Paddlefishing Montana

The Oldest Surviving Big Game Animal in North America

On North Dakota’s far Northwest, at the border with Montana, lies the Confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. Each Spring, swollen with mountain runoff, the wild and murky Yellowstone swells and rushes head-long to spill its waters into wide Missouri, unchanged from its discovery by Lewis & Clark.

The Confluence site has played a major role in the history of the American West. It is just one-half mile from Fort Buford, where Sitting Bull surrendered to the U.S. Army in 1881; the Little Bighorn wounded were brought here by steamboat; and two miles from the reconstructed Fort Union, where John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company conducted a thriving business. Between 1829 and 1866, whites traded peacefully their guns, knives, pots, cloth, and beads to Indian Tribes (Assiniboine, Cree, Crow, Blackfoot, and Sioux) in exchange for beaver, buffalo, and other valuable furs. Today, Fort Union holds perhaps the most complete collection of original trade beads in North America.

It is in this area that the ancient Paddlefish comes to spawn each year, swimming against the mighty current to deposit their eggs on flooded gravel bars in the Yellowstone. The largest females snagged each year are between 15 and 50 years old. Plankton feeders, paddlefish are thought to use their “paddle” (rostrum) to help keep them level as they move through the water with their mouths open, filtering food through filament-like gill rakers. The rostrum also helps detect food organisms through tiny sensory pores.

Modern paddlefish (Polyodon Spathula) are classic examples of millions of years of ecological fine-tuning. Paddlefish have adapted remarkably to their environment since they were introduced into the Yellowstone River in 1963. They may be the oldest big-game animal surviving in North America!

Paddlefish skin is tough, smooth, and scaleless except for the upper portion of its tail. The most striking feature of the paddler is its elongated paddle-shaped snout which is used as an antenna for detecting concentrations of food and helping the fish react to the changing water current. Adult paddlefish can weigh from 60 to 120 pounds! The state record paddlefish was 142 pounds, caught in 1973.

The Intake Diversion Dam 17 miles north of Glendive, Montana is famous for paddlefishing and the production of caviar. Glendive is considered the “Paddlefish Capitol of the World” and draws over 3,000 anglers annually to this short stretch of the Yellowstone River.

It takes a special fishing skill and a heavy-duty tackle to challenge this senior denizen of the river. Because paddlefish feed on microscopic organisms, they cannot be caught by conventional fishing methods. Live bait and lures are useless against these formidable foes…they must be snagged!

Despite the unconventional fishing methods, their prehistoric origins, and rather homely appearance, paddlefish are an excellent tasting fish. They can be prepared as you would any other fish. A paddlefish can yield a large quantity of top-quality meat. The meat can be frozen, canned, poached, steamed, smoked, baked, or sliced into steaks and grilled.

In recent years, paddlefish roe has been harvested, processed into caviar, and shipped from Glendive. Fishermen are encouraged to donate the roe to the Glendive Chamber of Commerce who, in turn, process the roe into world-class caviar. The proceeds from the venture are used to improve fisheries and recreation in Eastern Montana, as well as provide grants given to area organizations for historical and cultural projects. And here’s the best part, if you donate your roe they will clean your paddlefish for you!

Paddlefish season runs from May 15th through June 30th every year. You will need a Montana fishing license and a special paddlefish tag. Tags are two for $5 for Montana residents and $7.50 for non-residents.