SAVERTON, Mo. — When I heard the words boat ride and caviar for this story, I thought to myself, “Well, that sounds just delightful.”
Little did I know I was about to experience Mike Roe’s sloppy seconds. I still can’t believe I curled my hair for that boat ride. Clearly, I didn’t understand the assignment.
(PUBLISHER’S NOTE: Apparently, Brittany watched too many Kardashians episodes and was anticipating sunning herself aboard a luxury yacht while sipping champagne and eating caviar. We’re harvesting eggs from fish on the Mississippi. What part of that tells you “must curl hair”? JRG)
However, the experience was still delightful in its own form of luxury — that luxury being the inside scoop. In this case, we’re scooping out fish eggs.
Cliff and Cara Rost of Pleasant Hill, Ill., are the area’s experts in the commercial production of caviar. Their company, Show-Me Caviar, sells wholesale to places like Bob’s Seafood in St. Louis and Fortune Fish in Kansas City, as well as all the way to Florida, New York and even Japan. They recently moved their processing plant from Morrison, Mo., to Pleasant Hill to save money.
You read that right.
Illinois saw a record decline in population in 2021, so it seems shocking to think anyone would choose to move to Illinois and expect to save money.
While Illinois property taxes are high, Cliff said Missouri’s tax license on vehicles is what killed them. “Four boats and three trucks … Missouri makes it nearly impossible to fish,” he said, referring to license costs as well as commercial regulations. Illinois has its share of these, just not as many.
Cliff also said the new location makes fishing much more accessible, with docks in three locations near the locks and dams at Winfield, Clarksville and Saverton.
We started the boat ride a little after 9 a.m. on a beautiful but brisk morning, departing from the Saverton Lock and Dam. I scrambled to find a hair tie for my freshly curled hair and a warmer shirt. I strapped on a life jacket for warmth and well, insurance. I still wasn’t too sure that I wouldn’t fall in.
As I boarded the fishing boat, Cliff said, “You didn’t know what you were getting yourself into this morning, did you, young lady?”
We both laughed. I could tell Cliff was a smart man. He read right through me.
As the Rosts were loading up, a dog came down the dock and jumped in the water for a swim. Cliff said red foxes tend to do that when they had fleas. They would hold a stick in their mouth and swim up to their faces and the fleas would all jump on the stick.
About a minute later, the dog came back with a stick in his mouth.
Smart man. And a smart dog.
Cliff’s beautiful wife, Cara, was dressed the way I would have dressed myself had I gotten the message. My editor/publisher, Bob Gough, is the messenger. I don’t think he really knew what to expect either, so I won’t shoot him.
(PUBLISHER’S NOTE: I was properly dressed as we were in Ralls County, Mo., where I was born and raised, and have spent hundreds of hours on lakes and rivers. I knew better than to curl my hair. JRG.)
We were off to collect the nets they set out the night before, hoping they were full of female hackleback sturgeon. The eggs are harvested and then processed into the delicacy of caviar.
While fish eggs might not be a delectable invite for some, it really is an incomparable treat for those who can get past the mental block.
Cara said, “… Like a lot of things you try, you just have to get past the visual thoughts of it.”
Caviar really shouldn’t be an acquired taste. It is mostly smooth and salty, not pungent or strong. It seems common to accept the inability to try new things by just saying, “Ew, gross.” If you are taught young enough to try new things, the gross never gets there.
The Rosts’ 5-year-old granddaughter, Carolyn, eats the fish eggs right out of the jar using a plastic spoon. Cara said metal spoons taint the flavor.
We dropped anchor, and Cliff kicked on a large, loud hydraulic pump.
The net is hoisted around a wheel that is powered by the pump.
“The pump is a real game changer,” Cliff confessed. “Crews without a pump will reel in 12 nets, while Cara can pull 15 in a day on her own with the pump.”
It’s a force multiplier, but it should not discredit the physical labor required to reel it all in. They provided me with the opportunity to reel in a net myself. The gloves were a little big to grip, but I still managed to pull in all 100 yards of the net. It was felt in my back, shoulder and triceps muscles. Honestly, I don’t think I could handle 15 of those. Cara’s strength and stamina really is impressive.
