If you know a fisherman who needs deflating—and who doesn't?—ask him to name the biggest freshwater fish found in North America. After he hems and haws and finally declares it to be anything from an alligator gar to a yellow catfish, quietly hand him the picture of the ugly, cantankerous, armor-plated brute being dragged across the middle of these pages. If he is a weekend fisherman there is only a fair chance that he will recognize it as a sturgeon. Even if he is blessed enough to have an intimate knowledge of one or another of the white-water rivers of the Pacific Northwest, odds are that he will not correctly identify the scientific rendering on page 68 as a white sturgeon, or, to be precise, as an Acipenser transmontanus (sturgeon beyond the mountain).
The fact that a vast majority of our 20 million freshwater fishermen are totally ignorant about a fish that attains a weight of more than 1,000 pounds and reaches a length of 12 feet seems incredible. And so it is. But the white sturgeon is an incredible fish—and a mysterious one. In fact, even ichthyologists don't know much about its growth, range and habits, as Yale's Edward C. Migdalski points out in his recently published and excellent Angler's Guide to the Fresh Water Sport Fishes of North America (Ronald Press). It is hard to tell where fact leaves off and fable begins when sturgeon stories are told.
Mostly because of its great size, but also because of a number of other peculiar characteristics, the white sturgeon just naturally seems to generate disbelief and start arguments. In Idaho, where the sturgeon is growing in popularity among sport fishermen, the fish and game department receives more requests for verifications of its size, weight and age to settle bets than it does for all other fishes combined. Even when a man hooks a sturgeon and with his own eyes sees it burst to the surface like an enraged leviathan, his strongest emotion usually is alarmed disbelief. As Ivan Donaldson, famed biologist at Bonneville Dam, said, "They grow very big, and so do the legends. That's only natural, I guess. To anyone seeing it for the first time, it must seem to be a prehistoric monster."
There is some excuse for this reaction, because in a sense the white sturgeon really is a prehistoric monster. It is the largest of six, and some ichthyologists claim seven, species of sturgeon found in U.S. waters, and all sturgeons are what Sunday-supplement writers like to call living fossils—that is, their form basically is unchanged from that of their ancestors in prehistoric times. Sturgeons date back more than 60 million years—which means that they were swimming the seas at a time when the continents of Europe and North America were still emerging.
Of all the sturgeon's primitive characteristics, perhaps the one that intrigues laymen most is that its skeleton is mostly cartilage instead of bone. The sturgeon does not even have a backbone, but running through its body instead is a whitish, flexible tube. This tough, tubular structure is called a notochord, and after it is cleaned and dried and chopped into lengths it can be stored and reputedly makes an excellent soup or chowder, though it is difficult to find anyone who has been curious or hungry enough to test the recipe.
In the beginning, sturgeons were heavily armored, and they still retain bony plates on their heads that extend down along their bodies in a number of longitudinal rows of hard bumps and buttons. Sturgeons also have a protrusible, suckerlike mouth and the peculiar but graceful type of high, slender tail, called heterocercal, found only in primitive fishes.
The sturgeon looks tough and is tough. It can live out of water for long periods, is practically immune to blows about the head and, when molested by man, seems to be seized more by slow rage than panic. There is, for example, the experience (or is it legend?) of the farmhand whose favorite fishing pond was always flooded by the Columbia River's annual freshet. One damp morning after the flood-waters had receded, he hurried to the pond to get first crack at any fish that had been left behind. He rowed to the middle of the pond in a skiff and was just baiting up when a monstrous fish swam by placidly, its exposed back creating a bow wave like a small submarine. Although he had no idea what it was, the farmhand bravely gave chase. Around and around the pond they went, the big fish obviously looking for an exit.
Finally the farmer maneuvered the fish into the shallow end of the pond, and though appalled by its size and violent thrashings, courageously went after it with his oar. After much hammering and splashing the ugly creature eventually seemed nicely dead. The farmhand tied it to the skiff with a stout rope and hitched the skiff to a clump of shore willows. Then he dashed off to find help and a horse. He returned with both, only to find the monster gone, the willows torn out by the roots and being towed around the pond along with the skiff. Another boat was brought to the pond, and the chase started all over again. This time the sturgeon really was hammered to death. A rope was tied around its tail, and the horse dragged it to a nearby pasture.
