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From the Field & Stream...
Heart Stopping Sturgeon

by Bruce Brown

Norman Adams's original white sturgeon illustration from Field & Stream.
THE DOCTORS who examined LeRoy Shore in the emergency room of a Portland, Oregon, hospital one afternoon last summer could tell they had encountered an unusual case. When Shore walked through the door with his worried wife, Sally, his heart was racing wildly at 240 beats per minute, and yet he had no discernible blood pressure.

The diagnosis was ventricular tachycardia (a potentially fatal failure of the heart's rhythm), for which immediate electrical shock to the chest was prescribed. Hit with 300 volts, Shore's fifty-two-year-old heart stopped, and then resumed at a more normal pace. His condition stabilized that night, and although he was unable to work for six months thereafter, he recovered.

What made Shore's tachycardia remarkable was not its symptoms or treatment, but rather its cause, for the incident was directly triggered by the excitement of fishing for sturgeon. At sunrise on July 30, Shore and his son John were already launched on the Columbia River, steering their boat along the Oregon shore to a favorite spot below Bonneville Dam. It was a beautiful day in the blue canyon country of the lower Columbia Gorge, and right away LeRoy got a strike that proved to be a legal, 4-foot-long, 30-pound white sturgeon.

LeRoy worked the fish with a practiced hand, but the sturgeon decided to run downriver a bit, and in the midst of the floating chase, it happened. "I could feel my heart speed up and then kind of quiet down again," Shore said with a chuckle, "so I decided to ignore it and bring the fish in." Although they did not catch anything else that morning, LeRoy and his son continued fishing until noon, when they turned toward home, pulled the boat, cleaned the fish, and finally drove back to Portland. This put LeRoy into the emergency room around 3 in the afternoon.

The doctors who saw Shore a short time later were impressed that he was conscious -- let alone on his feet-with a blood pressure of 60 over 0, but the thing that particularly struck the one I talked to was the fact that Shore waited until he had finished his fishing before going to the hospital. "Can you imagine it'?" the physician asked with a sidelong glance, suggesting suspicion that I might indeed be able imagine such behavior. "He knew exactly what was happening," she continued, "because he'd been through it before." Indeed, Shore's medical record reveals he suffered an even worse attack in 1978 while trying to land a white sturgeon nearly twice as long as his 4-footer last summer.

"I get excited," Shore said, simultaneously explaining why he fishes for sturgeon, and why the fish have caused him so much medical difficulty. Shore's devotion to sturgeon fishing may be exceptional, but he is not alone. Both the number of sports sturgeon fishermen and the intensity of their effort have increased dramatically over the last fifteen years, especially on the Columbia. Sportsmen took 5,500 sturgeon on the Columbia in 1969, according to the Washington Department of Fisheries. By 1982, which was not an especially good year, they took 23,200. This trend is partly due to the great decline in salmon fishing opportunities on the Columbia, but it also reflects a growing appreciation of the honest virtues of sturgeon, both for sport and food.

The white sturgeon, Acipenser transmontanus, sought by sportsmen on the Columbia and elsewhere along the West Coast, is the largest freshwater fish found in North America, attaining as much as 1,800 pounds and 20 feet in length. Although by nature retiring bottom feeders, sturgeon that have been hooked can fight for hours, leaving the water repeatedly and capable of taking 300 to 400 yards of line at a time in its runs. "I'll never forget that 7-foot sturgeon coming out of the water and walking across the surface on its tail like a sailfish," LeRoy Shore recalled of the fish that provoked his first heart attack. Fred Helmer, Jr., who fishes white sturgeon on the Fraser River 150 times a year once likened this moment to "a deep freeze coming out of the river. You can't believe it at first."

