting fish eggs, the fish itself is distinctive.
The only way I like to eat paddle fish is to thin slice the fish, roll them in Barbecue Shake and Bake and cook them over coals on a grill, Gilge shared. They are pretty oily fish and really do not taste like any other fish I have ever tasted.
Eaton or not, Paddlefishing represents one of the areas greatest challenges. It is the kind of a fish once caught, most folks will never forget the experience.