Holding A Dinosaur: Idaho’s White Sturgeon

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In the Snake River with my first White Sturgeon. (Image: Natalie West)

Today I had the privilege to catch, hold, and release the largest freshwater fish in North America: a White Sturgeon.

I have been up-close and personal with these amazing animals before. I’ve seen them swim gracefully by behind thick glass, and even nearly kissed by one that breached in a petting area, but this was a wild animal in its environment.

Catching a sturgeon has been the dream of my wife and I for almost three years now, but it truly is a daunting task. You can’t just grab your rod and reel and head down to the river. These anadromous fish (able to live in fresh and salt water), which have remained largely unchanged since entering the fossil record 175 million years ago, are protected by the state of Idaho and require very specific gear to catch.

Fishing on “The Stairs” at Salmon Falls Dam in Hagerman, ID.

Built more like a shark than a bony fish, White Sturgeon are cartilaginous with rows of sharp, bony scutes that run along its scaleless body. Surprisingly, these massive fish, which can reach upwards of 20 feet and nearly 1,800 pounds, have no teeth. They use their gummy mouths to suck up morsels of dead fish, squid, clams, and whatever else they can find on the bottom of the river.

In the state of Idaho White Sturgeon are protected. Sliding weights and barbless hooks are the law, and when caught, White Sturgeon cannot be removed from the water. Anglers are allowed to hold the animal and lift it slightly for photos, but the animal’s safety is always top priority. While the White Sturgeon isn’t endangered, its Russian cousin, the Kaluga, and the European Beluga–the largest species of Sturgeon–are both critically endangered.

My wife Natalie and I working to land a White Sturgeon.
My wife Natalie and I working to land a White Sturgeon.

My wife and I didn’t go with guides. We didn’t go with friends who have caught the fish before. We read, experimented, learned the laws, found the holes, and learned to catch these incredible fish on our own. In the span of two months we acquired the tackle we needed, learned how to design the rigs, and feel for the sometimes subtle nibbles of these massive fish.

This morning, sometime after 8 am, we hooked into our fish and the fight was on. Known to be voracious fighters, the sturgeon breached all the way out of the water twice, turned tail, and tried to make the run for Bliss, Idaho. Thankfully we managed to wear the animal out and slowly pulled it into the shore.

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With the sturgeon tonic, I carefully removed the hook.

Surprisingly, our nearly six foot sturgeon was barely hooked. I’m still shocked we managed to pull him in. Even more surprisingly, I found a second hook in the fish’s mouth with a large length of green braided line that was wrapped around the fish’s head. While I had him held in the tonic (upside down) position, I easily removed my barbless hook, the second hook, and untangled the braided line from his barbels that could have potentially caused problems for the animal.

After a battle that took almost 40 minutes, it felt like my contact with the White Sturgeon lasted just seconds. In reality, it was closer to five minutes that I held the animal while we both caught our breath, and held it upright as it listed slightly from exhaustion. I found myself enthralled by this amazing creature in my arms. I could feel the power of its body, ran my hand gently down its dorsal scutes, and looked into what I can only describe as its “huge puppy dog eyes.”

Then, loosening my grip, the fish slowly moved away from me. Once beyond arm’s reach, one massive swish of its powerful tail and the sturgeon disappeared back into the depths of the Snake River and I sat in awe in freezing water.

My wife and I cheered, shouted, laughed, hugged, and reveled in our victory. We caught a six foot White Sturgeon, landed it after a battle of 40 minutes, and returned the animal unharmed back to the Snake River. The feeling was beyond my wildest expectations. It was glorious, backbreaking, nerve-wracking, breathtaking, and absolutely incredible.

I couldn’t have done it without my amazing wife. Thank you sweetheart! It is a moment, and a feeling that I will never forget.

And oh my god my back and shoulders are sore… So worth it.

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Sturgeon hug!
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