- Associated Press - Sunday, May 10, 2015

WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) - It’s a fish they drive for, even if they don’t necessarily love eating it.

Gill Gigstead, for example, drove 500 miles from Minnesota to get here for the opening of paddlefish season on May 1.

Paddlefish are a prehistoric species, with a large and unique bill, which can only be caught in two places in the world, one of them being North Dakota. That made them a successful tourism option for economic development before oil had come along.

Paddlefish are OK, Gigstead tells the Williston Herald (https://bit.ly/1JlnYuI ). He likes them deep fat fried with Cajun seasoning.

But the real fun, Gigstead and other fishermen say, is in catching them.



“Some of them really take off and run you out of line” Gigstead said. “I started with 30 pound test line, but I’m now up to 100. I had one at Sidney break 100 pound test. I never even got to see the fish.”

Paddlefish live for a long time, and often range upward of 100 pounds. The record is 130 pounds, taken in North Dakota a few years ago by a teenager.

At those weights, a large fish has the horsepower to pull a grown man downriver.

That’s what happened to Greg Moskul of Medicine Hat, Alberta, his first time out. He’s been coming ever since with his friend, Brent Paley, and their wives.

Moskul got hooked when he saw a stuffed fish mounted in an area bar here while living in Estaban. He thought it was from the deep sea.

When he learned it was from here, he knew he had to give this a shot. Where else could you catch such large and unique fish in the states?

That was back in the 90s, before most fishermen knew about North Dakota’s unusual game fish. There were maybe six fishermen giving it a whirl.

It was nearly a catastrophe, Moskul recalled. He didn’t have his rig set up right and the fish dragged him half a mile down the river. He fought with it for six hours, but wasn’t able to catch it.

He’s learned better techniques since. One being to set the tension just right.

“You want to set the tension so it doesn’t bust the line, but tires them out,” he said.

Once at shore, someone can help you by gaffing the fish. But until then, the fisherman who snagged the fish must reel it in on his own.

You’ll have plenty of help, Paley said, laughing. The other fishermen reel their lines in to keep out of the way, generally, and then “sideseat” fish with you. “Listen to the local people,” he suggested. “They know how to catch them the best.”

There’s nothing quite like hooking into one of these fish, Paley added. “At first, it’s like you’re just hitting a rock or a log on the bottom,” he said. “You know you’ve hit something solid. When you’ve been working it for three days and it’s within an hour of the harvest day closing and you finally snag a fish, yeah, it’s a rush. You hear this pounding and your stomach is churning because you don’t know if you’re gonna get the fish to come in.”

Chad Andrew said the key to catching them is simply casting. Over and over. And it’s a 10-foot tall rod with a heavy weight on the end behind a large treble hook, so casting all day to catch these fish is no small feat.

“It’s all luck, otherwise,” Andrew said.

“Blind luck,” his friend Kevin Eilbeck agreed.

Andrew, the first time he attempted to catch paddlefish, didn’t believe he needed such a large rod. He had fished for northern, walleye, bass, trout and virtually everything else. He had 15 to 20 rods, but nothing was big enough.

“I thought Kevin was playing a joke on me,” Andrew said. “‘We’re not catching Moby Dick,’ I said. ‘I don’t need this.’”

He was glad he’d played along with the “joke” in the end.

“The fish are just beautiful,” he said. “They look prehistoric.”

Children are also at the river to try their hand at catching these combative fish. Nearby adults grab hold of them to keep them from getting dragged into the river.

One of those youngsters once upon a time was Kole Jenson, fishing with his dad Wayne. They’re from Minot and Devil’s Lake. The fish he caught his first time out was 42 pounds and had a tag in its mouth.

The tags were placed a few days before by wildlife biologists. They’ll monitor the ratio of tagged to untagged fish in the allowed 1,000 harvest to statistically estimate a total population.

Once 1,000 fish are caught, the season is over. The season alternates between catch and keep days, and catch and release days. Keep days are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

The end of the season will be announced on the North Dakota Game and Fish website.

The harvest itself is an important element to the research that helps maintain the species, allowing an estimate of population each year. That research is supported by the cleaning station at the confluence, a joint venture between the Williston Chamber of Commerce and the Confluence sites Fort Union and Fort Buford. The cleaners capture the fish roe and sell it as Northstar Caviar. Twenty-five percent of the proceeds_ranging to about $350,000 a year_support research and management of the paddlefish. The remainder is split between the chamber and the Confluence sites.

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Information from: Williston Herald, https://www.willistonherald.com

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