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The white sturgeon is by no means a rare fish. Its numbers have dwindled since the days, some 80 to 90 years ago, when it swarmed up rivers of the far Northwest almost as thickly as buffalo roamed the plains, but it still can be found offshore as well as in most of the principal streams along the Pacific coast, from midway up the California coast north to Alaska. If it is scarce in some regions, it is fairly common, if perhaps never exactly plentiful, in others. During its spawning season, which extends through spring and early summer, sizable numbers of sturgeon, fairly bursting with roe and passion, ascend the Sacramento, Columbia and Fraser rivers. In streams where the big fish are landlocked by dams, particularly the Snake and Salmon rivers, they crowd together ardently in fairly large numbers in certain deep holes along the main current.
Even so, hooking into a white sturgeon is seldom easy. It calls for perseverance, patience and, above all, considerable savvy, not only about the sturgeon's habits but also about the usually turbulent and sometimes almost inaccessible waters in which it lives. But if a fisherman goes to the right place at the right time of year his chances of hooking one of the behemoths are every bit as good as his chances of catching a truly big chinook or steelhead, and probably better than his chances of catching any one of a whole variety of such highly prized saltwater fish as the marlin or swordfish.
The real reason so few sturgeon are hooked is simply that so few fishermen go after them. Until a dozen or so years ago it never even occurred to most fishermen to try to land the monsters with rod and reel. Why this is so is just another mystery. The most common theory is that ordinary fishermen disdained the sturgeon because they regarded it as a strictly commercial fish. There is some truth in this, since even in modern times the sturgeon has had a reputation as a fine food fish. Many gourmets, in fact, rate it as the finest fish of all, not only for its flesh, which is considered a delicacy whether smoked, pickled, or cooked in any conceivable way, but more especially for its roe, which can be processed into expensive caviar.
It is almost forgotten now, but back in the days before dams and pollution interfered with their migratory habits and commercial fishermen slaughtered them close to extinction, the white sturgeon and two smaller cousins, the lake and Atlantic sturgeons, were for years among the most important money fish found in U.S. waters. Only eight years after the Pilgrims landed, a factory on the Kennebec River in Maine was supplying the European market with smoked Atlantic sturgeon, and up until the 1880s so many of the big fish were being taken out of the Hudson River and processed at plants near Albany that housewives of the era called sturgeon Albany beef. By the turn of the century sturgeon fisheries were flourishing along the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards and all through the Great Lakes region, and in 1892 close to 5� million pounds of white sturgeon were slaughtered in the Columbia River alone.
Everything considered, the white sturgeon probably was the most profitable single fish ever taken from domestic waters, before or since. The lake sturgeon brought a slightly higher price, but the white sturgeon compensated for the difference with its immense size and, more important, with its enormous yield of roe. A single white sturgeon cow, eight feet long or better, often gave up 250 pounds of large, top-grade eggs, which by a relatively simple process (see page 74) could be converted into caviar worth about $750 wholesale and $2,000 or more retail.
Since caviar is practically synonymous with Russia nowadays—an error to begin with, since much of it is produced in Iran—even connoisseurs are mostly unaware that from 1869 to 1900 the U.S. was one of the world's greatest suppliers of the delicacy. In those days firms in such places as Vienna, London, Hamburg, Paris, Stockholm and Amsterdam sent out representatives each spring to buy choice American caviar, and all over Europe epicures argued the merits of such exotic varieties as North Atlantic, South Atlantic and Sacramento River as earnestly as today they argue over Beluga, Ocetrina and Sevruga.
Although it never was considered cheap, caviar was more widely eaten in the U.S. during that period. Most large grocery stores stocked fresh caviar as a matter of course, and any first-class saloon always had a bowlful on its free lunch counter. Sturgeon were being slaughtered so recklessly by the mid-1880s that conservationists and a few farsighted caviar merchants realized that unless the fish were protected by law they would soon be depleted. But no one paid much attention to these warnings, and when bills regulating sturgeon fishing were introduced in some state legislatures, they were killed by fishery operators who howled that their livelihood was threatened. By 1900 commercial fishing for sturgeon had become practically non existent in U.S. waters, and though some fisheries sent out expeditions to scout the coasts of Alaska, South America and Africa, no sizable supply of the fish was discovered.
The rich and flourishing sturgeon and caviar industry in this country came to a shuddering halt and, largely because of foreign caviar dealers, who supplied both the capital and merchandising experience, Russia's small and primitive sturgeon fisheries were expanded to take over the market. Russian caviar did not reach the American market in any appreciable quantities until 1902, and for many years both dealers and consumers considered it generally inferior to the domestic product. When Lake Erie fishermen were lucky enough to take an occasional cow sturgeon, its roe brought $5 a pound from New York dealers, who were paying only $3 a pound for Russian Beluga.
As so often is the case, after sturgeon had almost vanished, most state legislatures righteously began to padlock the empty cannery. Some states passed laws to protect young fish, others set limits to protect breeders; some outlawed nets but allowed set lines, and a few prohibited commercial fishing altogether. As belated as these efforts were, some experts believe that, if nothing else had changed, these laws eventually would have saved the sturgeon. It is a fact that in areas where they had been butchered almost to extinction they began to make a comeback. But, unfortunately, the sturgeon reached the bottom of its decline at a time when U.S. industry was beginning its 20th century climb. Over the next few years dams halted its migration up rivers where it spawned, and industrial plants spewed poisonous waste into lakes, bays and inlets where the sturgeon gathered to feed on lampreys and mollusks. The sturgeon was doomed as a major commercial fish. If it had not been tough and adaptable, it probably would have disappeared completely. After a decade or two the fish was almost forgotten. Then, because of Russia's intense promotion of caviar, it became associated in the public mind with that country.
Since the great white sturgeon ranges waters that were not harnessed by dams until comparatively recently and are relatively unpolluted even now, it fared considerably better than its cousins on the East Coast and in the Great Lakes. Even so, it was slaughtered almost to the vanishing point in the California area, not once but twice, and by 1899 the catch in the Columbia River was down to 73,000 pounds and commercial fishermen lost interest.