In the past couple of decades one place in particular has become synonymous with catching giant sturgeon. It is, of course, Canada’s Fraser Valley in Southern British Columbia. Recently I was lucky enough to visit this region and sample its legendary sturgeon fishing for myself. The Fraser river itself is immense, running some 850 miles from it’s source in the Rocky Mountains all the way to the Pacific Ocean at Vancouver. The majority of sturgeon fishing is concentrated on the river’s lower reaches, with most charter boats being based in the “city” of Chilliwack. I had booked 3 days fishing, along with my friend Tim, with a local company called Aqua Ventures, which is operated and skippered by experienced guide Grant McCallum, who I met in person at the “Go Fishing” Show in Birmingham earlier in the year. When looking at the Fraser as an angling venue, don’t expect to have the river to yourself. You will see plenty of other boats over the course of the day, but the river is so vast that the angling pressure is hardly noticeable. Besides sturgeon, the Fraser is possibly the world’s most important salmon river, as it channels millions of pacific salmon towards their breeding grounds each year. This huge influx of fish draws more than anglers, and you will find yourself sharing the fishing with Osprey, Bald Eagles, Harbour Seals and Black Bears; all of which we saw during our trip.
The night before we were due to start fishing, Grant came out to meet us at the hotel and we discussed prospects and tactics over a cold beer. Just as well it was only the one beer, because we were up bright and early next morning, heading for the slipway to launch the boat onto the mighty Fraser River.
Before we could start fishing for sturgeon, we needed to catch some fresh bait, so we headed to a slack area of the Harrison river, which joins the Fraser at Chilliwack. We were after a small but greedy species known as “pikeminnows”. From what I’d read about sturgeon fishing back here in the UK, I was under the illusion that Fraser River sturgeon were caught almost exclusively on salmon roe. Whilst this is used, and productively so at certain times of the year, it is not the only bait used for sturgeon. Besides the pikeminnows (which are fished whole as deadbaits) and salmon eggs, there are other fish-based baits, including salmon gills, smelt (or “hooligans”) and “stinky bait” – carcasses of salmon which have died during their migration and started to decompose, leaving a very smelly bait! The tackle we were using was extremely robust, consisting of a specimen catfish rod paired with a Shimano TLD20 multiplier reel, which was filled with 120lb braid. Leads required to hold bottom were anything up to 18 ounces and our hooklength was a braided line with a 200lb breaking strain, to resist the abrasive flanks of a sturgeon.
With enough bait to last us the day, we blasted downstream aboard the super-fast Aqua Ventures jet boat and fished several of Grant’s hotspots without getting as much as a bite. This was another part of sturgeon fishing which surprised me. If a sturgeon is nearby and hungry, you will generally get a bite quite quickly. If you haven’t had a bite in around 30 or 40 minutes, it can be time to think about moving. So rather than sitting in our selected swim all day, waiting for a leviathan to search out our baits, we were actively searching them out in every deep gulley or other feature we came across. Eventually we arrived at one of Grant’s favourite spots, and before the second rod was cast out, the first bait was taken. Alas, this first bite was missed, but it gave us a boost that we’d found a feeding fish and it wasn’t too long before the next bite came.
This time the barbless hook set well and I was in battle with my first sturgeon. Immediately the fish showed me who was going to dictate this battle, as it started taking line from an extremely tight clutch! Sturgeon fight all the way to the boat, and really let you know you’ve hooked a hefty fish. After about eight minutes, I brought the fish to the surface, before it dived and went on another short but fierce run. Eventually the fish lay subdued on the surface, giving Grant the opportunity to lean over the side of the boat and secure a grip around the root of the tail. He then grabbed the leader and lifted the fish into a canvas sling, which was filled with water so that the sturgeon could lie relaxed and comfortable, whilst the tagging and measuring procedures were undertaken.
Sturgeon really are wondrous creatures and being able to study one close-up was enlightening. So many of their features are so perfectly designed for their environment that the species has been able to exist almost unchanged for millions of years. The fins of a sturgeon are extremely cartilaginous, similar to those of a shark. The currents of the Fraser shift all manner of debris, and the riverbed can be strewn with boulders, submerged trees and whatever else gets in the river’s way. So for a bottom dweller like the sturgeon, fins need to be tough to resist damage. Another damage defence is the sturgeon’s external plates. Sturgeon have no true scales to protect their body, but instead have large armour plates with sharp tips on them. In between the plates is a thick coating of mucous which protects the fish further. The mouth of a sturgeon is telescopic and set well back, behind a row of four barbules for detecting the next potential meal in the murky depths, making up for the species’ tiny eyes.
