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Something Fishy

A bubbling demand for Missouri caviar spawns cutthroat competition.


A fringe of February ice clings to a riverbank along the Mississippi, tiny frozen tapestries fanning out from the concrete ramp. Stroking his bedraggled beard and sizing up the water level, Ron Hall begins to launch his 24-foot-long johnboat. He prays today's catch will be better than the last one. "I did not catch one minnow," Hall mutters. "I have not seen it like that before. I could always catch something; maybe not what I wanted, but something."

The flat-bottomed craft barely rocks when Hall gingerly steps in. Short and grizzled, he sports a blue cotton shirt, Army-green rubber overalls and large sunglasses. Hall heads for a sandy bank below Lock 22 at Saverton, eighteen miles from his home in Center, Missouri. The temperature hovers near freezing and the river is still. Hall unloads a portable heater and two empty buckets, then begins untangling his handmade net, which is the length of a football field.

"I fish 99 percent by myself," the 69-year-old Hall chuckles. "There ain't nobody to put up with me, I guess." He proceeds to the steering wheel, fires up the engine and peels away for the river's midsection.

Hall eyes a placid site to start fishing. His territory differs every day in accordance with the ever-shifting water flow, the wind and the weather. When the cold comes in, Hall notes, "the fish'll just lay down, and you can't touch 'em."

He settles on a spot a thousand yards from the dam. For the next four hours he'll float, dropping one end of his net into the water and motoring backwards so the net shimmies out the bow. His first retrieval reveals a slender, khaki-colored shovelnose sturgeon. She's dead, her belly slit wide open. Another female, this one alive and with a green stripe streaking her stomach, flops into the boat's bottom. Little else besides driftwood and leaves ever breaks the water's surface.

"I wish the season would end fifteen days later in the spring," Hall announces. Sturgeon don't start running until the water warms up to maybe 45 degrees, he adds, usually by late April at the earliest. The season is brief, ending May 15. "If you get a late spring, the season stops before you get anything!"

Shovelnose sturgeon are a furtive bunch, so adept at hiding on the river's bottom that they're impossible to lure with a rod. Older than the dinosaur, the shovelnose is one of the more unsightly marine creatures. With prehistoric-looking mugs and ornery dispositions, these ugly bottom-feeders nonetheless produce one of the world's most coveted delicacies: caviar.

The shovelnose reach sexual maturity late in life; years can pass between their spawns. Though they lay millions of eggs, the chances of one hatching are remote. Such unusual life cycles, biologists say, make shovelnose vulnerable to extinction.

Hall is one of a dozen Missourians fishing for shovelnose, the last lucrative catch for the state's commercial fishermen now that other profitable species, such as catfish, have been banned. Russian and Iranian Caspian Sea caviars have always been considered the world's finest. But a global shortage, owing to the overfishing of the Caspian's beluga sturgeon, is making the Mississippi and Missouri rivers once again a nexus for the caviar trade.

The local roe was in vogue only twice during the last century; both times, fishermen nearly exterminated the caviar-producing fish. Now that gourmets are once again hungering for Missouri caviar, wars have erupted among fishermen, and clandestine behavior pervades every layer of the industry. The Missouri Department of Conservation, meanwhile, has launched its own battle. Conservationists fear shovelnose populations are dangerously dwindling and are trying to convince Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee to tighten Mississippi River fishing regulations.

It is a move that has fishermen like Hall fuming. "I don't care if they put every fisherman in the world on the river -- they can't catch all the fish!"

Caviar's mere mention conjures an image of enviable elegance: crystal coupes of black gold mounted atop ice pillows, mother-of-pearl spoons, Champagne and tuxedo-clad waiters.

In many ways caviar's allure stems from its scarcity. For three centuries, state-owned monopolies in the Caspian Sea region -- especially Russia -- controlled the international caviar trade by keeping prices and fish stocks in check. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, however, the trade became a free-for-all. Men from all walks of life suddenly started sturgeon-fishing for quick cash, and rampant illegal fishing ensued.