There are varying reports about the exact size of this sturgeon, but no dispute at all that it was at least 12 feet long and weighed more than 1,100 pounds. It was a big fish, and while the average fisherman's chances of tangling with one like it are remote, as sturgeons go it was not particularly remarkable.
Just how big sturgeons do grow is still a riddle. For years scientists have been trying to run down a report that a sturgeon weighing more than 2,000 pounds was stuffed and exhibited at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and, while many of them are inclined to believe the report, there is no proof to substantiate it. There are two claims for 1,500-pound sturgeon on record—one reputedly taken from the Weiser River in 1898, and the other from the Snake River in 1911. The Snake River fish was weighed on livery-stable scales and later photographed. After studying these photographs some experts have been satisfied that the fish did weigh 1,500 pounds, and others have doubted it. Most experts agree that the biggest certifiable sturgeon, and thus the biggest known fish taken in America's freshwaters, was a 12½-foot, 1,285-pound cow sturgeon that went blundering into a salmon gill net in the Columbia in the spring of 1912. However, some scientists—including Ivan Donaldson—feel certain that larger fish have been caught. The largest sturgeon taken in recent years was an 11½-foot 900-pounder that was hauled from the Columbia near Dalles, Ore. in 1951 by a Yakima Indian. But scarcely a year passes without several wild-eyed, shaken fishermen claiming that they hooked into sturgeon that were much bigger. Some of them may be right.
The white sturgeon is by no means a rare fish. Its numbers have dwindled since the days, some 80 to 90 years ago, when it swarmed up rivers of the far Northwest almost as thickly as buffalo roamed the plains, but it still can be found offshore as well as in most of the principal streams along the Pacific coast, from midway up the California coast north to Alaska. If it is scarce in some regions, it is fairly common, if perhaps never exactly plentiful, in others. During its spawning season, which extends through spring and early summer, sizable numbers of sturgeon, fairly bursting with roe and passion, ascend the Sacramento, Columbia and Fraser rivers. In streams where the big fish are landlocked by dams, particularly the Snake and Salmon rivers, they crowd together ardently in fairly large numbers in certain deep holes along the main current.
Even so, hooking into a white sturgeon is seldom easy. It calls for perseverance, patience and, above all, considerable savvy, not only about the sturgeon's habits but also about the usually turbulent and sometimes almost inaccessible waters in which it lives. But if a fisherman goes to the right place at the right time of year his chances of hooking one of the behemoths are every bit as good as his chances of catching a truly big chinook or steelhead, and probably better than his chances of catching any one of a whole variety of such highly prized saltwater fish as the marlin or swordfish.
The real reason so few sturgeon are hooked is simply that so few fishermen go after them. Until a dozen or so years ago it never even occurred to most fishermen to try to land the monsters with rod and reel. Why this is so is just another mystery. The most common theory is that ordinary fishermen disdained the sturgeon because they regarded it as a strictly commercial fish. There is some truth in this, since even in modern times the sturgeon has had a reputation as a fine food fish. Many gourmets, in fact, rate it as the finest fish of all, not only for its flesh, which is considered a delicacy whether smoked, pickled, or cooked in any conceivable way, but more especially for its roe, which can be processed into expensive caviar.
It is almost forgotten now, but back in the days before dams and pollution interfered with their migratory habits and commercial fishermen slaughtered them close to extinction, the white sturgeon and two smaller cousins, the lake and Atlantic sturgeons, were for years among the most important money fish found in U.S. waters. Only eight years after the Pilgrims landed, a factory on the Kennebec River in Maine was supplying the European market with smoked Atlantic sturgeon, and up until the 1880s so many of the big fish were being taken out of the Hudson River and processed at plants near Albany that housewives of the era called sturgeon Albany beef. By the turn of the century sturgeon fisheries were flourishing along the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards and all through the Great Lakes region, and in 1892 close to 5½ million pounds of white sturgeon were slaughtered in the Columbia River alone.
