Rocky Mountain Caviar


by Chef Boy Ari

Upscale diners around the world were dealt a blow in January, when the United Nations banned the trade of caviar from Caspian Sea sturgeon, the population of which is down 90 percent over the last 20 years.

The ban could amount to an 11th-hour stay-of-extinction for the ancient fish, but as we wait for the populations of Caspian sturgeon to stabilize, the question begs: what on earth are those poor rich people going to eat?

Well don’t lose too much sleep over it, dear reader, because in the high-plains of North Dakota and Montana, a funny-looking fish is coming to the rescue.

With a shark’s body and a nose like a giant spatula, the spoonbill paddlefish, Polyodon spathula, is believed to predate the dinosaurs by 50 million years. It may seem an unlikely savior for pampered palates from New York to Tokyo, but paddlefish are distant cousins to the sturgeon, and their eggs make good caviar. And this caviar is now on the market.

Native to large-flow streams between the Appalachians and the Rockies, spoonbill populations have declined in recent years due to dams, silt and low water. One of the few healthy populations that remains lives in the Missouri River system along the Montana/North Dakota border. As we speak, the placid waters of North Dakota’s Lake Sakakawea are stirring with thousands of paddlefish preparing to migrate up the Missouri River and into the rushing waters of Montana’s Yellowstone, the longest un-dammed river in the Lower 48. They spawn at a spot called Intake, just outside of Glendive, Mont., and that’s where anglers go to snag themselves a paddlefish.

I don’t use the term “snag” casually. Paddlefish feed on microscopic plankton and have no interest in macroscopic bait. Even the most artfully tied fly will arouse nothing in the hearts of the ancient bottom-feeding vegetarians, especially during spawning season when their small minds are elsewhere. Paddlefish anglers use heavy-duty, deep-sea fishing gear to huck burly treble hooks into the rushing waters, then violently jerk them back in hopes of snagging some part of a paddlefish’s body that won’t rip out as the fish is dragged to shore. Once snagged, the fish, which can weigh more than 100 pounds, are legendary for giving it the ole Jurassic try in their fight for freedom.

The Yellowstone Caviar Project, based in Glendive, is a nonprofit collaboration between the Glendive Chamber of Commerce and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. When anglers arrive in Glendive for the annual Paddlefish season, they are informed of the opportunity to have their fish cleaned for free in exchange for the donation of any roe contained in their catch. The roe is processed into caviar and then sold. Proceeds are split between a grants program that funds community and economic development projects in eastern Montana, and the FWP Paddlefish research program, which collects data on the fish as they are cleaned by Yellowstone Caviar Project employees. This research program has one of the largest databases on paddlefish anywhere and aims to help strengthen paddlefish populations here and elsewhere.

“Everybody’s a winner,” says Jim Culver, who heads the Yellowstone Caviar Project. “Sportsmen get the thrill of the big catch, caviar connoisseurs get a top-grade treat, and the paddlefish are protected.”

Frenchman Gabriel Kruether, executive chef at Manhattan’s The Modern, is a big fan of Yellowstone Caviar. “It’s pitch black,” he tells me by phone, “with a creamy feel and a nutty, grassy taste. It is something good, something delicate.” The 2006 James Beard Award nominee, who serves Yellowstone paddlefish caviar with a tuna and scallop tartar and a salad of celeriac, oysters and almond crème, also likes Yellowstone caviar because it’s a viable alternative to the caviar of Caspian Sea sturgeon, which he believes must be protected.

“They need to do something,” he says. “They can’t just take everything out. A total ban for a couple years is the best thing that can happen.”

Hopefully, the Yellowstone River paddlefish won’t play the sacrificial Acipenseriforme in the story of Caspian sturgeon recovery. Jim Culver of the Yellowstone Caviar Project feels sure they won’t.

“Our paddlefish population is most threatened by low water levels,” he says, explaining that without enough water in the rivers the paddlefish can’t make their spawning runs. He’s confident that the research made possible by money raised via Yellowstone River Caviar sales more than offsets the loss of paddlefish to sport fishermen, whose aggregate annual take is limited to 1,000 fish.

If snagging a paddlefish sounds like your idea of a good time, head to Glendive for the May 15 start of the paddlefish season, which runs until the end of June, or until the 1,000th paddlefish is snagged. •



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