Caviar is of course the most famous and commercially valuable food product of the sturgeon. A favorite among Western European nobility since its introduction around 1400. it remains one of the world's elite foods, costing between $17 an ounce (or 11 cents an egg) wholesale for Russian beluga caviar, and $5.30 an ounce for the domestic product. The commercial set-line and gill-net sturgeon fishery on the Columbia today is the principal supplier of first-rate American caviar, and the smoked flesh of Columbia River white sturgeon can be found in the finest New York delicatessens. Curiously, westerners have been slow to appreciate sturgeon meat, although this too is changing. "Superb" is the way Gayle Kreitman, a state sturgeon biologist with an experienced palate, describes sturgeon as an eating fish. "Some people complain that it's too rich, but if you cut off the fat along the skin, everything else is white meat. There aren't even any bones. It tastes a bit like chicken, and smoked it can be really excellent -- even better than salmon, I think."

Within the last year, the single greatest spur to West Coast sturgeon fishing has undoubtedly been the 9-foot-long, 468-pound white sturgeon caught by 21-year-old Joe Pallotta in the Sacramento River July 12. Pallotta's fish, which took him 5 hours to land, was recognized by the International Game Fish Association as the new world record for sturgeon caught on a hook and line. But when an Associated Press photo of Pallotta and his fish ran in newspapers up the coast, more than a few eyebrows were raised. On the Columbia and Fraser Rivers in particular, experienced sturgeon fishermen judged the fish to be handsome (and certainly a catch to be proud of), but not a world record by any stretch of the imagination.

From the moment Pallotta landed his prize, the desire of many sturgeon fishermen outside California to come up with a bigger fish was almost palpable. July passed without incident, though, as did August and September. Then in October, at the very end of the season, the Portland Oregonian published a photograph of Portland contractor Greg Atkeson leaning on a 10-foot 2 1/2-inch long white sturgeon in the shallows of the Columbia. Ken Covert, Sr., of Covert's Landing, estimated the fish's weight at between 500 and 550 pounds, according to Tom McAllister of the Oregonian.

Since state regulations on the Columbia prohibit keeping sturgeon over 6 feet long. Atkeson's catch was released back into the river before its weight could be confirmed. This kept the Columbia fish off the record books, but didn't stop it from making the point that it is now possible to take hook-and-line worldrecord specimens of the continent's largest fish up and down the West Coast.

DOWN THERE, at a depth of 50 feet or more, they are cruising the holes. Propelled by their shark-like sickle tails, they pass caressingly back and forth, dragging their four barbels (or sensory whiskers) in the bottom. The smaller ones like slacker, sandy-bottomed areas, but the biggest fish are more likely to be found in the deep water between rapids, where-contrary to the popular expression-deep waters run strong.

Along their scaleless, mottled gray skin run five parallel rows of bony, diamond-shaped shields that are extremely sharp in young sturgeon. Otherwise. they are defenseless, lacking even one tooth. Except for their heads, they are also without bones. Instead of a spinal column they have a cartilaginous rod called a notochord, and instead of toothed jaws they have long, hose-like lips that they can protrude at will. Jim Galbreath of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has said that if a thriller movie was made about sturgeon, it should be called Lips!

Into these soft, probing maws disappear an incredible assortment of the kind of things that end up on the bottom of rivers. Sturgeon are opportunistic eaters in the fullest sense of the term. In the winter and early spring, they follow the smelt on their spawning migrations in the lower Columbia, and devour their spawned-out carcasses. These are followed in summer and fall by the spawning runs of Pacific lamprey and Pacific salmon and steelhead. Clams and shrimp are eaten in quantity, as are dead or dazed juvenile salmon below the big mainstem dams. Sturgeon feeding near grain elevators have been found to have stomachs full of wheat, and one sturgeon caught on the Snake River had swallowed a bushel of onions. A bull snake, a can of beans, and a housecat have also been retrieved from sturgeon stomachs at various times.

Adaptability is a characteristic for which the family Acipenseridae is noted. There are twenty-three species and subspecies of sturgeon in the world, and in North America four prominent species cover a range from Alabama to Manitoba to Alaska to California to Wisconsin. In an ecological sense, sturgeon are among the most successful creatures of this (and several other) epochs. Like the sharks they somewhat resemble, these fish have remained relatively unchanged for more than a million years and are one of the world's oldest freshwater species. Two North American members of the sturgeon family, the white and lake sturgeon, are also considered the longest-lived fish: eighty-two-year-old specimens of each have been recovered during this century.

