The depravity of fishing the ponds by Bozeman’s shopping mall pales next to an indignity I forced upon myself on the lower Yellowstone at a community so aptly named Intake, Montana. The travesty commenced one spring in the early Nineties when I beheld a photo in a regional Fish and Wildlife tabloid of a gentleman in a Harley Davidson baseball cap hoisting a gargantuan shark-like fish with a proboscis longer than its head. In the crook of his arm nestled a deep-sea fishing rod and reel with a spark plug and a giant treble hook dangling from the line. Enthralled, I read on.
I discovered that it was a paddlefish and the motorcycle aficionado was using a spark plug and a treble hook because the behemoths only feed by filtering plankton through their gills; thus, to catch one on fishing tackle, one must snag it. As instructed by the article, I proceeded to the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to buy my paddle fish snagging license and tag. In the accompanying instruction pamphlet, I gleaned that a fossil of one of these fish had been excavated from within the ribs of duckbilled dinosaur.
That weekend, I was supposed to meet my friends Ed and Jenny Dorn and Dobro Dick at The Wild Horse Pavilion, a whore house in Miles City, Montana. From there, we were to launch forth into the phantasm of The Miles City Bucking Horse Sale, but with my new deep-sea fishing rig gleaming in the back of my pickup, I only stopped long enough in Miles City to silently mouth, “Nope, they’re not here,” then sped on to the irrigation dam at Intake.
Arriving at such a place, one might at first think that one had come upon a grotesque backwoods religious ritual. For approximately two hundred feet stretched a line of men, women and children dressed in costumes ranging from rompers to leisure suits to bikinis, all holding the requisite deep sea fishing rig, spark plug, and treble hook, awaiting their turn at the head of the line to snag a paddle fish then proceed to the back of the line, passing their rod over the heads of those who would follow them.
Without wasting a second, I secured my place among their ranks and awaited my turn. On the bank not far behind us sat families with blankets and picnic baskets, and between those waiting and casting and those picnicking raced children and dogs. Occasionally I would hear a screech or a whoop as a spark plug beaned a child or a treble hook snagged a dog. The paddlefish were so plentiful, backed up where they could continue no further because of the irrigation dam, it was no time at all before I was at the front of the line snagging my own, then working my way over the heads of fellow anglers to the back.
As I battled the anachronism, I could tell that it was large, but it tuckered quickly, and I dragged it to shore next to an adolescent girl, sunburned in her pink terry cloth short shorts and a tee shirt that said Daddy’s Little Girl. Her daddy, a huge darkly tanned fellow in an AC/DC tee-shirt with the sleeves torn off, was weighing her fish, still hooked to her line. “Twenty-five pounds,” he bellowed.
“Mine’s twenty-five pounds. How big is yours?” said the girl.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Daddy,” said the girl, “Come here and weigh this guy’s fish.”
As I pulled it quivering up on the rocks, the man said, “Hell, it’s just a dink, sixteen pounds at the most. I ain’t even gonna weigh it.”
“Yours is just a dink,” said the girl.
“And look,” said Daddy, “it’s been caught before. See that hole there where somebody took their tag out? I guess they must of upgraded. You’d best keep that there dink ‘cause it ain’t gonna live much longer nohow.”
“I was planning on it,” I said.
“You’d best,” said Daddy, “and you’d best gut it out quick ‘cause they don’t last long in this heat. That there’s the guttin’ shack.” He pointed to a building that was hardly more than a booth in a nearby clump of cottonwoods.
Standing in the gutting shack, nursing an ice-cold Bubble-Up and inspecting my catch where it lay gleaming on a slab by the cleaning sink before me, I began to have reservations. This creature wasn’t grotesque, it was cartoon-like. For want of a better word, it was cute with its beady little eyes, its long flat nose and its blimp-like body. It somehow reminded me of the Hudson my parents owned when I was a toddler. Its ancestors had swum with the dinosaurs and I had dragged it into my world to be labeled a dink and lugged to the gutting shack.
I looked out the window, which was more of a big rectangular hole in the wall with its cover propped open on a stick. Just outside was a large dumpster filled with the heads and guts of paddlefish. An Asiatic fellow was furtively going through the guts, sorting out the strips of caviar and slipping them into a large red cooler beside him. I don’t think such a practice had yet been banned, but, by his discrete behavior, I assumed that it was discouraged.
My heart sank as I gazed upon all of those severed heads with their beady little eyes and comic bills, so I quickly plopped my own contribution on top of the pile, gutted the body, slabbed it into steaks, carved off the strong smelling meat on the periphery of each one, tossed the refined product into my cooler on some ice among my remaining Bubble-Ups and toted it to my pickup. As I loaded it in the back, Daddy’s Little Girl approached me.
“Got your dink in there?”
“What’s left of it,” I said.
“ Djew cut the stink-meat off it?” she said, tugging at her shorts where they had sunk into her crotch.
“Yes I did.” I said.
“Lemme see.” She reached in and started to lift the lid of the cooler.
“Sorry, but I have to go now,” I said, swinging up the tailgate.
“Daddy,” yelled the girl toward a camper across the parking lot. “This guy didn’t cut the stink meat off his dink.”
“He what?” yelled Daddy, hefting his bulk from the back of the camper.
I didn’t hear what else he said because, by the time he was across the parking lot, I was on my way back to Bozeman where, upon viewing the remains of my paddlefish, my wife said, “Where’s the rest of Debbie?”