Fishing for dinosaurs

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THEY DATE back 175 million years but they are still very much alive and running. And they rate as one of the world’s favourite fish for anglers. STEVE COOPER seeks out the sturgeon:

Jeff Sayewich took what was left of a pair of pantyhose and, using scissors, proceeded to snip a 75mm square. “Some guys prefer the crotch, but I’m not a crotch man myself, ” Jeff said. “I prefer the leg.”

When you work heavy tackle, the fight is often more about brute strength and stamina than finesse.

This was my introduction to sturgeon fishing on the Fraser River in British Columbia, Canada. Jeff was preparing bait for white sturgeon, a creature with prehistoric links dating back 175 million years, and one of the largest freshwater fishes in the world. When the square was cut, Jeff placed about a tablespoon of orange chum salmon eggs on the material, folded it over the eggs and twisted the top, wrapping hosiery string around the twist to keep the package together. When finished he inserted an 8/0 hook to complete a sturgeon bait.

The acrobatics and hard running attributes of sturgeon brings anglers from all over the world to British Columbia.

My fishing companion was Bob Hart, a passionate angler who makes what passes for a living by writing about wine, food and barbecues. Half an hour after casting out the baits, the left-hand rod bounced — slightly. Bob was closest to the rod and Jeff told him to pick it up and strike. Neither of us was ready for what came next as about two metres and 77kg of sturgeon came soaring out of the water, before diving for the riverbed, running fast and long. The outfit was a 15kg game reel spooled with 70kg breaking strain braid, with a drag setting that meant (literally) hanging on for dear life. Red-faced and straining as he was, Bob manfully declined my sneaky invitation to relieve him.

Bob Hart shows off his first sturgeon of the trip.

After 15 minutes of seriously difficult rod work the sturgeon broke the surface again, and this time the fight had gone out of the fish. Jeff pulled the anchor, fired up the turbine on his jet boat and motored slowly towards shore while Bob held the rod and the fish followed.

Once on the riverbank, Jeff brought out a measuring tape and a scanner. This fish had been tagged already so the next stage was to measure it for the records being kept by the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society. Bob’s fish was 2.03m long, had a girth of 79cm and according to a weight for age and length chart, it was probably 60-63 years old – slightly younger than Bob.

At first sight, a sturgeon looks similar to a shark but the skin is smooth and it has bony plates instead of teeth and four barbels for sensing food. The back is grey and the belly white. If you cut a cross section of the body it would be almost bell shaped. Along the back and sides are bony scutes that serve as body armour so the only way to pick one up is with gloves. Perhaps the most striking physical feature is a strange mosaic pattern across the head. On small fish, held to the light, this pattern stands out.

The only thing I knew about sturgeon until March 2011 was that some species produce eggs called caviar. Then I fished in Norwich in the UK with fishing identity John Wilson. In between television shows and writing for the Angling Times, John leads groups of anglers to some of the most exotic fishing holes in the world.

Sturgeon bait consists of fish eggs wrapped inside panty hose.

When I asked John about his favourite fish he put sturgeon near the top of the list: “I’ve been going to the Fraser River in Canada chasing sturgeon for 10 years and I never get tired of them,” John said. “I know of sturgeon up to 11 feet (3.35m) long and 300 pounds (136kg) that have been caught, and every year we catch some that are about 250 pounds (113kg).”

Tony Nootebos, who runs the company we fished with, BC Sportfishing, is president of the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society. He said sturgeon fishing was a $20 million a year industry and that Fraser River sturgeon is the only remaining wild population of this species. For more than 10 years, the society has collected data from thousands of sturgeons caught in the Fraser and Harrison Rivers. In its 2009 Lower Fraser White Sturgeon Stock Assessment report, the population estimate for the lower Fraser River was 43,600 sturgeons from 40cm to 280cm in length.

Bob Hart gets a smack in the mouth from a freshly caught sturgeon.

White sturgeon is a prehistoric species that can grow to more than four metres long and 1,000 pounds, making them the largest fish in North America. A long-lived species that can live for about 150 years, female sturgeon become sexually mature between 26 and 36 years of age and only spawn approximately every 10 years.

Tony said sturgeons are fewer in years following poor salmon runs: “Salmon follow the food source; more food means more salmon and sturgeon numbers also increase.”

We were into the final 30 minutes of the six-day trip. Our guide was “Merr” Sprangers, an odd name but he works for his cousin Tony, and they have the same Christian name.

Bob had just caught his sixth sturgeon of the trip and now I was on the rods. Merr had dropped anchor in the Harrison River, a kilometre or so upstream from an old Indian graveyard. After Bob caught his sturgeon Merr wasn’t happy so he pulled the anchor and moved to another hole nearby.

A big sturgeon brings a bunch of smiles to these anglers faces.

My rod bucked, Merr said to strike and I was locked into our 12th sturgeon of the trip, a fish that took about 20 minutes from hook up to photographing. This sturgeon was 2.07m long and probably weighed a little less than Bob’s biggest fish as it was slighter in the girth.

Bob caught his biggest sturgeon on the first day; I caught mine on the last day – a fitting bookend.

Steve Cooper with a two-metre plus sturgeon.
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Author: Steve Cooper

STEVE COOPER won two Walkley Awards for investigative journalism but his great love is fishing and he is renowned as one of Australia’s foremost writers and broadcasters on the subject.

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