Long life, however, is associated with late sexual maturation (in the Columbia, some females do not reproduce until twenty or more years of age), and this has made the sturgeon especially vulnerable to human fishing pressure. During the 19th century the Atlantic sturgeon, Acipenser oxyrhynchus, was devastated in the Hudson, Chesapeake, and Delaware drainages by overfishing and development atrocities. The same pattern was repeated during the early years of this century on the Great Lakes and the Sacramento and Columbia Rivers. Today the lake sturgeon, Acipenser fulvescens, has been reduced significantly on the Great Lakes and has been considered for the U.S. Department of the Interior's threatened species list. In the West, sturgeon stocks also crashed, but then gradually stabilized and perhaps even expanded in some areas. They have not come close to recapturing the 19th century peak that once made the U.S. a caviar exporter, but neither are they in as bad shape as the salmon.

Two main philosophies have governed sturgeon management on the Pacific Coast during this century, one of which might be termed the California approach, and the other the Washington/Oregon approach. In California, where development and fishing pressure reached damaging proportions first, the state responded by abolishing the commercial fishery and severely limiting the sports fishery through 1954. Since then, a resurgence in sturgeon has allowed liberalized sports fishing for sturgeon over 40 inches long. In Washington and Oregon, meanwhile, the commercial fishery was allowed to continue along with sports fishing, but both were made subject to minimum and maximum size limitations. Since 1950 sportsmen on the Columbia have been able to keep sturgeon between 3 and 6 feet in length, while commercial fishermen may keep fish between 4 and 6 feet long.

The reason for both minimum and maximum size restrictions on the Columbia is to ensure the continuation of the largest fish in the breeding population. This may have subtle genetic benefits, but it also maximizes the egg carrying capacity of the females, according to state biologists. A twenty-five-year-old white sturgeon might carry 665,000 eggs, while a fifty-year-old might carry 4,120,000 eggs. Older fish range upward from here: one giant female taken commercially on the Columbia contained 250 pounds of roe.

Other people, like long-time commercial sturgeon fisherman Percy Brigham, argue that the big fish actually produce fewer eggs over a given time since they spawn as infrequently as once every twenty years. Brigham, a Walla Walla Indian who has fished sturgeon on the Columbia for fifty years, also believes that the large egg masses laid by the big fish tend to rot more readily in the degraded conditions of the modern Columbia.

There is some validity to Brigham's contentions, but from a commercial sturgeon fisherman's standpoint, the loudest argument for killing the big ones (which are always females) is undoubtedly economic. At $5.30 an ounce wholesale, that 250 pounds of roe would be worth $21,250 as caviar today.

IT WAS after midnight when Tom Marlin dragged me out on his front lawn for a sturgeon-fishing demonstration. The fact that he had to go to work in a few hours had dissuaded him from taking off for the Columbia right then, but not from getting out one of his 14-foot fiberglass poles and rigging it up. For Marlin, who is well known in Oregon as a popular advocate of wild salmon stream restoration, sturgeon fishing is something of a private passion.

And so now he stood demonstrating casting techniques and sharing secrets by the light of a Portland street lamp. While his line snaked smoothly through the semi-darkness, bisecting the spaces between the parked cars, he talked about fishing for sturgeon on the Columbia below Bonneville, which he has been doing for twenty years. "You've got to fish on the spillway side of the river because the current is too fast on the generator side. The sturgeon are there, but you can't hold them. If they change the gates at the dam you might as well take a nap because it takes an hour or so for the fish to settle back down again. The idea is to get your line out, and down. I throw water on my reel because the heat generated by my thumb brake can get to be too much to bear. One of the beautiful things about sturgeon fishing for me is the way the water explodes in spray when you cast."

