When the capture of a five foot long bundle of pure muscle takes over fifteen minutes to bring in, even on seriously tasty boat rods and 100lb bs line, then leaps into the air before screaming off on another thumb-burning run, yet is greeted with "Oh. It's only a small one" by a perfectly serious guide - that's when you know you have found some very serious fishing.
So, do you want to catch a sturgeon?
Of course you do, silly question, what angler wouldn't? There must loads of people from all over Europe who would give their right arm to catch a 'proper' sturgeon. (From it's natural river environment I mean, not a stocked one from one of these French carp-lakes.) The problem is, in some parts of the world the price of catching a sturgeon could be even higher than just one limb. We live in a world concerned with cash and getting value for money is vital to our enjoyment of any experience. Hopefully this article might help those interested in catching the biggest fish that swims in freshwater, at a price that is affordable.
The first rule of angling is to follow the Location, Bait and Presentation route, so the first question is we have to address is, where to go to catch one?
Sturgeon of one type or another were originally found all over the Northern hemisphere but as they are not exactly hard to catch, in many places they were fished out of existence before man realised the wealth they provided.
Realistically, those western European countries which border the North Sea and Eastern Atlantic can no longer be considered as an option for a venue. The greed and ignorance which defined earlier western mankind successfully wiped out any chance of a deliberate capture of an Atlantic sturgeon by an angler. Let's face it. They are gone from our waters, unless some brave souls make an effort to re-establish them. Only one or two European countries are doing this - notably the French programme on the Garonne - but even if their re-stocking programme succeeds, and there are no guarantees, it will take many years before we be able to fish for these dinosaurs of the fish world. This leaves us anglers with two viable options; Russia or North America.
Since the Iron curtain came down the former Soviet Union has made travel more easily available. Unfortunately, the flip side of the same coin is that there now seems to be far too little law and order in many parts of the old 'Bloc' countries. To my mind, mafia and fishing do not make happy bedfellows. So, go catch a beluga if you want, and if you don't mind the rough travel, poor accommodation, corruption and bribery that most people seem to encounter when travelling east. For me that is all together too high a price to pay for a fishing trip. If, also like me, you are getting a bit soft in your old age, you might prefer to do it in comfort. I suggest you do as we did and try Canada. Do it right and you won't regret it.
There are many things to commend Canada to the UK angler. Firstly, they speak our language, or something close to it, which always helps. Secondly it is a very comfortable and safe society in which to travel. (I have met several Canadians who actually fear travelling south of the border, the incidence of Canadian crime being nothing like that of the USA.) And then, of course, there are those huge white Pacific sturgeon that inhabit the Fraser river which flows, conveniently, through one of the friendliest and easily accessible cities on Earth - Vancouver.
There are many flights to Vancouver from all over Europe and as many different fares to be had. Depending on your pocket depth you can fly direct on a scheduled flight, from Heathrow for instance, or you can choose the cheaper route by searching out a good deal. Canada 3000 fly from Gatwick at very affordable charter prices or you can do what we did and use the internet to find even cheaper flights, even though some of these might entail changing planes en-route.
For this years trip to British Columbia, Billy O'Connor and I went to www.pricelineline.com and bid on a pair of return tickets. We offered just over half the cheapest direct charter price we could find and were very pleasantly surprised when our offer was accepted. The down-side to our deal meant that we had to change planes in Amsterdam, which extended our travelling time by a couple of hours longer than a direct flight would take. For us, this was more than compensated for by flying out of Heathrow, which is handy for us, rather than Gatwick, which would have involved a hefty car-parking charge as well as considerable inconvenience. The huge saving on the ticket price clinched it, especially as flying with Dutch flag-carrier KLM is not exactly a hardship.
In Canada we planned to meet up with Dave and Kay Steuart, who were also fishing for the sturgeon. Our package and theirs were at odds with each other, ours based more or less on price and theirs on convenience. They were travelling separately from us on a direct Canada 3000 flight and staying in a Chilliwack hotel near to Fred's Fishing, the guiding service on the Fraser we were both to use. Billy and I planned on renting a motor-home, fishing for three or four days on the Fraser and then travelling up to fish the Thompson River on the hope of some early steelhead. This, in the end, we never achieved, the fishing around Chilliwack was just too good. It seduced us to stay and fish the local waters.
Dave and Kay had an all-in package, tackle included and were able to travel light. Billy and I took a rod case with a selection of tackle, not knowing what other fishing we might encounter on our travels.
When I first obtained my bazooka rod-case I chose the smaller model thinking in my own selfish way that this would lighten my task and force me to cut down on carrying too much gear around. But then, I hadn't really thought it through. A trip to British Columbia is a little bit out of the ordinary; the range of species one can encounter there is staggering and there is little of my tackle that I would find no use for. I knew I had to compromise somewhere but I still managed to pack a lot into the little Bazooka. Here's what I squeezed in:
2 x 11ft carp rods
1 x 11ft barbel rod
3 x 10ft fly rods
1 x folding trout net
1 x standard carp-sized landing net.
