Sturgeon fishing requires patience, but the meat is worth the wait and work

By: George deVilbiss/Special to Gold Country News Service
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Despite its size and the fact it wouldn’t win any beauty contest, sturgeon offers some of the finest-tasting table fare.

We caught a 40-pounder in the Napa River one late afternoon, and four of us finished that whole fish for dinner, not wanting to stop eating as it was so good.

A 40-pounder is about the smallest fish you’ll get with the sturgeon’s minimum size limit. They get larger — much larger, which means you need heavy-duty gear.

While some anglers are successful from shore, most fishing for this prehistoric fish is from a boat. The lion’s share is done in lower bay waters, such as San Pablo and Suisun bays, and numerous tributaries in and around those same areas, such as the Napa and Petaluma rivers and Montezuma Slough.

Fishing for sturgeon is allowed year-round, though certain times of the year are better than others.

Bay waters are home to many species of fish and others critters such as crab, all of which depend on the salinity of the water. Sturgeon fishermen consider starry flounder and kingfish as garbage fish.

These other critters will happily feed on the sturgeon baits you put on the bottom. Sturgeon bait is expensive, and most anglers don’t want to waste it on unwanted species you aren’t allowed to keep in the first place, such as a small flounder or crab.

The top sturgeon-specific baits include three types of shrimp — mud, ghost and grass — along with roe and eel, but these same baits might also attract striped bass and unwanted critters.

You’ll want a heavy rod with heavy backbone and a light tip, and a level wind reel with a good 60-pound test line. Terminal tackle, hook units and weights are found at most sporting goods stores.

With hook sets, you’ll see two-hook and single-hook sets. Both will work. It’s personal preference. With a two-hook set, you’ll use twice as much bait at a time, but if a sturgeon sucks the bait off one, you can get a second chance with another bait in front of him.

The best sturgeon fishing occurs during a strong, fast outgoing tide. You’ll need a weight that will anchor your bait on the bottom without rolling around.
Sturgeon won’t chase it. A 16-ounce or greater weight isn’t out of the question, and a pyramid-style weight minimizes bottom movement.

Sturgeon are bottom feeders, looking for small clams, worms, a variety of shrimp — all that may be rousted around with the movement of the tide.

Some say the best sturgeon fishing is at night, but many sturgeon are caught during the day. You fish for sturgeon in shallow water — generally no more than 10-12 feet deep, and close to the boat.

It’s a wary fish. Feet scraping the bottom of the boat or a light shining on the water at night will scare it away.

Load your hook(s) with your favorite bait. I like mud shrimp, which looks much like a crawdad. Break off the legs, thread the shrimp onto a hook, and then wrap a lot of thread around the shrimp. He’ll find it and work on it. He just won’t be able to easily suck it off.

Under no circumstances should you balance your rod, as you might for stripers. Do that with sturgeon and it’s a guarantee you’ll miss seeing the bite. If you have any hope of seeing that soft, subtle bite, you never, ever take your eyes off your rod tip.

When a sturgeon finds your bait offering, it will pick it up just to taste it and drop it. If it likes what it tasted, it will pick it up again — for real. Few sturgeon are Kamikaze biters that pick it up, swallow it and make a run for it.

Its mouth is under its head instead of at the end, as with most fish. Its mouth can be compared with an elevator. It lowers down and vacuums up a foodstuff.

The bite is subtle and easy to miss, the very reason you want a rod with a light tip, as it will move just the slightest. See that and get prepared. Don’t touch the rod, but be ready. When it moves like that a second time, usually only moments later, grab the rod and rear back with everything you can put into it to drive the hook into its lips.

If you’re successful, anchor your feet against something solid and lean back. Big or small, you’re in for the fight of your life and it’s going to last awhile.

You want to tire the fish, and hopefully, the sturgeon tires before you tire. It’s obvious when the fish no longer is fighting. It will go belly up.

Under no circumstances should you remove the fish from the water. First, measure the fish, as there is a slot-size limit — at least 46 inches and no more than 66 inches.

If the sturgeon doesn’t fall within those limits, you’re required to release it. Take out the hook, put the fish into an upright position and allow it to regain its strength. When it’s ready, it will swim off.

If the fish is of legal size, lash it to the side of the boat or onto the swim platform. Never bring the fish on board. Once it has caught its breath and starts thrashing, a great deal of damage can be done to the boat and people on board.

Because there are no bones inside a sturgeon’s body, cleaning is relatively easy. All the bones are on the outside in the form of plates, so use a knife to fillet off the plates. Remove the cartilage spine, and all you have left is a big hunk of meat to enjoy.

I cut the meat into chunks, run it through a beer batter and deep-fry it, but there is no bad way to prepare sturgeon.

You’re required to have a current sport fishing license and a Sturgeon Report Card in possession. You’re allowed one sturgeon per day and three per year.

Only white sturgeon is allowed to be kept. If you catch a green sturgeon, you must release it.

To all my faithful readers, I wish you the happiest of holidays. Have a great and safe Christmas and New Year’s. Be sure you make it back for the next column and those I’ll share with you in 2012.

Contact George deVilbiss at