I was out on Lake St. Clair smallmouth fishing with my friend Ryan. All of a sudden, a huge fish went airborne a bit out of casting distance, but clear enough to see. It was somewhere between five and six feet in length…..maybe longer. One thing I knew for sure, it wasn’t a musky. “What was that?!?” I exclaimed to Ryan. “A sturgeon” Ryan said matter of factly, “I’ve seen a few over the years, never caught one.” I had seen a small sturgeon as a boy. It had migrated up the Neshaminy Creek from the Delaware River, but seeing that monster leap was like encountering a dinosaur- something you’r not going to see every day.
There are 27 species of fish belonging to the Sturgeon family and some are extinct. The earliest evidence of this ancient species places it in the Triassic period, some 245 to 208 million years ago. They are also related to the paddlefish. Sturgeons are native to temperate and sub-Arctic rivers, lakes and coastlines of Eurasia and North America, and are known to be long-lived and late-maturing. They have some similar characteristics, such as the heterocercal caudal fin, an elongated, body, and smooth, scaleless skin like a shark, but they are armored with five lateral rows of bony plates called scutes. Several species grow quite large, ranging up to 7–12 ft in length. They are bottom-feeders, migrate upstream to spawn, but spend most of their lives feeding in river deltas and estuaries. Some species inhabit freshwater exclusively, while others
primarily inhabit marine environments near coastal areas.
Sturgeons retain several primitive characters. Their skeletons are almost entirely cartilaginous. They also lack a central vertebrae. They have four barbels—sensory organs that precede their wide, toothless mouths. They navigate river habitats just off the bottom with their barbels dragging along gravel. They are among the longest-lived of the fishes with an average lifespan of 50 to 60 years, with some living over 100 years. They attain sexual maturity at 20 years or more. The combination of slow growth and reproductive rates and the extremely high value placed on
mature, egg-bearing females make sturgeon particularly vulnerable to overfishing. Sturgeons do not spawn every year because they require specific conditions such as the proper light exposure in spring, clear water, a shallow rock or gravel substrate where the eggs can adhere, and proper water temperature and flow for oxygenation of the eggs.
In North America, they range along the Atlantic Coast from the Gulf of Mexico to Newfoundland, including the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence, Missouri, and Mississippi Rivers, as well as along the West Coast in major rivers from California to Idaho. They have a similar wide range through Eurasia, but no species is known to naturally occur south of the equator. Most species are at least partially anadromous, spawning in fresh water and feeding in nutrient-rich, brackish, estuary waters, but there are a few species that live a purely freshwater existence, such as the Lake Sturgeon
Sturgeons are primarily bottom feeders with a diet of shells, crustaceans, and small fish. They have no teeth, but are unable to seize prey. They are believed to use a combination of sensors, including olfactory, tactile, and chemo-sensory cues detected by the four barbels to feed. Many sturgeons leap completely out of the water, usually making a loud splash which can be heard up to a half-mile away. Why they do this is not known, but suggested reasons range from feeding or communication to courtship.
Sturgeon fishing is becoming more popular in certain areas such as the Delaware River/Bay, Northern California & Northwest coastal estuaries and rivers, the Great Lakes and even the Rainy River along the Minnesota/Canadian border where fish are plentiful. There are some guides that specialize in taking clients out for sturgeon. You really need heavy duty gear, so if you
don’t have this type of equipment, a guide could be your best bet, and they will know the best sturgeon hot spots. If you are going to use your own boat and tackle, consider your musky or striper rods and reels as possibly being good freshwater gear. iBass360 angler Chris Huff fought a monster for 20 minutes as it stripped line easily against the drag. Sturgeon will make all kinds of crazy moves and slack line often means it is running toward the boat. Chris reeled as fast as he could to catch up with the fish, and no sooner had he caught up to the fish, she took off again. These fish have lived a long time and know their environs. They also know how to use the tides and current to their advantage. In Chris’ case, he had to horse the fish in against the ripping tide. So, fishing these prehistoric beast will require your strongest tackle… and then some. Finally, the heavier the gear, the less the stress on the fish, which is good for the release.
Following your state’s regulations, run as many lines are you are allowed. You are going to use
sinkers in the 12-18 oz range as the weight will vary based on how fast the tide is moving. If you are running multiple rods, put the heavier rods on the outside. Chris uses fresh salmon roe for bait, but you can also use nightcrawlers, frozen emerald shiners ( or other chunks from local forage) or a combo of these baits. A common sturgeon rig is an 18″ snell with a 5/0 circle hook. Fish this much like you would fishing for carp or catfish. Don’t expect a sturgeon to hammer the bait. The bite is subtle with taps, or you may just see your line start to swim away. If you use a circle hook, there will be no need for a hard hook set. Rather, tighten the line by reeling and moving your rod away from the fish. The circle hook is designed to hook the fish in the lips vs deep where it can cause damage. Fishing the right gear means sturgeon are almost always hooked in the mouth.
As with any really big fish, your first sturgeon will be somewhat intimidating. If you are fishing sturgeon for the first time, do take a look at the regs. Know the season and any specific regs to the species or body of water, and since we are talking about a big fish, make sure you are familiar with how to measure the length and girth of the fish. It is also important to know what pictures are needed for proof of your potential record release. If you can, have a witness verify the catch details and learn how to submit the proper form. Most of all, have fun chasing this prehistory fish, and remember to HOLD ON!