U.S. caviar dealers had frequently targeted North American fish as a replacement for Caspian caviar when ailing relations with Iran and Russia restricted the flow of premium caviars. But for most of the 1990s, after Mikhail Gorbachev left the Soviet helm, no one paid much attention to American caviar. After all, Caspian roe was cheaper and more abundant than ever.

By 1998 it became evident that unbridled overfishing had largely depleted the Caspian Sea sturgeon. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) listed sturgeon as endangered, imposed strict export regulations on Caspian roe and encouraged conservation agencies to crack down on caviar trafficking.

For the next few years, American caviar dealers operated on life-support. Some purchased small amounts of Caspian caviar at steep prices. (A three-quarter ounce of beluga, the most expensive, currently retails for $278 at the prominent caviar boutique and restaurant Petrossian in New York and Paris.) Some traded on a thriving black market. And many dealers, from California to Georgia to Maine, began touting domestic caviar as an affordable, savory alternative to Caspian versions.

Rachel Collins, owner of Chicago-based Collins Caviar, likens the sea change to one among oenophiles. "In the 1960s, the American wine industry was spotty, hit-or-miss, and gastronomes -- mostly French -- said, 'Oh, this wine is no good,'" Collins explains. "Through vintners honing their craft and an enormous amount of public awareness, as time moved forward, so did the public perception and acknowledgement of how good American wines were. Now they win world gold medals. They're exquisite. The same thing has slowly started in the caviar industry."

California has made a name for its farm-raised caviar, while Missouri, Illinois and Tennessee are known for their river-caught roe. The caviar world has no industry group that tracks the domestic caviar retail market values. Individual dealers' estimates differ substantially -- from $12 million to $25 million annually. Many say their sales have jumped anywhere from 20 to 50 percent in the last five years.

Shovelnose from the Missouri and Mississippi rivers produce a shimmering black "hackleback." Paddlefish, not sturgeons but caviar-producing fish also native to the Midwestern river systems, yield pearly gray "spoonbill." The processing method for each is similar. Curers slash open a fish's belly and remove an egg sack, then massage it over a metal screen, like a sieve, to separate the eggs from their outer membrane. The eggs are rinsed and cured with salt, then stored at approximately 28 degrees Fahrenheit.

The retail price for an ounce of hackleback or spoonbill varies from $15 at Bob's Seafood in St. Louis to $38 at Chicago's Collins Caviar -- a discrepancy reflecting St. Louis' curious ignorance of the phenomenon. Most local chefs haven't tried Missouri or Mississippi river caviars, while nationally acclaimed restaurants, like Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, have become converts. "It's great because it's local, it's got some relevance in the Midwest, and we think it's good," says Charlie Trotter's executive chef, Matthias Merges.

The best hackleback and paddlefish have buttery, nutty tastes. "When I'm grading caviar, I only taste one or two eggs," says Rod Mitchell, owner of prominent caviar outpost Browne Trading Co. in Portland, Maine. "You can tell quickly. I just put it onto my tongue, and I crush it to the roof of my mouth." The firm egg should pop when it separates, he says.

And how does one cure fine caviar?

"That," teases Mitchell, "is the secret of the one who makes it."

"In this industry, there's not a lot of people with scruples," explains Bill Dugan, owner of the Fishguy Market in Chicago. "People will steal your resources."

Equally evasive, Mats Engstrom, owner of California-based Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, concludes simply: "It's a war out there."

Ron Hall planned to trawl for catfish when he bought a fishing license eight years ago. He'd soon learn, though, that sturgeon was the sure-fire money-maker. "Before that, I didn't know there was a sturgeon in the world," he marvels.

Hall's early days were confusing. A fisherman's relationships with buyers are informal and shifting, he says. Contracts are never signed, prices change constantly, and cash is the primary currency, leaving little or no paper trail. Misunderstandings and mistrust between "partners" can ensue swiftly. Hall saw several short-term alliances sour before he found a long-term partnership -- typical of the caviar world's fly-by-night associations.

