Flavors: Paddlefish Caviar
In the world beyond our Big Sky, caviar has been associated with celebration, champagne, and Russian czars. Historically, locals did not value the glistening black eggs produced by the paddlefish. Migrating up the Missouri river from Lake Sacajawea in May and June, these dinosaur-like fish move westward into the Missouri River with most turning left at the Missouri-Yellowstone confluence to go up the Yellowstone to spawn near Sidney, Montana.
I learned of Yellowstone Caviar through an East Coast culinary colleague, Adam Borden, about 15 years ago, who had just founded Bradmer Foods. For years, I had wanted to journey up to watch the harvesting of the caviar, but my timing was always off. This season I finally made it up to the Intake Fishing Access on the Yellowstone River just north of Glendive. I pulled a tag to harvest a fish, but could not get the required heavy fishing gear in time to fish. I will try again next year, and will hopefully report back on how to prepare paddlefish.
On this day, my friend Susan Carlson and I drove to Intake after several days of rain, making the landscape green and lush on our journey from Billings. However, with low snowpack in the mountains, the river water levels on the Yellowstone River were low. When we arrived at Intake, about a dozen fishermen were at the murky water’s edge with a couple in the river fishing. No one was catching a fish, for the water level needed to be at least four feet for fish to migrate upstream.
Seven years ago, my husband and I drove up for the day on a Sunday to watch the paddlefish action. This was not a harvest day so we did not witness the caviar operation, but we did see fishermen pull fish from the river at regular intervals. An agent from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service measured and tagged the fish before it was released back into the water.
In 1989 the Montana Legislature approved a bill to allow the Glendive Chamber of Commerce to collect and sell paddlefish roe. The monies from the Paddlefish Caviar Grant Program have benefited the communities along the river. “The thirteen different counties that are along the river system of the Yellowstone can benefit from this. Since 1991 we have given over a million dollars in grant money,” said Denny Malone, Glendive Chamber of Commerce Board President.
“These paddlefish are the prehistoric fish of the Yellowstone River system, given the fact that they are bottom feeders that go after the microscopic organisms,” he shared.
Paddlefish feed on zooplankton. Adorned with a long paddle-like proboscis, small eyes, a wide gaping mouth, and smooth skin, these fish are filter feeders, using their comb-like gill-rakers to sieve the water, much like whales. The fish can reach up to seven feet in length and weigh over 200 pounds, but on the average, a female weighs 40 and 90 pounds while most males range between 10 to 40 pounds.
At the Intake Dam Fishing Access, the chamber set up a processing center mostly run by volunteers. “Part of the process we have here is when fishermen catch fish, they can bring them to the cutting station. We will cut the fish up for no cost. But if they have a female, the understanding is they will donate the roe to the caviar program instead of being wasted, as occurred before the program’s inception,” Malone said.
For many fishermen, catching a paddlefish is an annual pursuit, but to legally fish, a tag must be secured from Fish and Wildlife. On the day we visited, Stacy Vojacek brought in a yard-stick long fish he caught at the Sidney Bridge. “Out of 31 years, I have only missed catching a fish one year, but we only had a couple of hours to fish that year, but every other year I have caught one either in North Dakota or Montana.” After cutting up his 26-pound male fish, he took home four pounds of meat along with the tag.
His fish was caught with, “An eleven-foot pole for ocean fishing, and then a big reel that holds a lot of line, a number eight hook, five-ounce weight so I can cast it out and reel in.” He continued, “On an average day for me, I fish for six or seven hours.” Vojacek began his season fishing on May 15th at Intake but with no success, he headed north to Sidney.
Annually, Dr. Dennis Scarnecchia has journeyed to Intake from his academic post as Professor of Fishery Resources at the University of Idaho, returning each year to study and collect data, providing the groundwork for sustaining this ancient species of fish.
“The paddlefish is a special fish, long-lived fish, an ancient fish that requires more conscientious management than maybe some other species, so the emphasis has been that caviar produced in the program is a by-product of a well-managed recreational fishery program,” Scarnecchia said.
