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Hunting "dinosaurs" in the Fraser River

Hunting "dinosaurs" in the Fraser River

Go and try it, you will love it!

Leon Stoltz

The author with his 208 cm sturgeon

The white sturgeon or Acipenser transmontanus is the largest freshwater fish in North America. It is a great adversary and certainly one of the most exciting freshwater sport fish around. The sturgeon has changed little in the last 150 million years and this beautiful fish certainly does look ancient. There is something magical about catching and releasing a species that looked the same when dinosaurs roamed the earth. These fish can live for more than 100 years and never stop growing, reaching weights in excess of 1 000 lb (454 kg)!

The sturgeon has a long, cylindrical body with a toothless mouth. Next to the mouth are four tassels that are used along with taste buds, also located on the outside of the mouth, to sense food. The fish has no scales but does have both lateral and ventral scutes. The danger for fishermen lies in these scutes, especially while posing for that photo of a lifetime. There are cases where anglers were cut pretty badly from a thrashing tail. If you hold on to the tail, make sure you are holding on tight!

We recently visited the Fraser River in British Columbia, Canada to target this incredible species. This certainly is one of the prettiest locations to fish in the world. We saw lots of birdlife, none more spectacular than the majestic eagles. There is a wealth of seals and we also spotted a black bear in picture-pretty surroundings. Fishing an unpolluted river for species that are well protected and a fishery that is well regulated does make you realise what is possible if the resolve is there.

Good, strong tackle is a must as a hard-fighting fish in a strong current with plenty structure will otherwise only end in tears. We used 130 lb braid on the advice of our guide as he experienced the landing rate to drop drastically when 100 lb test line or lower was used. There is a variety of baits to choose from, such as northern pikeminnows, salmon eggs or matured salmon referred to as “fresh stink” by the locals. You do get “floaters” – salmon that died on their way to the spawning grounds – which you can just scoop up with a net for ready-to-use fresh stink. We had the most success with northern pikeminnows, a baitfish formally known as squawfish in the Fraser River. Every morning we would stop next to a river grass flat and quickly catch a few with worms and a float. This is a technique we all learned well as youngsters when catching kurper (Tilapia sp.).

We used 8/0 and 9/0 hooks with 12-18 lb weights, depending on where we fished and the strength of the current. The hook was placed through the top of the dead baitfish. Live bait is not permitted in the Fraser River. You use the lightest weight you can get away with, as during the fight the sturgeon does jump and a heavy weight will work against your hook set.

Even though these fish move and feed in all areas of the Fraser River, you are restricted to fish quieter holes where the current is less prevalent. The guide never fished any area during our visit for more than two hours if there weren’t any enquiries. If no feeding fish were in the area he would quickly move to another marked spot, but always first scan it twice with his fish finder before dropping anchor.

When you do get an inspection we found that staying patient was key. Your hook-up ratio and chances of the fish staying hooked increased significantly if you waited for the third bump, which is usually more pronounced. When the rod tip is pulled down firmly, set the hook and it is game on! You fish with a very tight drag, but this does not prevent the line from peeling off your reel on the first few runs. The spectacular jumps during the battle add to the show. Our guide, Steve, does have a sadistic streak to him and he encourages all his visitors to fight these powerful fighters without the belt with rod bucket. It will leave you with a few bruises. It certainly is humbling fighting big fish on a tight drag, pulling it in with all your strength, to which it responds by turning around and swimming away. The fight could last from a few minutes with the four-footers to hours with the bigger guys. The strength of these fish is awesome and landing a big one certainly makes the long trip worthwhile. All sturgeon fishing in the Fraser River is based on the catch-and-release practice.

Salmon is the other popular attraction in the Fraser River. The river has runs of Pacific salmon, including all five species, namely chinook, coho, chum, pink and sockeye. 

Pacific salmon is the other popular attraction in the Fraser River. Seen here is a chinook.

Each species runs in their own window from June to November. During our visit the numbers were low, but there were some chinook or king salmon around and we therefore decided to take a break from sturgeon fishing and target the largest of the species mentioned above.

Our approach was what they call “bar fishing”, which is basically bank angling with a bell as an alarm. You fish a weight and glow spinner stationary. The instructions were clear: If the bell rings you grab the rod, run up the bank to tighten the line and then strike. As I mentioned, the numbers were low and we had to wait all day for one ring, but I was fortunate enough to get one and landed a beautiful 20 lb specimen. As the old Babylonian proverb goes, “The gods do not deduct from man’s allotted span the hours spent in fishing”, so it was all worth it in the end.

In four days my angling partner, Hennie Viljoen, and I landed 20 white sturgeon with a fork length that ranged from just under 100 cm up to 235 cm. 

Hennie Viljoen with a 200 cm sturgeon

This is a destination and fishing adventure I would encourage any angler to experience at least once if at all possible. When should you go? The high water during the spring after the snow melts gets the sturgeon started, but the best fishing starts in the summer. They continue to be active in the fall (autumn), but the abundance of spawning salmon carcasses begin to compete with what the anglers offer. If you want to catch salmon as well you need to consider the windows they run in.

I cannot recommend our guide, Steve Kaye from Sturgeon Hunter, highly enough. He has fished the Fraser River for over 20 years and his knowledge of this river is beyond doubt. It is imperative to have a good guide on a trip like this, as there is no point in travelling halfway around the world to fish unfamiliar waters and species with a poor guide. There are options to make a trip like this more affordable, but in my opinion cutting corners on a good guide is not one of them. Go and try it, you will love it!