Everything considered, the white sturgeon probably was the most profitable single fish ever taken from domestic waters, before or since. The lake sturgeon brought a slightly higher price, but the white sturgeon compensated for the difference with its immense size and, more important, with its enormous yield of roe. A single white sturgeon cow, eight feet long or better, often gave up 250 pounds of large, top-grade eggs, which by a relatively simple process (see page 74) could be converted into caviar worth about $750 wholesale and $2,000 or more retail.
Since caviar is practically synonymous with Russia nowadays—an error to begin with, since much of it is produced in Iran—even connoisseurs are mostly unaware that from 1869 to 1900 the U.S. was one of the world's greatest suppliers of the delicacy. In those days firms in such places as Vienna, London, Hamburg, Paris, Stockholm and Amsterdam sent out representatives each spring to buy choice American caviar, and all over Europe epicures argued the merits of such exotic varieties as North Atlantic, South Atlantic and Sacramento River as earnestly as today they argue over Beluga, Ocetrina and Sevruga.
Although it never was considered cheap, caviar was more widely eaten in the U.S. during that period. Most large grocery stores stocked fresh caviar as a matter of course, and any first-class saloon always had a bowlful on its free lunch counter. Sturgeon were being slaughtered so recklessly by the mid-1880s that conservationists and a few farsighted caviar merchants realized that unless the fish were protected by law they would soon be depleted. But no one paid much attention to these warnings, and when bills regulating sturgeon fishing were introduced in some state legislatures, they were killed by fishery operators who howled that their livelihood was threatened. By 1900 commercial fishing for sturgeon had become practically non existent in U.S. waters, and though some fisheries sent out expeditions to scout the coasts of Alaska, South America and Africa, no sizable supply of the fish was discovered.
The rich and flourishing sturgeon and caviar industry in this country came to a shuddering halt and, largely because of foreign caviar dealers, who supplied both the capital and merchandising experience, Russia's small and primitive sturgeon fisheries were expanded to take over the market. Russian caviar did not reach the American market in any appreciable quantities until 1902, and for many years both dealers and consumers considered it generally inferior to the domestic product. When Lake Erie fishermen were lucky enough to take an occasional cow sturgeon, its roe brought $5 a pound from New York dealers, who were paying only $3 a pound for Russian Beluga.
As so often is the case, after sturgeon had almost vanished, most state legislatures righteously began to padlock the empty cannery. Some states passed laws to protect young fish, others set limits to protect breeders; some outlawed nets but allowed set lines, and a few prohibited commercial fishing altogether. As belated as these efforts were, some experts believe that, if nothing else had changed, these laws eventually would have saved the sturgeon. It is a fact that in areas where they had been butchered almost to extinction they began to make a comeback. But, unfortunately, the sturgeon reached the bottom of its decline at a time when U.S. industry was beginning its 20th century climb. Over the next few years dams halted its migration up rivers where it spawned, and industrial plants spewed poisonous waste into lakes, bays and inlets where the sturgeon gathered to feed on lampreys and mollusks. The sturgeon was doomed as a major commercial fish. If it had not been tough and adaptable, it probably would have disappeared completely. After a decade or two the fish was almost forgotten. Then, because of Russia's intense promotion of caviar, it became associated in the public mind with that country.
Since the great white sturgeon ranges waters that were not harnessed by dams until comparatively recently and are relatively unpolluted even now, it fared considerably better than its cousins on the East Coast and in the Great Lakes. Even so, it was slaughtered almost to the vanishing point in the California area, not once but twice, and by 1899 the catch in the Columbia River was down to 73,000 pounds and commercial fishermen lost interest.