Scarnecchia’s research has provided insights into the importance of managing age structure in the fish population. “We developed a harvest model that is based on recruitment. It's not based on numbers of fish, it’s based on how many fish are coming into the population so if we’ve got enough coming in, it will justify the number of fish that we are allowing to leave, to harvest. The natural mortality of these fish is really quite low, once they reach a size of maybe a foot or two in length. For the rest of their lives you are kind of balancing what’s coming into the population with young fish with what’s going out,” he shared.
Paddlefish can live up to 50 years. Scarnecchia with the help of Dr. Brent Gordon from the Paddlefish Research Center in Oklahoma removed the jawbone from each fish that was harvested to take slices for microscopic study of the growth rings in the tissue, much like determining the age of a tree. A metal detector scanned each fish in search of any old tags, another verification of age.
While talking to Scarnecchia, Jeff Atkinson arrived with another fish caught at Sidney Bridge. The 80-pound fish, about five feet in length, was weighed and put on a conveyor belt leading into the first processing area.
The fish is then loaded onto another conveyor belt that moved the fish into the processing trailer where volunteers Josh Payette and Holly Persons cut up the fish. On a large flat table in front of an open window the fish was rinsed to remove any dirt. The abdominal area was slit open to reveal two sacs of glistening gray eggs about the size of a large football. Gordon marveled at how each egg was supplied with blood vessels. The eggs contained in the belly did not have an outer membrane like plastic wrap holding the eggs in place and was described by Scarnecchia as an open sac. The network of blood vessels kept the eggs in two separate compartments as opposed to other fish like salmonids that have sacs that enclose all of their eggs.
“The coloration on these things does vary from black to gray to greenish gray, and some that are unpigmented to where they are yellowish, they are golden colored. The typical egg up here is a rather grey color egg,” Scarnecchia said.
Payette and Persons easily sliced through the fish as its skeleton is mostly cartilage with the exception of the head and paddle made up of mostly bone. The red outside meat was discarded through the window while the white meat was saved for eating. When the fish was first filleted, the pinkish meat quickly turned white.
The roe was quickly transferred through the window to an adjacent trailer where Barbara O’dea began the processing for caviar.
While I stood outside on the trailer hitch, O’dea showed how she processed and graded the paddlefish eggs. To ensure the facility was clean, only people who were gowned up and wearing hairnets were allowed into the processing room.
She shared, “When it (the roe) comes through the window we then take it and then what we do, we call it “skeining”. Basically, we’re working it through a strainer, and it helps separate the eggs from each other, and off of the membrane. After we do this we rinse it. This takes a bit and we’ll rinse it off and then let it dry a little bit in here. After it's dry we’ll salt it according to weight.”
About fifteen percent fine sea salt was added, a determination by taste according to O’dea. The caviar was then “put into one-pound containers, and labeled by the fish number and the grade because there are three grades, Premium, grade 1 and grade 2.”
“Premium caviar has a nice pearly black, gray color. The eggs will be nice and firm so they make a pop in your mouth,” O’dea said. These seven pounds of eggs were kept cold and then later frozen to be sold through the Glendive Chamber of Commerce.
Though I have traditionally enjoyed caviar on a blini with sour cream, crumbled boiled egg and capers, it is also delicious with scrambled eggs and served on sushi. I was offered paddlefish meat but did not receive it before the airing of Flavors Under the Big Sky: Celebrating the Bounty of the Region. I promise to report on my experience if and when I receive some fish.
Through the Richland County Extension Office, the 60-page “Paddlefish Recipe Book” contains information on how to process and cook paddlefish meat. Because of its fishy taste, suggestions of soaking the flesh in milk, buttermilk or cider vinegar overnight are made. Soaking in 7-Up soda will supposedly take away any “muddiness.” The collection contains recipes such as: “Southern Paddlefish Tacos with Jalapeno Peach Coleslaw, Grilled Paddlefish with Honey Bourbon BBQ Sauce, and Asian Kabobs.”
Here under the Big Sky, Yellowstone Caviar is a bounty that is cause for champagne and celebration.