It was the late 1990s. Hall says local seafood purveyors were pooh-poohing Missouri caviar, so he set his sights on one of the largest luxury markets: New York City. Hall's then-partner (with whom he later had a falling out) placed a cold call to Caspian Star Caviar, which happened to be the nation's largest dealer. He arranged a somewhat mysterious rendezvous with a company representative that would prove serendipitous.

Toting eight-pound buckets of his best hackleback and spoonbill, Hall flew east for a daylong trip. He was met at the airport by a Caspian Star agent and whisked to a Brooklyn warehouse. There, several people, framed by enormous walk-in freezers, stood over tables, packing tins of caviar. Hall says the concrete building looked like "a bomb shelter."

It was there that Arkady Panchernikov, a Russian immigrant and company owner, sampled Hall's caviars and exclaimed, "It's perfect. Don't change it." The men decided on a price and finished their fortuitous meeting over celebratory sirloins at a Big Apple steakhouse.

Panchernikov began regularly placing phone orders with Hall's fish house in Center, Missouri, and thousands of cadet-blue caviar tins left via Federal Express for New York. Hall cured as much as 7,000 pounds a year. He was told that his roe was resold to cruise ships, airlines and restaurants. The caviar was never labeled "Hackleback," "Spoonbill" or "From Missouri" -- simply "Caviar."

Within a year's time, Hall began buying eggs from other Missouri fishermen to meet Panchernikov's burgeoning demand. Hall befriended a regular supplier, 39-year-old Cliff Rost, of Morrison, Missouri.

Rost is a lean, nimble chap who, like Hall, has tackled various manual trades but relishes most the rush of river air on his face and the grandeur of swooping eagles. The men shared extroverted personalities and the gift of gab. They also shared fishing supplies and occasionally took to the river together. Their wives, Phyllis Hall and Kathy Rost, became chummy. The Halls regularly entertained the Rosts over television game shows and homemade wine.

About three years ago, Hall was out fishing when the Rosts delivered a bundle of eggs. The couple stood in the fish house, watching Hall's daughter cure caviar and quizzing her on the method. All the while, they were taking notes, Hall recalls. At the time, he considered the couple's behavior harmless. Later, he'd change his mind.

Ron Hall had one of his most bullish years in 2001, but his luck began to unravel when, a year later, Panchernikov, Hall's primary buyer, was convicted for mislabeling lower-grade caviar as higher-grade product. Hall was convinced Panchernikov intended no wrongdoing and was equally certain that none of his hackleback or spoonbill was passed off as higher-grade caviar. (There's no way to know if it was, and Hall never questioned Panchernikov on the matter.) Still, a federal court in Brooklyn sentenced Panchernikov to nineteen months in prison and fined him $400,000. His demise left Hall on the hook for some $90,000.

Hall says Panchernikov wires payments of varying amounts to pay off the debt and makes occasional calls to assure Hall he won't be cheated. (Panchernikov did not return calls seeking comment for this story.)

Embattled and weary from the financial setback, Hall took a break from sturgeon.

In the meantime, Cliff and Kathy Rost decided to jump into the caviar business, filling the void left by Hall's unhappy sabbatical. The couple took a seafood-safety class from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in St. Louis and became certified to process caviar. It's Kathy who cures the caviar. "I won't let Cliff near it," she says, citing his penchant for ruinous shortcuts.

The Rosts decided on Show-Me-Caviar as their business name, opened a fish house in Morrison and invited the FDA to come inspect it. Rost likes to boast that "everything inside is snow-white." Next, Rost started buying eggs from Hall's former anglers.

Hall hadn't an inkling of the Show-Me-Caviar operation. Upon returning to the caviar business last year, Hall began calling up his fishermen, only to discover that Rost was curing caviar now, too. Rost -- his one-time crony -- turned competitor?

Hall was livid. "All Cliff knows about this he learned from me!

"One day I went down there [to Morrison] and saw the whole operation," he fumes. "I saw he went and bought the same stuff we had. Cliff's the only one in the whole caviar business that processes eggs like I do."

Hall reflects on his experiences with the Rosts over the last few years and is convinced they stole his curing method -- the river-man's most prized secret -- the day they took notes at his fish house.