But gigantic specimens still come up the Columbia and its tributaries and, reports to the contrary, old records, photographs and folk songs prove that sturgeon were never ignored by ordinary fishermen. In fact, backwoods meat fishermen caught most of the whoppers taken after 1900. Some of these fishermen undoubtedly hoped to make a little money on the side, but primarily they pursued the fish as a sport. Some used set lines that had up to 20 large hooks attached, but the classic method was to use a single line of stout rope or wire with one enormous hook. One end of the line was snubbed around a tree, the hook was baited with chicken or jackrabbit intestines and dropped into a deep hole in the river. When the line was found taut, it was hitched to a horse and the sturgeon was dragged ashore. In areas where sturgeon are found there is still a feeling among local fishermen that the only equipment worth using to catch one is a strong manila rope. They are tolerant of tourist fishermen who want to waste time and effort in trying to land one of the beasts with rod and reel, but they would no more think of going after a sturgeon with the equipment they use for salmon and trout than they would of hunting mule deer with a BB gun. The vast majority of Idaho or Oregon fishermen never set out with deliberate intent to hook a sturgeon, though the number who have hooked one accidentally is large enough. Finding someone who has actually landed a sturgeon is something else again.
Until they find themselves deep in a western canyon struggling with a creature that acts like a cross between a crazed bull and a blistered wild hog, most fishermen simply will not believe how difficult it is to land a white sturgeon that weighs 200 pounds or better. It requires skill, of course, but even when a fisherman possesses this, the outcome usually is determined to a considerable degree by luck. One obvious reason is that sturgeon often have to be fought in fast-water gorges where fishermen have little maneuverability, usually only a few yards of rocky shore or the side of a boat that is anchored at both ends to hold it in the fast current. Another reason is that when a sturgeon is hooked, unlike most other big fish it does not make a run of a couple of hundred yards or so and then halt and try to wrestle free or throw the hook. When a sturgeon discovers it is hooked it begins to run—and keeps on running. Usually it boils to the surface first, and sometimes it throws itself clear of the water a few times in broadside lunges or makes a couple of short runs back and forth with its back exposed, but after it realizes that something actually has the audacity to try to hold it, it gets its bearings, and one can almost sense an outraged snort as it moves out. How far an eight-or nine-foot sturgeon can go before it runs out of steam has never been determined. The poor fisherman who hooks one of the monsters from a bank will never know. All he can do is turn his drag down as far as he dares and then run panting along the shore, stumbling over boulders, barking his shins open, while his line runs out steadily and climbs higher and higher out of the water until, finally, the long-forgotten knot on his reel spool comes into view and then snaps with a melodic ping. "It's exactly like having a taxi pull away from you on a cold rainy night after you've chased it a couple of blocks," said one morose fisherman. "All you can do is stand there and watch it disappear and feel mad and helpless and sorry for yourself."
The sturgeon fisherman in a boat is somewhat better off, particularly if he has had the foresight to hitch his anchors to buoys that can be thrown overboard and thus will leave him free to chase the runaway fish. Sometimes, if he is lucky, he corners the sturgeon in a deep pool surrounded by shallows; sometimes the sturgeon may go thrashing into the shallows or run aground on a bar. But the whipping head of even a six-foot sturgeon can chop through a 50-pound-test nylon line as if it were butcher's string. There is no recorded case of a boat fisherman ever actually horsing a truly big sturgeon to a standstill, or making it turn, though quite a number of fishermen have chased sturgeon for two or three miles before their lines broke or ran off the reel.
No one knows the name of the first fisherman who was bold enough to try to catch a sturgeon with rod and reel but, as the Idaho Fish and Game Department has pointed out, most of the first anglers were really making tentative casts because "a really big sturgeon was considered something to think about—but not to tie onto." A "really big" sturgeon nowadays is one that weighs 200 pounds or more, though nobody doubts that, as sturgeon still go, a 200-pounder is just a middling fish. After the Bonneville Dam across the Columbia was completed in 1937, it was generally conceded that truly huge sturgeon would never be seen in the rivers again, but then the Yakima Indian caught his 900-pounder in 1951 and proved this false, and since then so many fishermen have claimed to have hooked fish as big or bigger that nobody can separate fact from fancy. Since scientists have established that the sturgeon can live in almost any environment—from the salty ocean to clear mountain lakes, and in temperatures ranging from freezing to 74°—some of them believe a proper search might disclose it lurking in practically all the streams and lakes scattered throughout the West that are fed by Pacific Coast waters. Experts are particularly bemused by the claim of a Montana fisherman that he caught a sturgeon just a few inches shy of eight feet and weighing 275 pounds while fishing in Flathead Lake, which is on a Columbia tributary about 700 miles from Bonneville. Scientists won't authenticate this catch because they didn't have a chance to examine it, but they agree that undoubtedly it was a sturgeon that swam upstream years ago and became trapped. Some of them have even speculated that the legendary monsters that fishermen claim to have sighted in such an uncommonly large number of western lakes are also trapped sturgeon. The fact that in some instances two or three successive generations of fishermen supposedly have been confounded or scared half to death when these local Loch Ness monsters have come wallowing to the surface only helps confirm the theory.
