With a powerful thump, the treble hook cut through the water and planted itself firmly into the chinook salmon’s muscular back. The old dance between man and fish had begun.
Larry DiLulo, a farming angler on the Hi-Line, began the delicate tango of throwing a giant fish in front of his prize.
He began to move slowly, taking two steps up and down the floating dock, his gauntleted hands holding the rod upright. But the fish on the other side struggled to get the upper hand and escape from DiLulo.
DiLulo followed the fish, recrossing the dock, holding his arched rod high, keeping the salmon in front of him at all times. When the time came, he curled up and closed the distance between himself and the fish.
He would often pause, adjust his stick, and start again. Just as it looked like one of them was going to give up, there would be a drastic action, either with DiLulo leaping on the rod or the fish cutting off the water.
After more than six minutes, DiLulo prevailed, pulling the 8-pound salmon from the frigid waters of Fort Peck Reservoir and clutching his prize with a beaming smile.
Fort Peck Reservoir is the only place in Montana where an angler can cha-cha with a chinook.
The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks annually maintains a reservoir stocked with hatchery-raised salmon and monitors their health and progress. Since the fish cannot reproduce naturally in the lake, the hatchery has to collect several breeding age fish every year and do the spawning themselves. They do this by manually “milking” the sperm and eggs from fish that are stunned and netted by FWP staff. The eggs are then fertilized in an incubator near the reservoir. In the spring, new fish are released for the fishermen to chase, and the process repeats.
Chinook, or king salmon, is a prize fish native to the Northwest, not Eastern Montana. Most of the population lives along the coast of the Pacific Ocean, from the mouth of the Ventura River north of Los Angeles to the Seward Peninsula on the western edge of Alaska. During spawning or salmon runs, they migrate inland to rivers such as the Columbia. In 1967, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources introduced the fish to Lake Michigan and Lake Huron to control the invasive nuisance fish alewife. Chinooks feed on alewifes and were later introduced to other Great Lakes. Salmon are now found throughout the region and, like Fort Peck, are a prized fish.
Chinooks at Fort Peck are blue-green in color. They have silver sides, black spots and dark tails. In the reservoir, they range in weight from behemoths from 5 pounds to sometimes over 30 pounds. In other places, such as the Kenai River in Alaska, mature specimens average 37 pounds. The current sport world record is just over 97 pounds from Kenai, while the commercially caught world record is 126 pounds caught in British Columbia.
At Fort Peck Reservoir, anglers can use deep-water trolling gear to catch fish during the spring and summer, but use a plug during spawning because the fish stop feeding. This requires the use of a large, weighted, three-pronged hook that looks more like Batman’s grappling hook than a fishing lure. The hook is sized to help the angler cast, sink the structure quickly, and also give the hook power when piercing the flesh of the fish. Once in the water, the fisherman pulls the hook hard and pulls it back, hoping to find his target.
In addition to salmon at Fort Peck, it is also used to catch paddlefish in the Yellowstone River in Montana. The reason anglers use angling to catch prehistoric paddlefish is because the species uses a filter and is not attracted to bait or bait.
The debate over the ethics of fishing continues within the fishing community. Opponents of snagging argue that piercing the animal’s flesh reduces sport and damages the resource. Proponents argue that fish can still fight and free themselves. But if the salmon is clogged, the fish will die after spawning anyway.
DiLulo likes to bake or smoke fish, but there are many ways to cook fish. “I haven’t found any bad way to eat them,” he said.
“I brine them overnight, smoke them with hickory and I can,” said Milton Saucedo of Forsyth.
Local fisherman Art Widhalm recommends keeping the skin and bones open when canning fish to add flavor.
Regardless of your taste in fish, salmon fishing is a popular sport on the lake. Eddie Mindt, owner of Lakeridge Lodging and Bait Shop, estimates that about a thousand people come to his shop each year looking for specialty goldfish.
Saucedo said about 20 people wandered into his place on a warm October morning.
“They’re here, it’s just a matter of being lucky and connecting to something,” DiLulo said. “You can go four or five hours and get nothing, then you close one and you forget everything.”