Kathy, a quiet, methodical woman, is outraged to hear Hall's accusations. "That is false information!"

"I would not eat anything that Ron Hall had ever touched in the first place," she adds. "I have been pushing FDA to get up there and inspect him."

Her husband merely laughs. "I rained on Ron's parade big time," Cliff Rost concedes. "Business is business."

The two families have not spoken since.

Dave Owens, a scruffy divorcé, rented a trailer in Warsaw, Missouri -- a threadbare hamlet hailed as "Spoonbill Capital of the World" -- and quickly endeared himself to Gene Murphy, the owner of a seedy bar favored by fishermen. Within a month's time, Owens gained access to Bob Defriese, an outlaw caviar maker, according to federal authorities.

It was the late 1980s, trade relations between the United States and Iran had stalled, and a caviar shortage had arisen. Wildlife officials started finding bundles of dead paddlefish, their stomachs slit open, on the riverbanks. They suspected river-men like Tennessee fisherman Bob Defriese were filling a niche in the caviar market with illegal fishing. Their fears turned out to be justified.

Gene Murphy introduced Defriese to Owens on a February evening in 1988, saying Owens could be trusted to fish illegally for caviar and would not report Defriese to state game wardens. Authorities say Defriese was desperate for egg suppliers to aid his paddlefish poaching ring.

That night, Defriese told Owens that paddlefish roe was all the rage, there was good money to be made, and the nearby Harry S. Truman Reservoir was teeming with the trophies. But it was illegal to fish the lake, according to Missouri Department of Conservation regulations. To snag the fish, one had to drop nets at night to avoid detection, Defriese explained. Owens said he didn't know how to fish with nets but agreed to participate in the scheme. He told Defriese that his roommate, Bob Lewis, would also be fishing. A few hours before dawn, Defriese, Owens and Lewis descended on the lake.

Federal agents say Defriese instructed Owens and Lewis how to float a net, and within minutes, several female paddlefish flopped around the boat's bottom. Their total haul: about 30 pounds of eggs. Fine enough for the dilettante bandits.

Authorities say Defriese, pleased with Owens' and Lewis' success, encouraged the pair to start fishing every night. Owens and Lewis slashed open each paddlefish belly and pulled out any egg sacks. Then they tied all the carcasses to a rock and heaved the bundles overboard in order not to alarm game wardens. Back on land, the trio processed caviar in scum-coated bathtubs at fleabag motels.

When the season ended, the men went their separate ways. The following winter, Owens and Lewis were disappointed to find Bob Defriese had left Warsaw. Once again, they turned to bar owner Murphy for caviar contacts. Murphy introduced them to Defriese's business rival and brother, Neil Defriese, also an outlaw caviar bandit, according to authorities. They say Neil Defriese warily eyed Owens and Lewis upon meeting them, then phoned his brother Bob for a quasi-background check. "Are these guys OK?" Neil Defriese asked, Owens and Lewis standing before him.

Bob's affirmative reply provided Owens' and Lewis' immediate initiation into another paddlefish poaching ring, this one more demanding. Owens and Lewis fished at night, then met Neil Defriese and a cohort, Donald Hardy, to relinquish the eggs and spend the day drinking. Neil Defriese was Warsaw's social luminary, but he also kept afloat a sizeable operation, according to state authorities, once bragging of bagging $86,000 from just five nights of netting.

When the season ended in the spring of 1989, the poaching ring hatched a new plan to fish shovelnose sturgeon, this time legally. But it was too late. Authorities arrested Defriese and Hardy for illegal netting and wildlife trafficking. During the previous sixteen months, undercover state conservation agent Steve Nichols and Bob Lumadue of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, disguised as Owens and Lewis, had put together a federal case against the Defriese brothers and 21 others.

"You kind of felt bad for them in a way," Nichols muses. "Not for what they'd been doing, because they'd killed so many fish, and it was all greed- and money-based, but here they finally decided to do it legally!"

