Sturgeons: Family Acipenseridae
Acipenser transmontanus, the bottom feeder,
Moves sluggishly through the turbid depths of the estuary
Its truncated mouth sifting the silty bottom
Groping for herring egg, ghost shrimp and worm…
“Bottom Feeder” — Kirk Lombard and the Rube Waddell Band
Species: Acipenser transmontanus (Richardson, 1836); from the Latin words Acipenser (bony cartilage), trans (across), and montes (mountains).
Alternate Names: Pacific sturgeon, Sacramento sturgeon, Oregon sturgeon and Columbia sturgeon. Called esturión blanco in Mexico.
Identification: White sturgeon have a long, streamlined body with a broad, flattened head, blunt snout, tiny eyes, and a shark-like tail, all features that help it maintain position in large, fast flowing water conditions. Sturgeon do not have scales, instead they have five rows of scutes (bony plates) on the body, one row on the back, one at the middle of each side, and one on each side of the belly. White sturgeon have 11-14 dorsal scutes, 38-48 midlateral scutes, and 9–12 ventral scutes. There are four whiskers (barbels) located on the underside of the snout, closer to the tip of the snout than to the mouth. Their dorsal color is gray, pale olive, or gray-brown, the fins are a dusky, opaque gray, and the underside is white.
Size: Recorded to nearly 20 feet in length and 1,800 pounds although few are seen today longer than ten feet in length. Most caught from piers are less than 100 pounds.
The “Record” white sturgeon
The California record fish weighed 468 pounds and was caught in San Pablo Bay by Joey Pallotta in 1983. It’s a record that cannot be broken since California’s slot limit now requires the release of the bigger fish.
Photo from the San Bernardino Country Sun, Sept. 24, 1987
This is the largest fresh water fish in North America and third largest sturgeon in the world. The beluga (Huso huso), found primarily in the Caspian and Black Sea basins, and occasionally in the Adriatic Sea, is the largest sturgeon reaching 24 feet in length and 3,250 pounds. (Although a monster measuring 28-feet long and weighing 4,570 pounds was reportedly taken from the Volga River near the Russian city of Astrakhan in 1736 but there is no verification of that fish). The Kaluga sturgeon (Huso dauricus), found in the Amur River basin, is the second largest sturgeon (22.6 feet and 2,200 pounds).
White sturgeon from the Martinez Pier
Range: From Ensenada, northern Baja California, to Cook Inlet, Gulf of Alaska. Commonly seen from San Francisco Bay to the Fraser River area, British Columbia. Although rare to the south, and less prevelant in saltwater than green sturgeon, a 47.9 inch (14-pound cleaned-weight) fish was taken at Isla de Todod Santos near Ensenada in March of 2003. Another white sturgeon, 75.7 inches long (45.2 pounds) was collected at Flat Rock, Rancho Palos Verdes in Los Angeles County on April 24, 2003.
“Stan The Man” and a white sturgeon from the Brisbane Pier
Habitat: Anadromous, meaning they spend part of their lives in fresh water (where they spawn) and part in salt water; unlike most fish they may make the journey from fresh to salt water and back many times. They spend most of their lives in brackish bays, estuarine areas, and slow-moving rivers. In the ocean they have been recorded to a depth of 400 feet.
Sturgeon are considered “benthic cruisers” that roam the bottom searching for food. The food is rarely detected by sight. Instead, they use the sensitive barbels under the snout, and ampullary (electric) organs, also located under the snout, to detect prey/food. The sturgeon feel and taste the food first and then suck it up into their bottom-oriented mouth by way of their “protruisible jaw” that can quickly shoot out (extend) and suck in whatever food they’ve chosen.
Eugene and a white sturgeon from McNears Pier
Young sturgeon feed mainly on insects, worms, amphipods (shrimp-like crustacea), and other small invertebrates such as copepods and mysid shrimp (opossum shrimp). Older fish become true gourmands feeding on a wide variety of bottom dwelling crustaceans and mollusks (crabs, shrimp, clams) as well as whatever fish are convenient (can they grab them?). Although they will often feed on the more sentinent, bottom-hugging fish (i.e., gobies and sculpins), they also include in their menu such species as herring (and herring eggs), shad, striped bass and salmon. Given the poor eyesight of sturgeon, and their manner of detecting food, it’s theorized that most of the fish eaten by sturgeon are captured at night.
Countering the gourmand claim are those that say sturgeon are nothing more than indiscrimate bottom-feeders, akin to Uncle Ed’s “Fish-style” vacuum cleaner, sucking up anything that seems edible. Given that house cats, squirrels, seal pups, waterfowl, and carcasses of spawned-out salmon have been found in sturgeon stomachs, they may be right. Of note was the horse’s head supposedly found in a Russian beluga sturgeon. Don’t know if the horse head had anything to do with the Russian mafia. Nor is it easy to imagine how big that beluga’s mouth had to be to swallow a horse head. Questions, questions, questions.