After staring at the huge mound of tackle I'd selected for the trip, I'd reluctantly withdrawn the big-cat rods and the multipliers. They wouldn't quite fit. I knew that our guides at Fred's Fishing would supply the heavy gear for the sturgeon and, in truth, their equipment should be at least the equal of my gear. In retrospect, I made a few bad choices. Next time I do this trip I will dispense with the big landing net, we never used it. And I would take a heavy-catfish-capable rod, probably an uptider with a good distance-casting multiplier in case there's an urge to try to bank-fish for the sturgeon, but more on that in a later piece…
Doing this trip as Dave and Kay did, you'll need to bring nothing other than appropriate clothing and a wallet. They stayed at the Best Western hotel in Chilliwack, arranging for the hotel to supply lifts to and from the airport and for the guides to deliver them from the hotel to the river and back each day. Billy and I went for the more flexible option of renting an RV (recreational vehicle) motorhome which allowed us to explore the surrounding countryside and it's rivers. Eight days in an RV, or a double room in the hotel?? When Dave and I compared notes later, it cost about the same. Look at approx £450 - £500.
The RV was a really good move on our part. Billy and I had only four days out in the boats with the guides, the rest of the time we spent chasing salmon in the local rivers. Having our own transport made this all the easier… but I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to the sturgeon.
There are a lot of sturgeon to be found in the Fraser system, and of all sizes. Some of the more southerly rivers also have sturgeon, but these are not reporting any young fish, unlike the Fraser where some 'nursery' areas are deliberately avoided by the local guides due to the large quantity of smaller fish. It follows then that the breeding stock is in these great Canadian rivers and it is here that the huge females lay their spawn. For that reason, you never know when the rod-tip gives a twitch if the culprit is a 10lb fish or a 1000lb fish. Thankfully most fish are much bigger than the former and, even more thankfully, smaller than the latter! A five or six foot long sturgeon, perhaps 80 or 100lb - which really is nothing special here - will give you a fight like nothing you have ever experienced in freshwater before. If you are a carp angler, you'll want to go home and sell your bivvy and pod to help pay for another flight back to BC. This really is the ultimate freshwater fighting fish. I have to admit it; for pure fighting ability the sturgeon even beats my old favourite the wels catfish
To be able to grow to the huge sizes that the Fraser sturgeon attain means that a very healthy food supply is required, and that little energy need be expended to eat it. Unlike our catfish or pike, sturgeon don't have to worry about chasing down live fish to pack on a little weight. The rich waters of the Fraser and Harrison rivers have an abundant source of protein in the form of all the dead salmon that constantly float downstream from the spawning grounds. Hundreds of thousands of them. Perhaps I can sometimes be justifiably accused of exaggeration, but I do not do so now. Our trip coincided with a run of pink salmon and the carcasses of spent fish were to be found everywhere. Even when launching the boats at the boat-ramp we were unable to avoid treading on the corpses. It was estimated by the authorities that 21 million pink salmon were running up the Fraser while we were there. Add these to the other salmon, the sockeye, coho, chum and chinook varieties and you can see why the ecosystem can easily support the estimated 250,000 sturgeon that exist just in the 50 miles of river that separate the small towns of Hope and Mission.
Bait. "Use a salmon deadbait" I can imagine the predator anglers thinking. Well, no. In fact there are so many dead salmon that this would lead to a use-a-blade-of-grass-for-a-cow-in-a-field scenario. The locals have this sorted out and use 'selected cuts' for bait which contain the most protein and which release the most flavour, which encourages the sturgeon to home in on the bait. Salmon eggs is the bait of choice, though eel section, worms and small deadbaits can also catch. Presentation? A small bag is made from a section cut from a pair of ladies tights. This is filled with salmon eggs (use eggs from the salmon that are currently running) and presented on a big (think 6/0) barbless super-strength hook. Mahseer anglers should have a stock of big Gamakatzu and Owner patterns, these will do fine. The bait is presented fished on the bottom via a simple sliding leger from a boat at an anchored position. Line is commonly 100lb bs Tufline braid on a Shimano TLD 20 coupled with an Ugly-Stick or similar gamefishing rod. Not that you need to know any of this because, if you are smart, you'll have your own guide to show you and provide all the gear anyway.
The crucial part of sturgeon fishing, and for most fishing abroad actually, is to use what local knowledge is available. You only have a very limited time to fish, don't waste it by trying to achieve in a few days what the local guides have taken years to sort out. Use the guides and pay them for their knowledge - it will be the best value for money that you, as an angler, will ever spend. And that's coming from a tightwad! The local tackle shop is Fred's Fishing in Chilliwack, run by Fred Helmer. Fred runs the main local guiding service and his details are below. Assuming that three anglers share a boat with a guide they can expect to pay around £75 to £80 per day each. That'll have you fishing from around 8am till 4.30 or so and, I swear, it will be the best value for money you ever spend! In fact, I reckon a three-angler party is just about right, especially if you choose to go down the RV-rental route. The costs come right down then.
Next month I'll tell you how Billy and I fared in our hunt for the Flintstone Fish.
RV rentals - There are a lot to choose from but we went with Candan.
Email : email@example.com
Fred's Fishing Adventures have arguably the most experienced guides on the river so that's who we chose.
Email : firstname.lastname@example.org