Nichols laughs now, reminiscing about the sleepless days, once coming face-to-face with the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun. "I've been on the law enforcement unit for 26 years, and I guarantee you that was the highlight of my career," he says. "It was just that touch of danger that everybody wants in their life."

The state of Missouri made wildlife trafficking a felony in 1990, largely because of the Warsaw paddlefish sting. A year later the state's conservation agency stopped paddlefish harvesting altogether.

Still, state authorities continue to worry the climate might be ripe for similar poaching shenanigans, what with the shortage of Caspian Sea caviar. They cite an eye-popping increase in annual shovelnose catch, which averaged 10,000 pounds from the Missouri and Mississippi rivers between 1945 and 2000. In 2001, the catch reached 77,000 pounds.

"You look at the Caspian Sea and see this big harvest of beluga sturgeon, and all of a sudden, it's gone," reasons Missouri Department of Conservation biologist Dave Herzog. "Those are the threats we have to pay real attention to."

How many shovelnose swim in the rivers? Head counts are impossible, officials say. But in 2001, Illinois and Missouri launched population studies to devise estimates.

"We've seen all the indications of a healthy fishery," says Illinois Department of Natural Resources biologist Rob Maher. "There's multiple ages represented. They're not just catching big fish. They're catching young fish also."

Herzog, less sanguine, concludes: "We caught thirty-five fish per net in 1997, and in 2001, only one to two shovelnose fish per net."

Fishermen call the studies bogus.

"From what I've seen on this section of river where I've fished since the few of us got started, the condition of the fish has improved significantly," says sturgeon fisherman Charlie Callaway. "There was a bunch of skinny fish; they were in poor shape. They're actually looking better."

"The Missouri Department of Conservation, whether it's caviar, catfish or buffalo, is against the little businessman," maintains Terry McNew, another Missouri angler.

The agency came close but stopped short of closing shovelnose fishing on the Missouri River last year. Instead, it instituted a $500 shovelnose permit, closed a 25-mile stretch of water and swiftly turned its attention to the Mississippi River, where Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee share jurisdiction. Representatives of those states will meet March 22, when Missouri conservation officials will seek to convince them to impose a similar permit fee.

"Anytime any state, regardless of which state it is, proposes regulations, the first thing the fishermen do is sit down and try to figure out how they can skirt the regulations," says Bill Reeves, fisheries chief for the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency.

But Illinois officials are hesitant. "We have some concerns as to whether there's enough information out there to go ahead and do this," says Illinois Department of Natural Resources fisheries chief Scott Stuewe.

On a recent afternoon, executive chef John Griffiths glides into the alcove of An American Place, a swanky new St. Louis eatery. Kathy Rost, wearing a collared shirt emblazoned with "Show-Me-Caviar," remains seated while Cliff Rost pulls two containers of caviar from a cooler, too consumed with the task to remove his camouflage cap.

Kathy estimates the couple has invested $150,000 in Show-Me-Caviar, and the returns are decent: A good year yields income of $75,000 to $100,000. But the Rosts are craving local name recognition. This is their first sales pitch to a restaurant.

"So how long have you been raising?" Griffiths asks.

"This is river-caught," Rost replies.

"Excellent," Griffiths says. "Tell me how it's harvested."

"We catch fish commercially. Legal. One thing we do a little differently than a lot of people is we keep our fish alive, on ice, until they're harvested," Rost explains.

Griffiths twirls a spoonful of caviar inches from his eyeballs.

"We're FDA-approved. They took two-pound samples out to Washington to test it. Two pounds, mind you! As far as I know, we were one of the first in the state to do it."

Griffiths smacks his lips. "The hackleback is inkier than the paddlefish, not quite as creamy."

"It's not as fresh as the paddlefish," Kathy admits.

Rost grimaces. "The Russian clientele is on the hackleback; that's where it's going. The Russians even buy us the salt [to cure it]."

The trio discusses volume and prices, and Rost promises to call the next time he harvests paddlefish, saying he'll bring some less salty hackleback, too.

"We'll do something with it," says Griffiths. "I'm impressed."

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