Although the Columbia has long been famed for its sturgeon, most of the big fish taken on rod and reel have come from the Snake River between the point where it ends as a boundary between Oregon and Idaho and follows a deep course through rolling greasewood-covered ranchlands to the little Idaho town of Glenns Ferry. Why the biggest sturgeon congregate along this stretch of river is unknown. They are more numerous farther upstream, particularly in the white-water Hell's Canyon area, and there are other sections of the river just as deep where food is as plentiful. Nevertheless, for as long as anyone can remember, the largest sturgeon have been found in this area, both in and out of the spawning season, and though they are scarce by comparison with the old days, Glenns Ferry still proudly proclaims itself Home of the Sturgeon.
Fishing for sturgeon with rod and reel started in this area on a small scale in the years immediately after World War II when some unknown hero managed to land a 200-pounder. Within a few days a Glenns Ferry citizen caught a 202-pounder near the same spot. A third fish of 218 pounds was taken, and interest increased. Among these early anglers was a Boise resident named Glen Howard, who became so adroit that over a three-year period he caught 33 sturgeon and, on the day before Easter in 1953, with a whole troop of boy scouts as witnesses, he hooked into a 394-pounder and after an hour and 45 minutes brought it to gaff. This record for hook and line still stands, though another Idaho fisherman, Harmon Kimball, came close in 1956 by catching a 375-pounder. In the same year a storekeeper named Willard Cravens accomplished what most sturgeon fishermen considered the impossible by landing a 360-pound fish on spinning tackle. It was the biggest freshwater fish ever taken on spinning equipment, and it is a record that most people expect will go unbroken for a long time. There is also some surprise that the 394-pound record for a sturgeon caught on rod and reel has endured so long. Bigger fish are hooked every year.
Before fishermen go dashing off to break this record, however, there are a couple of points they would do well to keep in mind. The first is that, except for truly dedicated anglers, sturgeon fishing at its best usually is long hours of boredom punctuated by brief minutes of futile excitement. The sturgeon is a bottom feeder, and when it gets hungry and lowers its fleshy mouth like a vacuum cleaner and begins to scour the river bottom it will pick up almost anything: mollusks, frogs, crayfish, dead fish, dead cats and even onions and potatoes. There is no way a fisherman can lure a sturgeon or hasten its hunger pangs. All he can do is cast his bait in a likely spot, find a place on the riverbank that is not too hostile to his backside—and wait. Sometimes it requires quite a lot of waiting.
Luckily, the sturgeon lives in a part of the country renowned for its scenic beauty, and for some fishermen just the sight of such vast expanses of untrampled land hemmed by snowcapped mountain ranges is worth the time spent. For fishermen who go after sturgeon in the heavy waters far up Hell's Canyon there is, besides even more spectacular scenery, the thrill of riding some of the roughest rapids on the North American continent. But for fishermen who demand fast action, sturgeon fishing often seems to be meat fishing at its dullest. The second, and by far more important, fact for tyro sturgeon fishermen to remember is that the success or failure of the trip depends on the guide they use. Sturgeon fishing is a specialized sport, and just because a guide is licensed and equipped to take out fishing and hunting parties is no guarantee that he knows where sturgeon are or how to catch them. Fishermen have traveled 2,000 or 3,000 miles, spent a week fishing steadily and have returned home empty-handed and considerably poorer simply because they used a guide who had never caught a sturgeon and, like any ordinary novice, relied on secondhand information about how and where to find them. Many guides are not being deliberately dishonest when they profess to be qualified. Until they go after sturgeon a few times themselves they simply don't realize it requires as much special knowledge as bonefishing or tarpon fishing.
