I can’t say for sure what led to this particular trip. I wish there was an inspiring or quirky story leading up to the decision to fish for giant white sturgeon on British Columbia’s Fraser River. But in reality, adventure buddy Justyne and I probably just thought sturgeon are really cool and we would take advantage of any excuse for a fishing trip.
Unlike me, Justyne had angled for other species of sturgeon, but neither of us had ever chased a freshwater fish of this size or caliber. While these fish are technically considered the largest freshwater fish in North America, they prefer brackish estuaries close to the ocean, and they can survive in both salt water and fresh water. They can grow to be over 12 feet in length, heavier than 1000 pounds and live over 100 years. Perhaps most fascinating is that they have existed for hundreds of millions of years, making them literal “living dinosaurs.” If that’s not enough reason to book a trip, I don’t know what is!
In the months leading up to our journey, our chats consisted mainly of sturgeon fishing and our many insecurities surrounding the potential wrangling of a gargantuan fish. (I say potential because, as always, my first fear was catching nothing at all.)
Beyond that, fish of this size present some pretty intense physical demands. The battle to bring in a large white sturgeon can last well over an hour, because your only hope is to hang on and tire the fish out. That’s a challenge more common for saltwater fishing excursions. Since neither Justyne nor I identify as particularly buff or experienced at reeling in 800-pound fish, we knew we’d be relying mainly on our stubbornness and upon each other. Despite our many hesitations, the deposits were paid, licenses were purchased, and before we knew it, we were driving through the fertile valleys of BC’s lower mainland.
Two Key Spots
There are two main locations on the Fraser River to fish for white sturgeon. Both are exclusively catch and release. The slower, larger stretch outside of Chilliwack stretches to the coast and is host to large numbers of sturgeon. Further upstream near Hope is “the Canyon,” where the conditions are harder, but the river holds record-setting sturgeon.
We had opted for the cautious and more convenient location and spent the night nervously prepping at the Comfort Inn in Chilliwack. You can catch sturgeon from the shore or from a boat, and we had hired one of the numerous guides in the Fraser Valley who was outfitted with a boat and all the correct gear.
Similar to angling for other bottom feeders, the setup is pretty simple. Some weight, a big circle hook, and a chunk of meat (in this case salmon) attached to some heavy line with an equally robust rod and reel. When I say heavy, folks, I mean heavy. These beasts can weigh over 1000 pounds; add in the strong current and a good fight, and that means a safe line weight is going to be over 2000 pounds.
While the setup seems easy, navigating the large, fast Fraser River is anything but. This robust river is full of rapids, debris and hidden obstacles, and it’s not unheard of to watch 50-foot trees floating beside you. So, an equally tough and knowledgeable guide is required for someone who is unfamiliar with the area and conditions.
The Quest Begins
Once we met early the following morning and settled onto the boat, we began to cruise the churning brown water of the mighty Fraser River. Though the season is open all year, we chose to fish in late June. That is a time that’s notorious for flooding, and the river was high. Additionally, the boat’s GPS systems had completely failed, so we were navigating the river blind and unable to mark any fish.
This was not boding well for my fear of catching nothing. We spent the first two hours of our eight-hour trip struggling to find a suitable spot to anchor and drop lines. That’s not to say we weren’t getting any action! All around us, ghostly whitish-grey sturgeon was jumping out of the drink. It’s not known why this bottom-feeding fish decides to take to the sky in these stunning aerial displays. Some people think it’s done to equalize their swim bladders; others believe it is a means of communication. Regardless of the answer, this display is really cool to watch. After a while, I decided that just seeing these ancient fish would be enough (Certainly that’s a defense mechanism used by anglers who get skunked often). But sure enough, our rods began to tip with bites and stolen baits.
As our faith in sturgeon fishing began to reignite, our first good fish got on. Justyne was up. She began hauling on the rod while I buzzed around her offering encouragement. The excitement rose as she pulled a three-foot sturgeon up to the boat, and we came to realize our first and most important goal: Not getting skunked!
