Oh, the river. So calm, so peaceful. So beautiful and serene. Take a look at this scene and you would never guess that during the first week of May the shore is filled with hundreds of rednecks, grilling bratwurst, pitching tents, sporting camouflage, making small talk and casting their fishing poles and hooks into the current on a hope that emerging from the surface will be one of the North America’s largest freshwater fish.
Husband was one of those lucky rednecks.
He pulled this from the river on Friday afternoon.
It’s a paddlefish. 74 lbs of a prehistoric, dinosaur-esque creature with fins and no scales, tiny eyeballs and a long flat nose from which it gets its name.
Husband’s smiling because he’s managed to snag one with a giant rod, reel and hook at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers where, ironically, the state’s biggest and brightest rednecks work to harvest a creature that supplies some of the best and most coveted caviar in the nation.
Who says hicks aren’t fancy.
I can say this because I’m one of them. And I am behind my camera-phone barely able to hold the thing up while my dearly beloved basks in his victory. Because I have been casting and whipping my giant fishing rod into the channel of the river for nearly three hours and I haven’t caught anything but a couple of logs, lots of sticks and my father-in-law’s boat.
Caught that thing on the first cast.
But I was happy for husband. And so were the 20+ people down stream from him when he hollered “FISH ON!” and worked to keep the creature on the line. The other fisher men, women and kids who shared our sandbar came running toward where they saw the fish roll to the surface to assist with its capture. Two kids appeared with a gaff (a long stick with a hook on the end used to pull the giant river-dwelling creature to shore), a girl came over with her camera and muck boots, a couple older men chimed in with advice, our friend waded through the strong current to try to locate the thing and I screamed and started running toward it with my video camera fully engaged.
That’s the way it is out there during the few short weeks when these massive and strange creatures are up for catch. Sports-people from all over the region gather at the banks of the river, pitching tents, making little cities with their campers, revving the engines of their pickups, barbecuing, drinking beer and sharing fish stories. Depending on how the fish are moving fisher-people generally have less than two weeks to snag their fish before the limit is reached and the season is closed. So they move through campsites and shoot the breeze, asking about the catch-count so far, exchanging stories about the one that got away, the one that weighed almost 100 lbs, and the one their friend’s, sister’s grandmother caught yesterday up river from them…
Yup, if you happen to be down river from someone who snagged a paddlefish, their fish story becomes your fish story. Because one man cannot reel one of these creatures in on his own. It seems it takes a village of men and women in muck boots and ball caps cheering you on, offering advice, grabbing supplies, hollering, and leaning in toward the water to see what’s on the other end of the line that’s bending the pole and making the fisher-person attached to it sweat and squirm for a good five to fifteen minute fight.
If it sounds intense to catch one of these buggers, I tell you, it is.
But it doesn’t take skill.
I know because once upon a time I caught one myself. I was somewhere in-between the first verse and chorus of a Disney song as I cast that giant hook as far as I could throw it…(ahem…three feet in front of me)…into the current. I looked over my shoulder to my audience shaking their heads at me on top of the steep banks. I laughed and threw one of my arms in the air to really hit the punch line of Pocahontas’s “Just around the river bend” and just as I started in on my grand finale my hook caught something and jerked me dangerously close to the edge of the bank and ironically close to a literal image of the song I was performing. I gripped my pole and worked to regain my footing just as my brother-in-law came bounding down the riverbank to grab the back of my shirt to prevent me from becoming just another casualty of the sport.
It was the hardest I’d ever worked at the sport of fishing–a sport that usually involves me sticking my pole in the sandy banks of the river while I kick back with sunflower seeds and a brewsky and wait for the catfish to bite.
But it was exhilarating leaning back against the weight of the fish and the current of the river, reeling the beast toward shore as the party of people hanging by the river with me scrambled to help retrieve my catch with nets and gaffs and rules and superstition.
We got the fish to shore and, at 25 lbs, it wasn’t a whopper in paddlefish land, but it was the biggest fish I’ve ever caught. And ever since I stood on the banks of the river in the rain and my camouflage coat, channeling every red-neck fiber in my body as I held that fish up for the world to see, I’ve been itching to re-live that feeling.
And so have the hundreds of other fisher-people who flock to the banks of our rivers each year.
They come with their coolers and sleeping bags to hash out the game plan, meet up with friends, and re-live past year’s catches the same way we re-live my fish story every year when I meet my in-laws and friends from college and Canada at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone River at the beginning of May.
Yes, paddlefishing is a tradition for us that includes matching t-shirts, beer darts, barbecue, laughter, bad jokes and memories of each fish caught.
And this year husband gets the bragging rights as the only man in our party of twenty who actually pulled something living from that river.
Oh, it doesn’t matter if he only casted like seven times.
It doesn’t matter that me and two of my friends stood in ice-cold water up to our crotches casting and reeling in the current of the two converging rivers as the water and paddlefish floated on by for hours.
It doesn’t matter that we wanted it so bad we held our breath and made up our own superstitious chants as we pulled back our lines, visualizing, sending positive energy into the river as our bare legs turned raw in the deep mud of the river and our arms turned to noodles with each hefty cast.
We were not bitter when husband pulled that whopper of a fish right out from under our noses. Nope. We dropped our poles and went screaming toward him with cameras and hands clasped in delight.
We took his moment with him. We oooed and awwweed over the event that was to be a part of our story too. We shared our reaction: how S had jumped out of the boat and into water up to her knees when she heard husband holler. How L threw her arms in the air and grabbed her camera. How B and my father in law were convinced husband lost it when the fish didn’t reappear…
How husband stayed calm, cool and collected as I screeched and ran and jumped up and down…
How the clouds were fluffy and the sky was blue and the sun was so warm we could wear shorts and tank tops and walk around in bare feet…
How husband caught a paddlefish on his seventh cast…
and how I caught the boat on my first….
a log on my second…
the river bank on my third…
a buzz on my forth…
and fifty-seven sticks in between.
It’s not a sport…
It’s a lifestyle.