Sturgeon have been caught in the dead of winter as well as in the hottest months of the summer, but May seems to be the month in which they are most active. Their spawning season is well under way then, and in a few regions—around Pittsburg Landing downriver from Hell's Canyon, for one—fish of 100 pounds or better often are profuse. Over a period of a week a party of four caught more than two dozen fish in the area a couple of years ago. Many were under three feet, but four were over six feet, and no count was kept of the great number that were hooked and got away. This party was guided by Don Smith, a well-known Salmon River guide and boatman. Smith also took Yale's Migdalski on a memorable trip to the same region. Migdalski, who is almost as famed an angler as he is an ichthyologist, hoped to obtain a sturgeon for a museum exhibit. He was not particularly impressed by claims made for it as a fighting fish. But literally within a minute or two after he had dropped a line in the river he revised his opinion. He felt a heavy pull, and when he jerked his rod upward a nine-or 10-foot sturgeon came boiling to the surface. He managed to hold the fish while it dashed back and forth and even while it submerged to rub its nose on the river bottom. But then the fish headed downstream like an express train, Migdalski's line ran out and broke melodiously, and he was left standing there, shins bloodied from rock-hopping. After that Migdalski and a companion caught smaller sturgeon of all sizes, including one 120-pounder and one 180-pounder, but saw no more behemoths. One was enough. In recounting his experience in his book, Migdalski said he and his companion agreed "the adventure...was equal to any of our previous fishing exploits indifferent parts of the world."
Sturgeon will take almost any bait, but Don Smith and other experienced guides prefer to use fresh smelt. A single smelt is just the right size for a 9/0 hook, and sturgeon seem to be attracted to smelts because of their strong odor. After a smelt is threaded on the hook it is tied securely with bright-colored fluorescent yarn, partly in the hope that it will catch the eye of a sturgeon but also to prevent it from being torn off by the fast-flowing water. The terminal tackle used to deliver this tidbit is considered particularly important. Ideally, the line, preferably monofilament-type nylon of at least 50-pound test, is attached to a three-way swivel. The hook with an 18-to 20-inch 30-pound test leader is tied to one end of the swivel, and a 12-inch leader of the same strength with a four-ounce sinker is tied to the other. Whatever test line is used, the leaders to the hook and sinker should be correspondingly weaker, because one of the great annoyances in fishing the Snake is that a fisherman's hook or sinker is always getting caught on the rock-strewn bottom. It is better to sacrifice a snagged hook or weight than great lengths of main line.
Spinning gear, even the heaviest ocean type, is generally ineffective when a big sturgeon is hooked, but fishermen who are out for thrills or glory probably will continue to use it, and there is no reason why they should not. However, an angler who wants to fit his equipment to the fish should have an ocean surf-casting rod about 9½ feet long and a casting reel with a spool at least three inches in diameter and capable of holding 200 yards of line. It should have a star drag, a freewheeling release, or clutch, and bear the trademark of a good manufacturer.
Sturgeon usually are found in deep pools of fairly fast-flowing water along the main current. A place where several main currents come together over deep water is ideal. Most fishermen make the mistake of fishing in deep still-water pools, probably because set lines are habitually submerged in such places. Sturgeon do nose through pools of this type, particularly at night, but more of them cruise along holes closer to the main current. The general idea is to place bait so it is swept into these pockets by the current without being caught in the current itself.
