WITH A SHARK'S BODY and a snout like a giant spatula, the spoonbill paddlefish, which is believed to predate dinosaurs by 50 million years, might seem an unlikely savior of pampered palates from New York to Tokyo. But since the United Nations successfully suspended the trade in caviar from endangered Caspian sturgeon on January 3, the paddlefish has become just that.
Native to high-volume river systems across the U.S., the fish can reach well over 100 pounds and has long been a favorite of anglers who like to do battle with the big bottom-dwellers. Paddlefish live on plankton and thus have no interest in traditional bait. So anglers use heavy surfcasting gear to huck burly treble hooks into the river, then jerk them through the water in hopes of snagging a fish and dragging it to shore. Once hooked, paddlefish are legendary for giving it the old Jurassic try. "It's a good fight, if you can get one on," says fisherman Earl Kelsey, of Basin, Wyoming.
For years, anglers typically cleaned their fish on the riverbanks, leaving the roe to rot with the gut piles. But it turns out that the paddlefish produces excellent caviar. And at $18 per ounce, it sells for about 85 percent less than that of its distant cousin, the sturgeon.
"Paddlefish caviar is smaller, with a creamy feel and a nutty, grassy taste," says Frenchman Gabriel Kruether, executive chef at Manhattan's the Modern, a French restaurant that serves Yellowstone caviar. "But if it is handled well, it matches Caspian caviar in quality." And with the worldwide sturgeon population down about 90 percent over the past 20 years, Kruether says he's happy to go with paddlefish. "A total ban on sturgeon for some years is the best thing that can happen," he says.
The paddlefish may not think so. Decimated by dams, silt, and years of overfishing, only a handful of healthy populations remain. The largest is in Montana's Yellowstone Riverthe longest undammed river in the United Stateswhere paddlefish season runs from May 15 to June 30 or until the 1,000th fish is caught. Since 1990, the nonprofit Yellowstone Caviar Project, based in Glendive, Montana, has offered free fish cleaning in exchange for any roe it finds, which is sold to restaurants around the world. Proceeds benefit community recreation projects and paddlefish-research programs. "Everybody's a winner," says Jim Culver, who heads the project. "Sportsmen get the thrill of the catch, caviar connoisseurs get a top-grade treat, and the paddlefish are protected."