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The White Sturgeon and its Relatives (an excerpt) - by Bud Conner

After you have caught a couple, you will quickly fall in love with the mysterious sturgeon. Frank Amato plants a kiss.

 

The sturgeon family includes the largest fresh water fish known. They are a large ganoid fish, with armor-like scales consist­ing of bony plates covered with dentine and enamel, living in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans as well as the Caspian Sea. They migrate into fresh water in early spring through late summer to feed and spawn.

Four sensory barbels are located on the bottom of their snout to aid in locating and identifying food which is rutted out of mud and sand bottoms with their snout. Their mouth is formed so as to be extended, or pro­truded.

A large female white sturgeon will release eggs sometimes numbering in the millions. Females begin spawning at 15 years of age and need powerful, fast-flowing water (8 to 12 miles per hour) over a rubble (bouldery) bottom. Depending on various factors, females do not necessarily spawn each year. They broadcast several hundred thousand to several million eggs which hatch about a week after fertilization. Two months later the fry will have reached a length of five and a half inches. After about a year, they go to the estuary and sometimes roam up and down the coast fre­quenting bays and estuaries.

 

A Few Different Sturgeon Species

Throughout the world there are about 30 different species of sturgeon. The Columbia contains two species, the white and the much smaller and rarer green which stays in or near saltwater.

Acipenser oxyrynchus, the common stur­geon of the Atlantic coast, ranges from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Carolinas, and occasionally is found in the Gulf of Mexico. It is also present in European waters.

Acipenser sturio, another sturgeon of the Atlantic Ocean, was once common in the Hudson River, but over-fishing and water pollution have nearly destroyed the fishery. Their red flesh was once so com­mon on the market, it was often referred to as "Albany beef". It is also found in Europe.

Huso Huso (also called the beluga) is the famous sturgeon of the Volga River in Russia, which is the major source of European caviar. (Columbia River white sturgeon was equal in quality when it was available from large fish in the past.) Large specimens weighing over a ton have been slaughtered for their eggs, nearly destroy­ing that fishery. The record Huso Huso was 28 feet long and weighed 2,800 pounds.

 

Catch a great white sturgeon in Hells Canyon, North America’s deepest river gorge! March is the kickoff to some killer sturgeon and bass fishing. Come spend a day or two in the Lewis and Clark Valley and explore the region.

Visit our website to find your fishing guide

 

Scaphirhynchus, the shovel nosed sturgeon, is a much smaller species, seldom exceeding five feet in length, and is found in the Mississippi River system.

Acipenser fulvescens is found in the Mississippi and in the Great Lakes. The hackleback or switchtail also can be found in these inland bodies of water.

Acipenser brevirostris is the short nosed sturgeon and ranges from Cape Cod to Florida. It is very small (up to two feet long) and not much is known about it.

Acipenser transmontanus, the white sturgeon of the Pacific Ocean, is the largest of the species in the Western world, and is hon­ored with titles such as, "Sacramento", "Pacific White", "Oregon" and "Columbia River". This famous and prolific sturgeon ranges from the Sacramento River north to Alaska and reaches lengths of over 15 feet.

Acipenser medirostris, the green sturgeon of the Pacific Ocean, is easily distinguished from the Pacific white by its olive green appearance and its longer snout and inhabits the same range as the Pacific white although it stays in brackish water where it spawns. It is not prolific and is seldom caught. Maximum size is about four to six feet.

It is truly amazing that a fish hatched from an egg the size of a mus­tard seed can grow to 15 feet or better in length, weigh a ton or more and live to the ripe old age of 200-plus years. Acipenser transmon­tanus, the white sturgeon of the Pacific Ocean, and Acipenser Huso, the famous sturgeon of Russia's Volga River, are the two largest stur­geons of the species that fit that description.

A word of caution to the sturgeon angler. For protection sturgeon have five rows of bony scutes. These spurs are sometimes razor sharp and can leave the unsuspecting angler with a handful of tiny, painful cuts. A sturgeon's barbs and spurs are not poisonous, but will leave cuts susceptible to infection from river water. Consider using gloves and a net or tailer when handling sturgeon. The smaller the sturgeon, the sharper the spurs. Grasp smaller sturgeon around the head, covering the eyes to calm it, while removing the hook.

 

Marty Sherman displays a Tillamook Bay sturgeon before release.

 

Although sturgeon enter coastal rivers to spawn in early spring and return to sea in late summer, a large population remain as residents in some of the larger rivers, providing a year-round fishery. Russia's Caspian Sea is the world's largest inland body of water. It is nearly the size of the state of Montana, and is 770 miles long and 300 miles wide at its northern end and reaches 3,072 feet in depth in its southern part.