Now that the great white sturgeon is getting recognition as a gamefish, some scientists are beginning to speculate that the Atlantic sturgeon, which may grow to be 600 pounds, and the lake sturgeon, which hits 300 pounds or better, also could be found in greater numbers than anyone realizes if fishermen only would search for them. Occasionally there is a brief hullabaloo in the fishing columns when some un-suspecting angler accidentally hooks into an Atlantic sturgeon, and usually there are amazed comments about what a great fight ensued. Migdalski believes Atlantic sturgeon probably could be located in concentrated groups along the eastern seaboard, and it is known that they sometimes venture into the shad sport-fishing area at Windsor Locks on the Connecticut River.
About 50,000 pounds of lake sturgeon are taken commercially each year and, while the fish has become relatively scarce in such areas as Lake of the Woods, the Great Lakes and the Ohio and St. Lawrence rivers, it probably still exists in large enough numbers to offer good sport if anglers decided to concentrate on them. Smaller lakes may also have more sturgeon than fishermen realize. It apparently never occurs to people who spear sturgeon through the ice during the winter to go after them with rod and reel at other times of the year.
Fishermen who want a few quiet hours by the side of a river to unwind after a hard week at the office should, of course, avoid sturgeon. There is the sad case of the Oregon resident who was relaxing on a small island in the Columbia when a six-foot sturgeon took his hook. Before he could do much of anything his line snagged behind a rock, and he and a friend climbed into a small rubber boat and rowed out to release it. That was a mistake, because the sturgeon was still on the line, and it simply took off, dragging the boat behind. After being towed around for an hour the fisherman was exhausted and handed his rod to his friend. After another hour the sturgeon finally was brought to the surface and there was a terrific wet, splashing struggle before the fish could be hauled into the frail boat. Since the fishermen had nothing to kill the sturgeon with, they wedged its head under one seat and its tail under the other. Then, wet to the skin and bruised and worn, one man sprawled atop the still-bucking fish while his friend rowed to shore. There are, obviously, easier ways to get sport, or even caviar.
A Columbia River legend says the way to land a sturgeon is to hitch him to a horse and drag him to the nearest pasture.
Largest of seven U.S. species, the white sturgeon grows slowly, has reached 12 feet in length and more than 1,000 pounds. Bony armor plate protects its head and extends in rows of humps and buttons along its sides.
Hooked on a set line, a sturgeon will often plunge to rub his nose on the river bottom.
It is a shame as well as a waste that sturgeon fishermen do not make their own caviar. Most of the larger fish are fairly bursting with roe, and the recipe is not particularly difficult. In whipping up a batch of homemade caviar, it is necessary to remove the roe from a sturgeon as soon as it is killed. Do not wash the roe, because that softens the eggs, but place it in a wire sieve with openings large enough for the eggs to drop through, and gently rub it back and forth until the eggs separate from the fat and connective tissue. Care must be taken not to crush or bruise the individual eggs. At this point the eggs can be delicately washed with cool water. After the eggs have drained gently, blend in salt in proportions of 7 to 10 pounds of salt to 100 pounds of eggs. Mix thoroughly, still taking care not to crush or bruise the eggs, and in 10 to 15 minutes a froth will form on top of the mixture. Skim this off, spread the eggs on a screen, put in a cool place and let them drain for 10 to 12 hours.
Caviar can be stored in small oaken kegs that have been scoured, dried thoroughly and allowed to cool. It can be eaten within a few hours after preparation, but its taste is improved if it is allowed to age for at least a month. Some people store it for three months. Caviar should be kept in a cool but not too highly refrigerated place. The best temperature is between 28° and 32°.
One final hint: never mix together roe taken from different sturgeons; eggs vary in size and taste.
Fresh sturgeon can be cooked in as many ways as other fish, but most Westerners prefer it fried. Smoked sturgeon is, of course, a delicacy and can be found in specialty food shops. The Russians have another simple preparation that they call balyk. It tastes a great deal like smoked salmon and is made by putting pieces of sturgeon in a tub, being careful that they do not touch, and then covering them with a thick layer of salt. A light sprinkling of saltpeter is added to give the fish a reddish color. After nine to 12 days the meat is removed and soaked in fresh water until all traces of salt disappear. It is then placed in the sun until completely dry and moved to an airy, shady spot until it begins to develop a slight mold, which shows it is cured. This last process takes a month to six weeks to complete.