Are we killing the goose that laid the golden egg?
BY DAVE HURLEY
Sturgeon fishing has been nothing short of incredible in Suisun Bay with both private boaters and six-pack operators scoring as many as six limits of sturgeon on a regular basis. The addition of salmon roe as bait in the early 2000s along with enhanced electronics, improvements in gear, and communication between successful anglers has led to a decreased learning curve for sturgeon fishermen.
Landing a sturgeon still isn’t a guarantee, but the odds have improved greatly as knowledge of the species has increased. Yet with all the improvement comes an increased responsibility for individual fishermen as there is a growing concern that all of the success may lead to a depletion of the species. It is not the responsibility of the party boat captains to limit their take since their job is to put people onto fish, but some of the captains are taking a more proactive stance towards conserving the species.
Captain Zack Medinas of Gatecrasher Fishing Adventures has honed his craft with the boost of the late Rich Tipton of Lucky Strike’s salmon cure, and he has established catch-and-release sturgeon trips out of Pittsburg for the past few years. A few captains are starting to limit the take to two legal sturgeon per trip with the catch to be shared by all of the anglers in the group, while other captains will reward a release of a slot-limit sturgeon with a complementary future trip. These are steps to conserve the fishery, but it ultimately is the responsibility of the individual angler to decide what they need and what they can let go.
A commercial fishery for white sturgeon existed in the Delta, but it was shut down in the early 1900s after the numbers of sturgeon declined. One of our family’s heirlooms is a recording of my great-grandfather, Guiseppe Busalacchi, describing how he and his brothers left the fruit cannery in Antioch since they wouldn’t give them a raise, and they started fishing commercially for sturgeon the next day, receiving a penny per pound. I still have the floats and the hooks used during that era on the trap lines.
The white sturgeon fishery was permitted once again in 1954, but few anglers knew much about the habits of the fish, leading to incidental catches on baits such as grass shrimp. After an emergency closure for recreational fishermen in the mid-2000s, new regulations were enacted including the Sturgeon Report Card with a limit of three legal fish per year, a slot limit between 40 to 60 inches fork length, a single, barbless hook, no gaffs or snares, and the inability to remove any fish over 68 inches from the water. All sturgeon captured must be reported on the Sturgeon Fishing Report Card due to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife by January 31 of the following year. The data is used by the department to determine take for future years. In addition, all sturgeon fishing is prohibited in the Sacramento River from the Highway 162 Bridge to Keswick Dam.
I was able to head out on a crew trip with Captains Joey Gamez of Golden State Sport Fishing and Steve Mitchell of Hook’d Up Sport Fishing on Gamez’s recently-purchased 30-foot Design Concepts. We left around 7:00 p.m. to target the diamondbacks on the incoming tide in the Little Cut. Within five minutes of setting out the gear, Anthony Gibbs, deckhand of Dragon Sport Fishing, handed the rod over to me, and I was able to fight my first sturgeon since 2009. My last sturgeon came with the late Jay Sorensen on his boat, and a combination of being extremely busy along with not Jay not fishing anymore, has kept me from targeting sturgeon for the past decade. To be honest, it felt good to feel the power of the sturgeon, and after some spirted runs, we released the 48-inch sturgeon after a quick picture.
The best part of the trip was watching the three deckhands, Gibbs, Joey Gamez Jr. and ‘Tone’ Rubacaba of Hook’d Up Sport Fishing stand at attention in front of the rods. They displayed the enthusiasm of youth in that you could just feel how much they loved being out there – setting the hook, comparing their roe cures, and casting the heavy gear out there. Next up was Gamez’s good friend, Dave Driscoll, who was able to land a fat oversized at 63 inches. This fish was the result of a vicious one-handed hookset by Gamez Jr. as we both saw the bite at the same time, and he beat me to the rod, setting hook with the rod stopping halfway up before doubling over.
Rubacaba got into the action with another huge 63-inch oversized that made him work before coming to the boat. After the tide died down, we motored through the Big Cut to find a surprising lack of sturgeon before anchoring outside of Roe/Ryer Islands. Once again, young Gamez set hook on Mitchell’s CalStar rod, and he handed it over to me to bring it home. This fish had some heart, and it came straight to the boat, requiring me to reel as fast as I could catch up to the fish as we thought it was going to come out of the water.
After several spirted runs, the sturgeon came to the net, and this fish was tagged for the group to share. As the Gamezs had a trip the next morning, they stayed on the boat, and while I was still in bed, they posted 4 slot fish and an oversized by 9:00 a.m., eventually ending up with five slot limit sturgeon. The new boat is a very comfortable platform for a night trip, equipped with a warm heater in the cabin along with bright LED lights making for great visibility. Gamez was back at it again on Friday morning with three more slot limit sturgeon.
The sturgeon set up is simple with a 9/0 barbless hook loaded with a small sack of cured roe on a sliding sinker rig with either a 16- or 20-ounce pyramid weight. The deckhands are able to spread out the rods with accurate casts using Penn Fathom reels on an 879 Phenix rod. Successful sturgeon fishermen spend the time to locate enough fish on the bottom before setting anchor above the grouping, and then allowing the tide to bring them to the bait.
Landing a white sturgeon is one of the great joys of being a northern California fisherman, but as fishermen, the question begs, “How much meat do we need for satisfaction?” As the legendary ‘Lord of the Sea’ Keith Fraser says, “Release that fish, it will make you feel good.” It felt plenty good to release that fish.