Masa and a sturgeon from McNears Pier in San Rafael
Piers: In California, sturgeon are only common to piers in the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and, to a much less extent, in Humboldt Bay. Best Bets: Point Pinole Pier, Eckley Pier, Martinez Pier, Point Benicia Pier, Antioch Marina Pier, Antioch Pier, McNear Park Pier, Paradise Park Pier and Elephant Rock Pier. Seasonally common at the Candlestick Point Pier, Brisbane Pier, Oyster Point Pier, and the Dumbarton Pier.
“Stan The Man” and a sturgeon from the Oyster Point Pier
Shoreline: An occasional catch by shore anglers in the San Francisco-Bay Delta.
Boats: A prime goal for boaters fishing San Francisco Bay, San Pablo Bay, and the Carquinez Strait.
Stinkyfinger and a white sturgeon from the Martinez Pier
Bait and Tackle: Caught with heavy tackle, a sliding bait leader, and live bait such as ghost, mud, or grass shrimp. Large Kahle hooks can be used and several shrimp can be impaled on the hook. When herring are spawning in nearby areas, herring and herring eggs make excellent bait. Use eel when crabs are are in full force and grabbing softer bait. Am told the best way to use the eel is to cut off a 2-3-inch-long chunk. Then cut the chunk into four strips before attaching to the hook. The strips will flutter and hopefully attract Mr. Sturgeon.
A nice sturgeon from the Eckley Pier
Surprisingly, given their size and manner of sucking in food, sturgeon have a very gentle bite that is hard to detect. Regulars seem to acquire the ability to spot the subtle “pumps” that indicate a bite but it can take newbies time to figure out when to strike.
Food Value: Excellent, mild-flavored meat that contains no bones and cuts up nicely into steaks for broiling, baking or frying.
Mel loved his first sturgeon — McNear Pier in San Rafael
Comments: Many sturgeon are hooked from Bay Area piers but hooking them is just part of the battle. An angler must have stout tackle, knowledge, a bit of luck, and the understanding of how to get the fish onto the pier, assuming it hasn’t stripped the reel of line or wrapped the line around a piling. However, large sturgeon are indeed landed: George Gano landed a 194-pound, eight-foot-long sturgeon while fishing from the old Vallejo Pier and a 170-pound fish was reported from the McNear Park Pier.
Robert aka Red Fish with a sturgeon from the Eckley Pier
Philosopher fish? Sturgeon are considered very special fish by many people. Why? (1) They are considered an ancient fish that have changed little over the past 175 million years. (2) Though classified as a bony fish, they are more cartilaginous than bony, with an internal bone structure similar to that of sharks. (3) They can reach over 100 years of age. (4) They can reach a very large size and are desired by both sports and commercial fishermen. (5) They are a valuable species due to their eggs (caviar), a high priced delicacy for many people. (6) Although reaching an old age, sturgeon in California do not spawn until middle age, typically 10-15 years of age for males (3.6-6 feet long) and 12-20 years of age for females (4.6-6.6 feet long). And while females may spawn more than once it occurs only about every 4 to 10 years. Over fishing (often illegal poaching) in many areas of the world has led to an alarming decrease in the number of females and juvenile fish. (7) Almost all species of sturgeon are endangered, including several sub-species of white sturgeon, and many are close to extinction.
Another sturgeon from the Martinez Pier
For all of these reasons sturgeon rank high in the hierarchy of piscatorial species as seen in the following:
One thinks of the sturgeon as a kind of philosopher among fishes, as if its ancient lineage had bred, over the thousands of centuries, a curious old wisdom and a quiet acceptance of change. The sturgeon has seen more years when it first spawns than many fish see in a lifetime.
—Howard Walden, Familiar Freshwater Fishes of America
Robert aka Red Fish and unknown angler at McNears Pier in San Rafael
Some big white sturgeon from piers —
≈ 250+ Lbs. — Antioch Wharf, Bud Leonard, October 26, 1939
Source: Oakland Tribune, October 27, 1939
194 Lbs. — Vallejo Public Pier, George Gano, 1980
130 Lbs. — Dowrelio Pier (Crockett), John Gamba, March 16, 1964
Source: The Fishin’ Fool, Ralph Stevens, San Rafael Daily Independent, March 17, 1964
The Sturgeon Chronicles
Large Sturgeon.—The Contra Costa Gazette says that a sturgeon was recently caught from the wharf at Benicia which measured nearly ten feet in length, and weighed three hundred pounds. —Sonoma County Journal, June 17, 1859
A Big Fish — The Head of a Sturgeon Weighing 600 Pounds on Exhibition at the City Market Fish Stalls
The head of the largest sturgeon ever caught on the Pacific Coast is on exhibition at the fish stall of Camilloni & Co., in the City Market. The fish in its entirety weighed 600 pounds, and the head as it lies on the block weighs 94 pounds. It is a hideous frontispiece, the gape of its mouth stretching 22 inches from corner to corner, and the space across the back of its head being 28 inches at its broadest expansion. Were the sturgeon so inclined, being alive and in its native element, it could easily swallow the head of a man, and if his shoulders were not too broad might possibly stow the greater portion of him in his hold, as he measured 10 feet from snout to tail.
