Every souvenir shop and bar along the main tourist routes of the West has its own unnatural wonder. On the wall, somewhere, will be the head of a jackalope—a jackrabbit combined via taxidermy with an antelope's horns—or perhaps a furred trout, which is a rainbow trout with fur instead of scales to keep it from freezing in frigid mountain streams.
Jaded travelers entering the bar of the Jordan Hotel in Glendive, Mont, are, therefore, understandably skeptical when confronted with the mounted fish above the whiskey bottles, a fish five feet long and as big around as a basketball, with a two-foot bill jutting above its huge mouth. The fish appears to be a peculiar combination of giant catfish and enormous duck.
"That's a paddlefish," the bartender explains to those who ask. "They catch 'em down here on the Yellowstone River, at Intake." None of the tourists believes a word of it, of course. After the phony creatures they've already encountered, who's going to fall for something as obviously bogus as a paddlefish? The tourists just smile, shaking their heads, but if any of them, more curious than skeptical, drove the 15 miles to Intake, a public fishing site downstream from Glendive, they'd encounter several hundred paddlefish believers, who camp under the cottonwoods that border the Yellowstone in hopes of catching just such a creature. Unlike the jackalope and furred trout, paddlefish are for real.
They are real enough, in fact, to bear the slightly slapstick scientific name of Polyodon spathula; the name refers to the spatulate "bill" of the fish, which is why it is also known as the spoonbill. According to McClane's Standard Fishing Encyclopedia, paddlefish are the remnants of a primitive, cartilage-skeletoned family of fish, and their only near relatives live in the Yangtze River in China. In this country, paddlefish may be found in the large rivers and lakes of the Mississippi system. Fish as large as 200 pounds have been caught, though the average is 30 to 50 pounds. As with so many species, their numbers have been diminished by man's fiddling with the world. Dams are the bane of paddlefish; they require flowing water to reproduce, but so much of the Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri rivers are now artificial lakes that paddlefish in some areas are having a tough time. The Missouri and the Yellowstone in Montana are still largely unimpeded, however, and that is where the most and biggest paddlefish live. Montana's record is a 142�-pounder, taken from the Missouri in 1973, probably the biggest fish ever caught on rod and reel.
The reason I say "probably" is that you won't find paddlefish on the "official" freshwater list of records, as those records don't recognize fish taken by snagging (jerking a hook through the water in hope of impaling a fish), and snagging is the only method by which paddlefish can be caught. They are gentle giants who feed on plankton, filtering the microscopic plants and animals from the water with their gill rakers. They won't take any bait or lure.
The only time of year when it's practical to snag paddlefish is in the spring, when they swim upriver to spawn. The running fish concentrate in deep holes, or below riffles and dams. This last is the situation at Intake, the most popular paddlefishing spot on the Yellowstone, where a low dam redirects some of the river's flow to irrigation canals and where each June Montana's paddlefish begin their spawning run. The cottonwoods are crammed with tents, the parking lots are filled with vehicles and the shores are lined with aspiring fishermen attracted to the paddlefish run like bears to a salmon stream.
It was this colorful scene that I found one morning as I pulled into the parking lot at Intake, myself a curious fisherman in search of the giant paddlefish. The lot was almost full of four-wheel-drive pickups, family station wagons, vintage '60s hot rods and even a few motor homes. Finding an empty space in the sea of steel, I squeezed in. The pickup next to mine contained a young man wearing a baseball cap with the logo DODGE BUILDS TOUGH TRUCKS; he was sleeping with his head against the window, hat pressed to the glass, his mouth open to the morning sun. Half the hundred-odd vehicles in the lot contained similar somnolent bodies. The sandy beach below the parking lot was lined with boats, fishermen, spectators and dogs. Next to the path leading down to the beach was a wooden sign, painted the official brown and yellow of the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Department, describing in detail how to clean paddlefish. Further on was another sign, informing new paddlefishermen that they were allowed one fish a day. On May 1 of this year the limit was reduced to two fish per year.
The men along the shore were casting heavy spinning tackle, a big treble hook tied to a stout line and a heavy sinker or old sparkplug attached to the line below the hook. They cast as far as they could into the turbid Yellowstone, then jerked the weighted hooks back in long, sidearm sweeps. One overzealous, last jerk by a young fisherman in front of me sent his sinker and hook whizzing back toward my head. I ducked reflexively; the hook sailed by, landing in a driftwood snag behind me.
Suddenly, there came a shout: "I got one! I got one!" A tall man in cowboy boots and a checkered Western shirt splashed stiff-leggedly in the shallow shore water, his rod bent deeply, towed downstream by something huge and alive. The other anglers reeled frantically to get their lines out of the water or held their rods high to allow the unseen fish and the wading man to pass underneath. I joined a small crowd following the fisherman, and trotted behind him as the fish towed him downstream for a quarter of a mile. The fish finally tired in a shallow backwater, wallowing at the surface like a wounded alligator. Two men waded into the water, grabbed the fish by its bill and tail and dragged it onto the beach—a huge, twisting, tan-gray living fossil. The angler, breathing like a marathon runner, grabbed his prize through the gill covers and held it high, while his wife snapped a photo.
I walked back up the beach to where I'd left my tackle, stunned at the size and strength of the fish, noticing on the way dozens of paddlefish tethered to driftwood logs along the shore, lying on their sides in the shallow water, gills moving slowly. Farther on, a young man and woman were cutting up a big paddlefish on a picnic table, working quickly, obviously experienced. Paddlefish are good eating, particularly smoked.