By Daniel Kiazyk
OK I had caught one before, I had even seen a sample fish that had been allowed to stay in a tank in a local tackle shop (by conservation Manitoba) for educational purposes. Of course I had also read of their auspicious place in Manitoba’s early history. I’ll often drift off in revery about those flat bottom river boats of the 19th century that would run up the Assiniboine River and would use these fish as fuel to fire their boilers. The fish being referred to here is the lake sturgeon, a fish that has seen better days, but of late has seen increased attention from Manitoba Conservation and other conservation groups in the area. A fish that once was found in abundance in many Manitoban rivers/lakes and was extracted to near extinction for various reasons is now receiving renewed attention. Having said the latter does not preclude the possibility to angle for them today. On the contrary there are a few opportunities left to angle this creature of the ages.
My sturgeon adventure that particular day started as a result of a new acquaintance established through my fishing guide business. The real reason for our trip was to get to know one another as well as give me an opportunity to decide whether I was going to be taking on a new guide for the business. At the outset I was told not to expect an extraordinary bite but if I got bit I could expect a good one. OK with me, I wasn’t really expecting too much.
The sturgeon was once native to many rivers and lakes of Manitoba. An enormous harvest at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th (and the very nature of the sturgeon) brought it to near extinction in Manitoba. The sturgeon harvest at the turn of the past century was made with little or no regard for this ancient fish’s biology. The only reason it came to a halt and these fish were not completely obliterated was that there were reduced numbers and demand dwindled.
The sturgeon’s biology is different from most other sport species. Connected to this latter piece of knowledge is the fact that it is exactly because of this biology that the fish is so vulnerable to any kind of fishing. Most fish, for example, do not do well when commercially fished but the sturgeon is one species that is especially hard done by commercial fishing. Sturgeon by their nature depend on longevity for species success. As opposed to other fish, sturgeon do not react to increased harvest with more prolific spawn cycles. On the contrary sturgeon depend on a number of years over which a female will spawn. Eventually species survival success is achieved over decades and a number of successful spawns by a few fish. This ancient fish, so we now know, has a different strategy for survival and so it follows that here in Manitoba our total catch and release policy has been established to respect this species specific survival needs.
With regards to their behaviours, the sturgeon has a propensity to come up to obstructions in rivers in the spring. This habit” makes them susceptible to the hook at this time more than at any other time of the year. I’ve also heard of reports of anglers in the fall running into the odd sturgeon. My father-in-law who has fished Pine Falls for more than forty years can recount a number of occasions when he had hooked something sooo big that had he not broken off his line whatever he had had on would have spooled him. One of my brothers, who is a moose hunting fanatic, would often report of a number of sturgeon he had caught on the Bloodvein river in the fall at this or that set of rapids while fishing for walleye.
So it would be that day that we’d make our way to a river obstruction --- a hydro dam on the Winnipeg river. It would seem that by their nature they are attracted to such obstructions. However another part of their interest in this particular area according to my guide was that fish will move up to hydro dams to feed on any small fish that go through Dam’s turbines. These smaller fish are ground up and as a result are an easy meal. I can also imagine that there would be a scent trail that would draw many other hungry fish to the area.
Before going any further into this story it’s worth mentioning a little more about this fascinating fish. What many people don’t know about this fish is that the sturgeon is a throwback to another time, the cretaceous period that is. That’s about the time when dinosaurs still walked the earth. The fish itself is also unusual in that the caudal fin resembles a shark tail. The fish has no scales and is covered in a leather skin (which at one time was used for making purses). The gills are not set up so they extend out from the body but are built into the frame of this fish. The fish itself does not have an extensive skeletal system but is cartilaginous –something that really becomes obvious when the fish turns to fight like nothing else you’ve ever caught. Finally the mouth/snout area of the fish has the role of allowing this deep dwelling fish (at certain times of the year) to feel its ay around and to suck up what it likes to eat. The mouth has no teeth and again is made of cartilage and can extend 1-2 inches out from the fish. This last element has an impact when you try to hook up with one of these leviathans. Sturgeon pick up the bait so softly that often the only indication you’ve got a bite is that your line will go limp..
So we arrive at our anchor point and rigged up for sturgeon. The rig itself is fairly simple with about 2-3 oz of weight, a short leader and a LM120 Eagle Claw hook. The bite as I’ve already mentioned is incredibly light and at first the fish don’t really seem to fight all that well. But that’s where I’ll state sturgeon really do show themselves after their first look at the boat. My first sturgeon that day would come to the boat rather nonchalantly but when it saw the boat it fought like a “catfish on “steroids”. These fish take long hard runs and they hold hard to the bottom. I can only imagine what a 100 lber would do!
Of course there are specific tricks for boat control and baiting your hook for this species but that will be the stuff of another article sometime in the future. Hey I’m still learning myself!
Sturgeon fishing is a world of its own. Actually the getting to them and fishing for them is no great mystery. The real mystery of the cretaceous critters is the fact you hold history and a survivor despite the odds having been stacked against it. I’m not sure the fishery can take a lot of pressure but really there aren’t that many interested in sturgeon….. all the better for us few