The sea is 85 feet below the level of the greater oceans and has an annual rainfall of 8 to 10 inches. It is almost totally dependent on con­tributing river systems. None of the water of this system ever reaches the greater oceans; it is totally self contained.

Food fishes include Caspian roach, shad, blackback, and Volga and Dolgin herring (sounds like a pretty good diet for sturgeon).

At one time this river and sea system contained five different species of sturgeon, one of which is now extinct. Over-fishing of Acipenser Huso for its world famous caviar and pollution threaten it with extinction.

In addition to over-fishing, water pollution and over-fishing of bait fish can easily upset the food chain and do great harm to the sturgeon­ population. Although sturgeon have a reputation for being ancient sur­vivors, upsetting the delicate balance of nature can force them into extinction.

Columbia River white sturgeon, often referred to as a living fossil, are a carry over from prehistory and have rapidly become one of the most popular sport fish in the Pacific Northwest.

My first encounter with "the mighty toothless one" took place back in the fall of 1953 in a small northeastern Oregon town by the name of Halfway which sits in a scenic valley about 60 miles northeast of Baker City, near the deepest canyon in North America-Hells Canyon.

Great uncle Bill Brokaw, a veteran of World War I, lived down Hells Canyon several miles downriver from Robinette, Oregon in a tumble-down shack a stone's throw from the Snake River. Bill would show up in Halfway nearly every Friday, and that evening when he negotiated the hairpin curves of Pine Valley Grade in his coughing, wheezing old Model A Ford, I would be with him, looking forward to a weekend of doing chores (chopping wood, milk­ing the goat, checking the trot lines and maybe helping strain the latest batch of elderberry wine. I later came to the con­clusion that in reality that old veteran only wanted some company.

 

Great Uncle William B. Brokaw who introduced me to the wonderful world of sturgeon fishing in the fall of 1953. 

 

One November day to my delight Bill showed up on Thursday. This time he was driving an old Buick chopped down to a pickup truck and in the bed lay the most awesome creature I had ever seen. Bill explained that it was a sturgeon, and it didn't hurt a thing that the tail of that big fish had been dragging the highway all the way from his house to Halfway! I figured that helping Bill butcher it was far more important than going to high school, so the next morning we hauled it out in the valley and next to Pine Creek together we butchered it. That evening I had my first taste of sturgeon, a steak as large as a dinner plate.

 

Growth Rate

The growth rate of white sturgeon varies considerably depending on water temperature. In warmer water they can grow at the rate of one foot per year for the first three years. In the cooler waters of the Columbia they grow at a much slower rate. It takes a Columbia River white sturgeon nine years to reach the length of three feet, 13 years to reach four feet, 21 years to reach five and one half feet and 24 years to reach six feet.

Sturgeon are normally opportunistic bottom feeders. But they are not limited to bottom feeding. They eat mainly ghost and mud shrimp, crawfish, sculpins, herring, smelt, shad, salmon, lampreys and clams. No wonder I enjoy eating the sweet and firm white meat of Pacific stur­geon.

 

This juvenile sturgeon washed up on a boot dock during a stormy August night in the Columbia River Gorge. Had it survived and gone on to become one of those 15 foot ocean-going spawning giants, it would still have the same number of bony plates and spurs as in its infant stage. The forge spur-tipped plates (scutes) running from head to dorsal fin number from nine to 13. The other four rows of plates and spurs remain the some in number too, they only grow larger, smoother and spread out as the sturgeon grows older and larger.

 

Sturgeon also target and pursue live prey. On several occasions I have had sturgeon chase my bait up to my boat as I reeled it in. Once I caught a large sturgeon when my bait was a good 20 feet off the bot­tom and moving.

I like to cast downstream from my boat, allow my lead to hit bot­tom, then "walk" it back an additional 100 feet or so. I have boated a lot of good-sized fish using this method. Sturgeon will often take the bait as it is drifting along the bottom.

It is my firm belief that the methods and techniques explained in this book can be applied to sturgeon fishing in any water sturgeon populate, whether angling for Pacific whites or any of the four species of sturgeon that inhabit Russia's Volga River. About the only variation would be the bait used which should be native to the water being fished. For exam­ple, Columbia River smelt works quite well in that rivers system, where­as imported smelt from the Great Lakes seems to be pretty much ignored. Lamprey should work equally as well in Atlantic Coast waters as it does in Pacific Coast waters because lamprey are native to both bodies of water. The same can be said for shad.

 

An excerpt from the book Great White Sturgeon Angling

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