MISSOURI-YELLOWSTONE CONFLUENCE — Chairs were placed in jovial circles with fishermen hard at work on their paddlefishing gear at a camper city sprung up practically overnight at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri River near the Montana-North Dakota border.
Monday marked opening day for paddlefishing season, but as it was a mandatory catch and release day, most of the hopeful fishermen were sitting in camp, making sure all their hooks, weights and poles were prepped for today, the first catch and keep day of the season.
Among these was Brent Paley of Medicine Hat, Alberta, a regular at the confluence every year for paddlefishing season. Last year’s catch for him was 29 pounds, while his neighbor, Bob, caught one that weighed 65 pounds.
“He is a little older than we are, so I guess he taught us how to fish,” Paley said, grinning. “Maybe this year we’ll have better luck.”
Paley said he and his friends arrived Saturday night and plan to stay until Friday or Saturday.
While most of the would-be paddlefishermen were not fishing Monday, there were a few of the die-hards along the shore, casting their line out again and again for the privilege of catching an ocean-size fish, even though they would not be able to keep it.
Among these was Ben Dahl of Minot, who has been coming to the confluence to paddlefish the past six years. He caught and kept a 92-pound fish one year — which landed in his dad Merlin Dahl’s smoker — and he has beer-battered and fried the smaller catches in year’s past, which he said is also pretty good.
“The bigger ones you smoke, and that’s good too, but there’s just so much of it,” he said. “I like the chance to catch multiple fish, so I think I may just do catch and release. If you catch and keep, you’re done catching fish for the year.”
Kelly Swift and another fisherman who had already left happened across the honey hole — at least for Monday — each catching six fish apiece.
They were all smaller, but another individual in the general vicinity also caught one 80 pounds, so the larger fish were in there as well.
Swift, from Regina, Saskatchewan, wouldn’t own up to any particular secrets, other than luck. He was using an 80-lb test line, a 5-ounce weight and a 10-aught hook — just like everyone else. Perhaps unlike everyone else, however, he’d snipped the hooks, to make it easier for the snagged fish to escape.
Swift said he would fish Monday and then return home Tuesday. His main reason for paddlefishing is the challenge of catching such a large fish.
“It’s fun to catch them,” he said. “It’s an ocean size fish in freshwater. Other than sturgeon, it’s the biggest freshwater fish you can catch.”
Paddlefishing season runs through May 31, or when the harvest reaches 1,000 fish, whichever comes first. The harvest is part of biological studies tracking the fish and has some particular rules to follow.
Mandatory catch and release days are Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays. All fish snagged these days must be released.
Mandatory harvest days are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. All fish snagged on these days must be kept, tagged and removed from the river by 9 p.m.
Legal snagging hours are 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily and may be conducted in all areas of the Yellowstone River in North Dakota, and in the area of the Missouri River lying west of the U.S. Highway 85 bridge to the Montana border, excluding that portion from the pipeline crossing (river mile 1,577) downstream to the upper end of the Lewis and Clark Wildlife Management Area (river mile 1,565).
Typically, the season doesn’t last long. Last year was just four days and the year before that was just seven. If the season closes early, there is a four-day, snag-and-release period afterward for those who have current season, unused paddlefishing tags and a valid fishing license.
The Montana season follows North Dakota’s in May, and also requires a valid fishing licence and paddlefishing tag.
More details are available on the respective state’s Fish and Game website.
Fish cleaning in North Dakota this year is being provided courtesy of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, so that the biological study data can be collected as usual.
North Star Caviar could not afford to offer the service this time, due to a glut of caviar on the market that caused lagging sales.
Area stores where paddlefishing tags are sold reported having sold close to 3,000 tags already, and more were being sold Monday afternoon. Among those waiting patiently in line to get his tag was Greg Anderson, of Michigan.
It would be his first year trying paddlefishing, he said. He’s been in the area the past five years or so working in the oil and gas sector, and has seen the fish being caught and cleaned.
“I wanted to try it for the challenge of being able to actually snag one,” he said.
He is camping at the confluence with a group of friends for the event, where he hopes to join those with whopper fish stories to tell.