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As I rigged my rod, a boat came bouncing across the river, inscribed with the Fish, Wildlife & Parks insignia. It landed and two men, one an official, and a boy climbed out. The official set up a tall tripod scale; the other man dragged a paddlefish from the boat and hung it on the scale.
"Fifty-four pounds," the official said, making a note on the clipboard.
The other man was talking to the crowd around the fish. "You should of seen it. He [indicating the boy] just stood there and reeled that spoonbill in, standing up to his waist in the water. He never moved an inch." The boy, obviously the man's son, grinned beside his fish.
I asked the official if many paddlefish had been taken. He consulted his clipboard. "Just about 60 since yesterday. They've been catching them mostly at night. The run's about over this morning, except for the odd straggler."
That explained the sleeping bodies in the parking lot. I sat down and finished rigging my tackle, prey to a strange mixture of emotions. The giant fish excited the fisherman in me, and yet the crowd of people, once more reminding me of bears along a salmon stream, gave the beach an almost carnival atmosphere. A party appeared to be in progress on the grassy hill above the low, water-covered diversion dam, in bright contrast to the gray, tethered, primordial fish breathing its last in the water.
Both wanting and not wanting to catch the odd straggler, I walked down to the water, swung the rod behind me, then snapped it forward and overhead with both hands, waiting a long moment for the heavy sinker to snap out into the river. I felt the lead bouncing along the gravel bottom and jerked the rod back, level to the ground, in a long sweep, then reeled, then jerked again. Suddenly the rod stopped, bending sharply, and I almost shouted. Adrenaline ran through me like a cold drink through a dehydrated body. I leaned back on the rod, and nothing moved.
I stood there for a moment, hooked to the river bottom, feeling the excitement ease from my arms. At least, I thought, I know what it is to think you've hooked a paddlefish; perhaps that should be enough. I broke off the snagged hook and reeled in the slack line, then took apart my rod and sat on a driftwood log, watching the other fishermen. I'd satisfied that primitive part of me that had actually wanted to catch a paddlefish. I now left the ancient fish to anyone who really wanted one.
As I sat there under the Montana sky watching the determined casters, another shout came from upstream. Another angler came splashing by, hooked to something old and huge, something that towed the human, it seemed, with the steady pull of time. Everyone along the shore stopped for a few minutes, watching the man and fish, and for a moment I again wanted to catch a paddlefish. Just for a moment I wanted to be connected with something primeval, to feel the fish's ancient power—and then the fish and the man were out of sight, behind a wall of following fishermen, and my mind was reclaimed by the present. I walked up the slope of the beach toward the parking lot, stopping at the edge of the asphalt for a last look downstream, where the angler was finally landing his fish a quarter of a mile away. I heard one last, distant shout before I turned away.