SI Vault
Joe David Brown
September 17, 1962
Once the plentiful source of the world's finest caviar, our native sturgeon today is being rediscovered by sport fishermen in all its incredible size, odd habits of feeding and remarkable fighting heart
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September 17, 1962

The Monster Fish Of American Rivers

Once the plentiful source of the world's finest caviar, our native sturgeon today is being rediscovered by sport fishermen in all its incredible size, odd habits of feeding and remarkable fighting heart

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If you know a fisherman who needs deflating—and who doesn't?—ask him to name the biggest freshwater fish found in North America. After he hems and haws and finally declares it to be anything from an alligator gar to a yellow catfish, quietly hand him the picture of the ugly, cantankerous, armor-plated brute being dragged across the middle of these pages. If he is a weekend fisherman there is only a fair chance that he will recognize it as a sturgeon. Even if he is blessed enough to have an intimate knowledge of one or another of the white-water rivers of the Pacific Northwest, odds are that he will not correctly identify the scientific rendering on page 68 as a white sturgeon, or, to be precise, as an Acipenser transmontanus (sturgeon beyond the mountain).

The fact that a vast majority of our 20 million freshwater fishermen are totally ignorant about a fish that attains a weight of more than 1,000 pounds and reaches a length of 12 feet seems incredible. And so it is. But the white sturgeon is an incredible fish—and a mysterious one. In fact, even ichthyologists don't know much about its growth, range and habits, as Yale's Edward C. Migdalski points out in his recently published and excellent Angler's Guide to the Fresh Water Sport Fishes of North America (Ronald Press). It is hard to tell where fact leaves off and fable begins when sturgeon stories are told.

Mostly because of its great size, but also because of a number of other peculiar characteristics, the white sturgeon just naturally seems to generate disbelief and start arguments. In Idaho, where the sturgeon is growing in popularity among sport fishermen, the fish and game department receives more requests for verifications of its size, weight and age to settle bets than it does for all other fishes combined. Even when a man hooks a sturgeon and with his own eyes sees it burst to the surface like an enraged leviathan, his strongest emotion usually is alarmed disbelief. As Ivan Donaldson, famed biologist at Bonneville Dam, said, "They grow very big, and so do the legends. That's only natural, I guess. To anyone seeing it for the first time, it must seem to be a prehistoric monster."

There is some excuse for this reaction, because in a sense the white sturgeon really is a prehistoric monster. It is the largest of six, and some ichthyologists claim seven, species of sturgeon found in U.S. waters, and all sturgeons are what Sunday-supplement writers like to call living fossils—that is, their form basically is unchanged from that of their ancestors in prehistoric times. Sturgeons date back more than 60 million years—which means that they were swimming the seas at a time when the continents of Europe and North America were still emerging.

Of all the sturgeon's primitive characteristics, perhaps the one that intrigues laymen most is that its skeleton is mostly cartilage instead of bone. The sturgeon does not even have a backbone, but running through its body instead is a whitish, flexible tube. This tough, tubular structure is called a notochord, and after it is cleaned and dried and chopped into lengths it can be stored and reputedly makes an excellent soup or chowder, though it is difficult to find anyone who has been curious or hungry enough to test the recipe.

In the beginning, sturgeons were heavily armored, and they still retain bony plates on their heads that extend down along their bodies in a number of longitudinal rows of hard bumps and buttons. Sturgeons also have a protrusible, suckerlike mouth and the peculiar but graceful type of high, slender tail, called heterocercal, found only in primitive fishes.

The sturgeon looks tough and is tough. It can live out of water for long periods, is practically immune to blows about the head and, when molested by man, seems to be seized more by slow rage than panic. There is, for example, the experience (or is it legend?) of the farmhand whose favorite fishing pond was always flooded by the Columbia River's annual freshet. One damp morning after the flood-waters had receded, he hurried to the pond to get first crack at any fish that had been left behind. He rowed to the middle of the pond in a skiff and was just baiting up when a monstrous fish swam by placidly, its exposed back creating a bow wave like a small submarine. Although he had no idea what it was, the farmhand bravely gave chase. Around and around the pond they went, the big fish obviously looking for an exit.

Finally the farmer maneuvered the fish into the shallow end of the pond, and though appalled by its size and violent thrashings, courageously went after it with his oar. After much hammering and splashing the ugly creature eventually seemed nicely dead. The farmhand tied it to the skiff with a stout rope and hitched the skiff to a clump of shore willows. Then he dashed off to find help and a horse. He returned with both, only to find the monster gone, the willows torn out by the roots and being towed around the pond along with the skiff. Another boat was brought to the pond, and the chase started all over again. This time the sturgeon really was hammered to death. A rope was tied around its tail, and the horse dragged it to a nearby pasture.

There are varying reports about the exact size of this sturgeon, but no dispute at all that it was at least 12 feet long and weighed more than 1,100 pounds. It was a big fish, and while the average fisherman's chances of tangling with one like it are remote, as sturgeons go it was not particularly remarkable.

Just how big sturgeons do grow is still a riddle. For years scientists have been trying to run down a report that a sturgeon weighing more than 2,000 pounds was stuffed and exhibited at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and, while many of them are inclined to believe the report, there is no proof to substantiate it. There are two claims for 1,500-pound sturgeon on record—one reputedly taken from the Weiser River in 1898, and the other from the Snake River in 1911. The Snake River fish was weighed on livery-stable scales and later photographed. After studying these photographs some experts have been satisfied that the fish did weigh 1,500 pounds, and others have doubted it. Most experts agree that the biggest certifiable sturgeon, and thus the biggest known fish taken in America's freshwaters, was a 12�-foot, 1,285-pound cow sturgeon that went blundering into a salmon gill net in the Columbia in the spring of 1912. However, some scientists—including Ivan Donaldson—feel certain that larger fish have been caught. The largest sturgeon taken in recent years was an 11�-foot 900-pounder that was hauled from the Columbia near Dalles, Ore. in 1951 by a Yakima Indian. But scarcely a year passes without several wild-eyed, shaken fishermen claiming that they hooked into sturgeon that were much bigger. Some of them may be right.

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