Some white sturgeon fishermen work the bank, some prefer to fish from boats because of the increased mobility, and still others strive to improve their chances through more arcane means. To get as close as possible to the deadline immediately downstream from Bonneville Dam (and hence as close as possible to the big fish that live right under the dam), fishermen have tried everything from kites to radio-controlled drones. Tom Marlin admitted that in his younger days he once employed a wet suit and surfboard to foil the deadline. "I got the idea from a rig I'd seen another guy make. It was a little model airplane motor mounted on pontoons with lines. He'd send it out and it would hold its place in the current until a fish took the bait, which would trip the gas motor and let him reel in the fish. Now you can't use any floating devices to get the line out."

Around the continent, sturgeon fishing techniques and equipment differ markedly. On the Powder River in Wyoming and the Bighorn River in Montana, fishermen catch the diminutive shovel-nosed sturgeon, Scaphirhynchus platorynchus, at the height of summer on catfish gear. On Wisconsin's Lake Winnebago in dead winter, they spear lake sturgeon when they rise to the light emanating from holes cut in the ice. On the West Coast, a typical sturgeon fisherman's rig looks almost like something you might use for marlin, and is definitely a two-handed operation for beginners and experts alike. Baits commonly used for white sturgeon include smelt, salmon, and lamprey. Although many fishermen on the Columbia favor a prepared pickled herring bait, it seems that ripe or rotten baits tend to draw the smaller fish, and they are therefore eschewed by those seeking the big prize.

Just exactly which Western river boasts the biggest sturgeon remains something of a question. Officially, the largest white sturgeon ever caught came from the Fraser River in British Columbia, and weighed 1,800 pounds. The largest white sturgeon taken on hook and line is officially Joe Pallotta's 468-pound Sacramento River fish. Both of these marks are challenged, however, by a host of imperfectly documented pretenders, such as the fish from Astoria on the Columbia that was exhibited at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and said to weigh 2,000 pounds. On the hook and line side, a bank fisherman below Bonneville caught a sturgeon during the mid-1970's that was estimated to weigh 600 pounds, according to Galbreath, and similar reports have been heard from the Fraser where a fish weighing an unofficial 840 pounds was taken by a sportsman in 1979.

My personal guess is that the river that holds the biggest sturgeon right now is the Columbia, specifically the Columbia below Bonneville Dam, although it holds neither the official commercial or sports record for sturgeon. Warmer (and therefore producing more annual growth) than the Fraser, and larger (and therefore offering more scope) than the Sacramento, the Columbia seems to have the most natural advantages. Despite its tremendous abuse at the hands of the hydropower interests, the Columbia today still produces more sturgeon than any river outside the Soviet Union. For the last thirty-four years, the Columbia alone has been managed to protect all fish over 6 feet long. Although imperfect, these sanctions have undoubtedly improved the survival of the big fish there. So while people on the Fraser and Sacramento killed their big fish, more of the Columbia's lunkers have just kept cruising.

If you could get gear strong enough to fish on the generator side below Bonneville, there is no telling what you might bring up. Perhaps something like the 960-pounder a Yakima Indian caught at The Dalles in 1951, or the 1,500-pounder reported caught on the Snake in 1928, or even something like the unmeasured monster that dragged a China gangboat under and drowned all hands in the early days of the century near Boardman, Oregon, at the place they now call Crow Butte. "The deepest, fastest water is right below the dam," said Kreitman. "That's where you'd expect to find the biggest fish. There's probably even a resident population of big fish living right under the dam."

For some fishermen, the fact that you can kill big fish you catch on the Sacramento will give that river a special allure. But for those who do not mind a hook-and-release fishery (in this case, the biggest freshwater hook-and-release fishery in America), the Columbia or Fraser (which recently established a maximum size restriction) may offer larger fish and a finer fight. Certainly there is no denying their ability to capture the imagination.

Asked recently if he planned to fish for sturgeon on the Columbia in 1984, a recovered LeRoy Shore answered cheerfully, "You bet."

"Heart Stopping Sturgeon" originally appeared in the June 1984 issue of Field & Stream.
© Copyright 1984 Bruce Brown

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