Better yet, this fish was small enough to legally lift out of the water and enjoy in all its glory. Our guide gently placed the fish on a cradle, and we poured over its detail. Rather than scales, sturgeon are armed with rows of sharp boney plates called “scutes,” so it’s important to handle them properly to avoid getting injured. We ooh’d and aah’d over the sturgeon’s cute whiskery nose (used for finding food) and giggled at its tiny, almost useless eyes. Justyne held her perfect sturgeon up for a perfect fish pic before releasing it, and our hearts were full.
The Big One
As we basked in the glory of not failing, our second fish hit, and it was my turn. I confidently stepped up to the plate, excited for a 10-minute fight and an adorable four-foot sturgeon. The panic immediately hit as we all realized this was a much bigger fish. It was time to be tested and to try to land one of these ancient giants solo from start to finish. In typical Emily style, I refused to be strapped into a belt (which I later paid for dearly).
The mere pressure of a fish that size sitting on the end of your line in the raging current is enough to break a sweat. On top of that, when a white sturgeon decides to run, it pulls out line like a Cadillac. There’s nothing you can do but listen helplessly as your drag screams and you wonder how you’ll have the energy to gain back the hundreds of feet you’re losing. I did this several times over the course of our 45-minute fight, pulling my behemoth sturgeon within sight of the boat, only to have it breach magnificently and peel out another half-kilometer of line with ease.
Then a dreadful thought began to creep in: ‘I’m going to get tired before this fish does!’ With my arms on fire and sweat dripping down my face, I feigned confidence and tried not to give away my proximity to quitting. I held for 10 seconds…then I took a breath…then I held for another 10 seconds. I began living in these intervals as the only amount of time I could be sure to hang on. Then it was 10 more seconds, and the sturgeon was 40 feet from the boat, jumping and headshaking violently to our cheers… Ten more seconds…” You can do this,” I told myself. Then the guide says we are headed to shore to land the fish properly. The pressure increases as we begin to pull the fish against the current. Ten more seconds…I can’t feel my arms anymore and Justyne is asking me if I want help. I can’t even reply…10 more seconds. The rod handle has made hamburger out of my inner thighs…I should have taken that belt…10 more seconds.
The boat nosed softly onto the sandy shallows of a small island and our guide hopped out to land the fish. Even if you could lift one, taking large sturgeon out of the water here isn’t allowed. Seconds felt like hours as the massive fish slid onto the sand, and I waited for our guide to hold and release it. When instructed, we practically dove into the water, in awe of the mammoth before us. We held it, measured it, and took pictures as quickly as possible. It was an unbelievable 80 inches. I kissed its face and gazed lovingly into its beady black eyes, not wanting to let go. I had done it: A solo reel on a fish older and bigger than me. We watched the fish slide back into the current and I struggled to get my exhausted body back on the boat.
As we patted ourselves on the back, another large fish hit. Justyne bravely stepped up to the rod and began the same type of bout I had experienced moments before. I knew all I could offer was support and sympathy as she wrestled the great fish to the side of the boat to land.
As we jumped out for pictures, the 78-inch sturgeon found some residual energy and made a break for it. Justyne held on for dear life, refusing to let go this close to sweet victory, and she successfully wrangled the fish back under control. We repeated the process of beaming for fish pics and reveling over the subject before once again watching the beast curl into the current and climbing pathetically back onto the boat.
A Team Effort
At this point, we had both silently resigned ourselves to waiting out the remaining hours of this trip enjoying the sun and cruising the river. When we pulled up to our last fishing spot, there was still no need to expect anything other than luxuriously waiting out the clock. After all, how could we get any luckier?
We were answered quickly with the most terrifying words a fatigued angler could hear…Fish On!” Over the next 20 minutes, out of sheer necessity, we tag-teamed our last white sturgeon, an agreeable 77-inch beauty. After its release, we collapsed onto the boat in a daze as our guide drove back to the launch and deposited us on shore.
The next few days consisted of necessary rest and reflection, and even now over a year later, I’m not sure either of us has fully absorbed the magnitude and meaning of the time we went Fishing for Dinosaurs.