When pulling the net in, I had to dodge logs, river ick (I think that’s a thing) and, of course, the giant (to me) slimy looking unattractive fish resembling a cross between Bob Hope and Mad Magazine’s Spy vs. Spy.
I quickly learned the difference between the sexes of the sturgeon. A definite periwinkle line runs along the female’s belly. According to Illinois regulations, a catch must be between the length of 24 inches but not more than 32 inches. The length reflects age. By regulating the length of a catch, the plan is to have a female spawn twice.
A good size female sturgeon weighs around four and half pounds. The weight of the fish, along with the trees, appliances and ick, is hard on the equipment. The nets are about $500 each and usually are replaced each season. The cost of nets is one of the problems with the industry, Cliff said.
After reeling in the net, the couple goes through the catch and releases any fish that do not meet the requirements and are not female sturgeon with present eggs. The state of Illinois requires using a No. 10 needle to check for eggs. (Just another example of the many regulations behind commercial fishing.)
The fish are kept in a live tank, but because the media crew is taking up boat space on this day, they were stored in a cooler which served double duty as my boat ride seat. After reeling in two nets, a total of four fish were in the cooler.
It’s a lot of work behind collecting these eggs. The couple works all day long fishing, seven days a week, depending on the weather. They spend their evenings harvesting the eggs and processing the caviar. There is a time constraint on collecting their product, as the fishing season runs from October 1 to May 31.
With fishing season coming to an end, I asked Cliff what they do during their offseason.
“Whatever the hell we want,” he said with a grin.
Non-stop hard work pays off when there’s a “vacation” to look forward to. Cara said this summer they are moving her daughter from Kansas City to Pennsylvania, and they plan on scoping out a potential food show to bring their product. They seem to be always working, even while having fun.
The Rosts are very family-orientated, salt of the earth people — a fact that is reflected in their product. The product may be fishy to some, but the opportunity of trying new things is one of the greatest gifts life has to offer. Their granddaughter delightfully claims that “it tastes like butter” as she licks her plastic spoon.
I asked Cliff why he didn’t take people out on tours to share this experience as a side hustle. He said boat tours are regulated and are illegal to give for everyone except the media.
Then Cliff told me I was their second media tour this month. I asked who was the first. He said Mike Roe.
Yes, THAT Mike Roe. I interviewed the Rosts about a week after he did.
Now you may be thinking, “Brittany, you are spelling his name incorrectly.” While you’re not wrong, I know what I am doing, 60 percent of the time.
The Rosts signed a non-disclosure agreement to not give any details about the upcoming show (called something like “filthy occupations”). Muddy River News is co-owned by a reputable lawyer, so I’m just covering my bases. Also, I find anything punny to be funny.
Roe is a term used for fish eggs. According to the Caviar Star, roe and caviar are different, though commonly used interchangeably. While both caviar and roe are fish eggs, the difference resides in what type of fish the roe is harvested from. The traditional definition reserves the word “caviar” for roe that comes solely from sturgeon. The combination of unfertilized sturgeon eggs and salt creates the delicacy known as caviar.
Roe harvested from sturgeon is still considered roe until it is salt cured, at which point it becomes caviar. Hence, we will refer to this famous interviewer as Mike Roe.
Cliff has been in the caviar business for 20 years. He started when a man named Ron Hall, known to many as Wolfman, from Center, Mo., told him he was trapping sturgeon for their eggs. The rest is history and eventually evolved into what is known today as Show-Me Caviar.
The future for the business seems as bright as the blue sky above us during my caviar boat ride. The Rosts look forward to marketing their product on their new website, where the caviar will be available to order in sizes up to a kilo down to little one-ounce jars — perfect for a wedding shower or party favor. They retail around $40 an ounce – a true Midwest delicacy.
They also look forward to seeing their story on “Dirty Jobs” on the Discovery Channel airing sometime this fall.
Until then, I leave you with this joke: What kind of boat is used to catch sturgeon? A roe boat.
When not reeling in a big catch on the Mississippi River or fretting about her hair, you can find Brittany Boll hanging with her family or working behind the bar at her beloved Spring Street Bar. She is an award-winning mixologist who contributes to Muddy River News and the Muddy River Vibe.
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