- Associated Press - Monday, May 19, 2014

WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota caviar has a certain ring to it, one that disrupts the typical archetype of the high-end food business.

How does something so delicate and high class - sold in the finest restaurants around the world - get purchased from the remote rivers of western North Dakota?

The answer is simple: Paddlefish, and a partnership that recycles money back into the community.

“It’s still kind of hard to process,” said Scott Meske, president of the Williston Area Chamber of Commerce, who moved from Wisconsin earlier this year. “You think high-end, New York, expensive, and you say North Dakota in the same sentence. . It’s a unique business. Unbelievable.”

The chamber partnered with the Friends of Fort Union/Fort Buford in 1993 to create the nonprofit North Star Caviar business. With help from the state game and fish department, the business harvests paddlefish eggs as a donation from anglers in exchange for cleaning the snagged fish free of cost.

The result has been thousands of dollars in grants to local nonprofit organizations, and increased preservation and education funding for the historical sites.

“It’s fairly significant,” Meske told the Williston Herald (http://bit.ly/1mhVUi5) of the impacts of the grants. “It’s not a multi-million dollar business.”

The sound of squeaking, clanging metal broke the morning air on a recent Saturday.

Far from the start of Band Day preparations, a group of National Guardsmen from Minnesota were lugging their first paddlefish snag of the day to the processing shack, located at the entrance of the Confluence campground.

“The little red wagon is back,” yelled Curt Ridle, of Dickinson, the fish processor at North Star Caviar this season.

In tow, the Guardsmen had painted a child’s wagon for their trip to Williston. On the sides it bore the event: Paddlefish 2014. Inside marked their brotherhood: the 134th Unit, which was covered up by a 30-plus pound male paddlefish.

Smaller than the females, male paddlefish don’t carry the valuable fish eggs, so they are filleted and given to the angler, along with a souvenir snout that is sawed off.

Paddlefish season beings May 1 every year and runs through May 31, but a 1,000-fish limit almost always ends the season early. The game and fish department typically calls the season around the 700 to 800 catch count, said site manager Bernard Voll.

When a female finally comes in, the process truly starts.

Ridle weighs the fish on a hook and slaps it on a measuring table to get its length, tag number and to cut out the bottom jaw. Rings on the jawbone are used to determine the age of the fish, similar to finding the age of a tree using its trunk.

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