Ron Mohn knew he had made it in the caviar business when he started getting calls from rough-sounding guys with thick Russian accents named Boris and Ivan.
They were in the highly profitable beluga sturgeon caviar business, an often criminal or at least sketchy enterprise based out of the Caspian Sea region. Perhaps, the Russians inquired, Mohn would be interested in telling them more about his Flathead whitefish caviar business.
But Mohn figured his business was doing just fine without Boris and Ivan. Besides, he said, he didn’t need any more questionable business partners.
“One thing you learn,” Mohn said, “is there are a lot of shady characters in this business.”
It’s been a long, strange road for Mohn and his caviar business, which now pumps out 600 pounds of Golden Whitefish Caviar every fall. For a Flathead native who still doesn’t have a taste for the salty fish eggs, the concept of expensive roe is as bizarre as the business itself. He remembers a time when he needed to get a hold of a fellow caviar businessman. Every time Mohn called, the guy wasn’t home and his wife always said he was out on business.
“Later I find out he’s been in prison for two years,” Mohn said.
Mohn is a former physician’s assistant who, shortly after moving back to his native Columbia Falls nearly 20 years ago, discovered the wonders of commercial fishing for Lake Superior whitefish, which are abundant in Flathead Lake. Mohn said he started Mountain Lake Fisheries in 1991 after learning that the ubiquitous whitefish could be harvested commercially but nobody was taking advantage of it except for a handful of guys “cleaning fish on their tailgates and selling them to restaurants.”
So Mohn put out some advertisements looking for interested fishermen and received dozens of replies, some offering to pay him for the opportunity. He wanted the meaty whitefish fillets, though; it wasn’t until years later when he discovered that the slimy orange innards were the ticket after reading a magazine story about a paddlefish caviar business in Glendive.
Mohn called a few people in Glendive and his caviar enterprise took off from there.
“I didn’t know anything about caviar,” he said. “(The roe) was just something that got in our way.”
Mountain Lake Fisheries has been featured on the Travel Channel, in the Washington Post and in a host of other publications, though Mohn said his caviar has yet to gain much notoriety in Montana. On the contrary, nearly all of his fish fillet business is located in state because of a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the difficulty of shipping frozen fish for a small-scale business. The fillets are still the biggest moneymakers for Mohn, though caviar is catching up fast.
Mohn sells his whitefish fillets for under $7 dollars a pound both retail and wholesale. There’s a big discrepancy in his caviar prices, however: Retail is $25 for a 4-ounce jar; wholesale is $50 for a pound. In contrast, beluga caviar goes for hundreds of dollars per ounce. Mohn’s wholesale caviar business extends across the nation, finding particular popularity on the Eastern seaboard. He works with almost no retailers, doing most of his business directly with distribution agencies and restaurants, including local ones like Lakeside’s Tamarack Brewing Company
“We’ve found a niche market,” Mohn said. “They like that (the fish) are rod and reel caught out of the Rocky Mountains.”
Mohn’s business, from catching the fish to cleaning them to processing them, relies on manual labor, dexterous hands and good fishermen. Commercial netting is banned in Montana, so Mohn sends his men out with a rod and a cooler. Up to 60 fishermen are registered with Mountain Lake Fisheries as independent contractors, but only about 10 per day go out. Most are retired men who love fishing.
Charlie Davis is Mohn’s best fisherman and has been with him since the beginning. Mohn describes Davis best: “He’s 80 years old but he looks like he’s 60 and he’s as tough as boot leather.” Davis, by his own estimates, says he’ll live to be at least 150 because the “good Lord doesn’t count fishing days against you.”
Davis operates Mountain Lake Fisheries’ lone motorboat during the spawning season between mid-October and Christmas. The rest of the fishermen fish from the bank except for a few who have their own boats. During spawning, the fish run up Flathead River and, for an experienced angler like Davis, can be found by the hundreds in the river’s deep pockets. Also, because they’re spawning, the fish are full of eggs.
Everyday in the cold fall months, Davis and a fishing partner take out the motorboat east of Kalispell. On a good day the duo catches well over 100 fish between about 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. On a slow day they wrangle in 60 whitefish. The cold doesn’t get to Davis anymore. In fact, he doesn’t know what to do with this year’s mild fall.
“We keep saying the misery factor ain’t high enough,” Davis said. “You got to suffer a little.”
All told, Mohn’s fishermen bring in between 16 and 20,000 pounds of fish per fall. In a good year, Mountain Lake Fisheries will have about 7,000 pounds of fillets by Christmas. They fish in the summer too, if the business needs it, but fish aren’t spawning then and have no eggs for caviar. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks estimates between 5 and 15 million whitefish inhabit Flathead Lake, so Davis isn’t worried about population destruction.
“We ain’t thinning them out at all,” Davis said. “In fact, I think they’re gaining on us.”
Inside Mountain Lake Fisheries’ plant south of Kalispell, workers start receiving coolers full of fish mid-afternoon. First, one of the workers separates the fillets from the fish’s body with an electric fillet knife. Then a lineup of steady-handed knife wielders meticulously trim away unwanted blood and other undesirables from the fillets. The result, Mohn said, is a mild tasting meat, as opposed to the fishier tasting whitefish of the Great Lakes region, which are usually processed by the thousands with automatic fillet machines.
For caviar, the sacks of eggs are removed from the fish’s body and then rubbed against a screen to remove the outer sack. The eggs fall through the screen and are then collected and rinsed repeatedly until they are ready to be salted. The process doesn’t require many steps, but it takes a long time and is tedious work.
Mohn is delighted to see the caviar business take off, but he’s the first to tell you he’s not the biggest fan of the salted roe.
“To me, it tastes like a little ocean spray in your mouth with a nutty finish,” he said.
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