This sturgeon which is a genuine Acipenser Oxyrhnchus, was captured by Italian fishermen at the mouth of the Sacramento river in the shoal water where his efforts to escape from the nets were hampered by the shoal water. As it was, he broke the net as if it had been a fly-catcher, and broke three ribs of the boat with his lash.
After being brought into this city, the major portion of this sturgeon was immediately converted into Russian River salmon, sea bass, tenderloin of sole and caviar, all of which were sold at a remunerative price.
There is also on exhibition at the same place, a very large skate fish (Raia batis), caught in the estuary, the fins of which are considered a great delicacy, especially when the fish is young, small and tender. It is said that the skate in the English market at certain seasons of the year sells for a higher price than any other fish.
The skate, hanging in the front of the City Market, however, is a tough old veteran who swam up the creek to die on the flounder flats. A dried skate is almost a facsimile of the countenance of an ugly old man, whose sharp nose has gone wrong in the effort to aspire above its station. —Oakland Tribune, December 9, 1884
A 500-pound sturgeon was caught near Martinez a few days ago, says the Contra Costa Democrat. —San Francisco Call, February 23, 1891
King Of The River — A Monstrous Sturgeon Caught In a Net at Benicia
A couple of Chinese fishermen had a time of it yesterday near Benicia. They attempted to pull in their nets, but before long found they had more of a catch than they bargained for. The net was badly torn in several places, and in spite of all they could not pull the net into the boat. Nor could they see what the monster was they had captured.
Their shouts for aid brought three others to their assistance, and their united efforts were applied to the task of pulling in the net, but to no purpose; and then it was decided to tow the net ashore, but this proved no easy matter, as the big fish was inclined to head for deep water, and it was only after two hours of hard work in which the Mongols were assisted by some Portuguese that the big fish was landed.
It proved to be a monstrous sturgeon and without doubt the largest ever taken in the river. The fish measured 14 feet 7 inches and weighed 970 pounds. It was brought to this city on the boat last night, and when landed on the Jackson Street Wharf was in three pieces. The monster filled a good-sized express-wagon and was taken to Chinatown, where no doubt many a fine tenderloin of sole and toothsome slice of sea bass will be cut from it. —The San Francisco Call, May 29, 1891
Sharks Sold As Sturgeon — New Tricks Practiced by the Fishermen
There is a new industry at Fishermen’s Wharf. About fifty or one hundred sharks are brought in each morning by the fishermen. These are not thrown away, but are used as a cheap article of food. The heads and tails are cut off, the body is skinned and then the meat of the fish is sold as sturgeon and is served up at the cheap restaurants as tenderloin of sole. The fishermen make no bones about the matter, but readily admit that they sell the sharks as sturgeon for 2 cents a pound. —San Francisco Chronicle, November 18, 1894
A sturgeon weighing in at 130 pounds was landed (at low tide) from Dowrelio’s Pier this past week: measured six feet, four inches and had a 34-inch girth. —San Rafael Independent, November 27, 1962
Record Sturgeon Pulled From SF Bay
San Francisco (AP) — A 21-year-old fisherman who hooked a sturgeon nine feet long and weighing 468 pounds says he “almost had a heart attack” when he first saw it jump out of the water.
Joey Pallotta of Crockett fought the big fish for four hours Saturday in the Carquinez Strait near San Francisco Bay before hauling it in. The fish, 60 inches around, was a state record — surpassing a 420-pounder caught in 1973 on the Sacramento River near Rio Vista. Biologists estimated the Pallotta fish was about 100 years old.
Pallotta set out from the Crockett Marina and hooked the big fish five minutes after casting his line near Benicia. “The fish surfaced almost immediately and when I first saw it, I went into shock,” Pallotta said. “Even if I could fight it, I didn’t think there was any way we could get it in the boat.”
During the fight, Pallotta abandoned his 18-foot runabout for a 26-foot cabin cruiser owned by Tom Glakeler of St. Helena. Glakeler had rushed to the scene after Pallotta radioed for help. The fish dragged the boat “all over the place,” Glakeler said, jumping several times. “The third time it came up, it danced on its tail across the water like a marlin,” Glakeler said.
The fishermen finally towed their catch to the Crockett Marina and later weighed it at the Santa Fe Railway in Point Richmond. The marina’s scales weren’t big enough..
Pallotta said he used a 6 1/2-foot rod equipped with 80-pound test monofilament line. —Santa Rosa Press Democrat, July 12, 1983