The fish was returned with the minimum of fuss and next it was Tim’s turn to take a fish. Tim doesn’t fish, so he was given a rude awakening when a 50lb sturgeon decided it was game for a tussle and took his bait! As the fish took line and Tim tried to comprehend what on earth was happening, he shouted out the now immortal line, “I’ve got a whale or somert on ‘ere!”. The sturgeon gave Tim a crash course in playing big fish, and things could have gone terribly wrong when the braid became wrapped around the tip of the rod! Luckily, the fish didn’t run, and Grant managed to unwrap the tip just in time! The rest of the battle went smoothly, and as the second fish of the day was landed, things were looking good.
We moved the boat a little way downstream and the baits were re-cast. Soon afterwards there was some interest on the right-hand rod. With a bit more confidence this time, I hit into the fish, which immediately felt heavier than the first. Within a few seconds, the fish took me completely by surprise and leapt clear of the water! I only caught a glimpse of it, but instantly I knew that this fish was no mean adversary. The second the sturgeon landed back in the water, it was on another run. I eventually managed to turn it’s head and regained a lot of line. That is, until the fish was nearing the boat, and it decided to bolt once more. Unsurprisingly, this sturgeon was by far the largest of the day, at 61 inches long and 25 inches girth, which made it around 100lb in weight! What a fish to end the day with!
Day two was to be completely different. We didn’t manage to catch any fresh pikeminnows, despite seeing shoals of hundreds the day before. The sun did made an appearance, which gave us some brief but welcome spells of warmth and it was during one of these sunny spells that Tim hooked his second sturgeon of the trip. This one came to the boat really easily, but just as it was coming into view, it did the usual trick of running hard towards the river bed. Within a couple of minutes the fish was in the boat, and it ended up being our smallest yet, at 42 inches long and a “mere” 30lb.
Try as we might for the rest of the day, we couldn’t provoke another take. We fished at least ten different holes, but had nothing more than a half-hearted nibble all day. Grant was trying his absolute hardest to get us another fish and we stayed fishing as long as we possibly could; arriving back at the slipway five minutes before it closed! We weren’t the only ones suffering though, for despite the number of boats on the river, only a handful of fish were caught.
Next morning we made the most of our hot breakfast. The weather had turned windy and wet, leaving our prospects of comfort on the boat looking quite slim. Still, it would have to be a slow day for the fishing to be any worse than the day before, so off we set for the river determined to land some fish. We quickly managed to catch enough bait-sized pikeminnows to suffice us for the day, and set off towards the area which had produced the 3 fish on the first day. Nothing showed, but we kept on moving and trying new holes until we found the fish.
After a few hours, a rod tip started bouncing, and I struck into what I was now calling a “small fish” (I would never dare call a 30lb fish small if I wasn’t sturgeon fishing!). It was an unremarkable fight compared to the large fish of the first day, but after fishing all of the previous day without reward, I was very relieved. We expected some larger fish to follow the small one, but it didn’t happen in that area, so we were back to searching out the fish elsewhere. This was where Grant’s vast experience of the river came to the fore. As time turned against us and we were left with little more than an hour to land another fish, Grant took us farther upstream than we, or any of the charter boats had been fishing. “This is a good hole”, he said confidently, “I’ve had some real good ones from here in the past”.
So, the largest remaining pikeminnows were selected and mounted on the hooks. Some extra sturgeon-attracting liquid was added to the baits and the three rods were put out in the hope of a last-gasp fish. We took in our last few minutes on the Fraser, and watched in amazement as a bald eagle flew right past our heads, only to dive and delicately pluck a dead pikeminnow from the surface. As we were contemplating how we could coax the bird back to swoop again so we could video it, I noticed a rod tip twitch. Tim had earlier, extremely graciously, said that because I was an angler and he wasn’t, he would be happy to let me strike the next bite. So when this final bite came I needed no persuasion to reach for the rod and wait for the bite to develop. A steady series of twitches and pulls followed, before the rod started to arc over and I struck the hook home. So began a peculiar battle with the fish. It seemed to be holding high up in the water and I was convinced at several points that we would see the fish jump, but it didn’t. It was almost impossible to gauge the size of the fish because one minute it was taking line ferociously, and the next it was swimming straight towards the boat faster than I could reel in!
Eventually we caught sight of the fish and we all let out a bit of a gasp. This sturgeon was easily the largest we’d caught and it was a 2-man operation to lift it into the boat. “Good things come to those who wait!”, Grant said. How right he was, because at 67 inches long and approximately 130lb in weight, this fish is my largest to date of any species and naturally I was thrilled to have caught it. It capped off the session in the best possible way and left me eager to return to the Fraser for a try at an even bigger fish!
We also made a 35 minute film of the action, which is now on YouTube. You can watch the full film below:
I chose to fish with Aqua Ventures – a company I spotted at the Go Fishing Show at Birmingham NEC. Right from the off, Grant McCallum who owns and operates the company was nothing less than professional in the way he organised our trip. I really can’t recommend him enough. The boat is first class, the tackle is definitely up to the job and Grant’s knowledge of the Fraser River is vast. This man knows what he’s talking about! The attention to detail really made our trip – from Grant coming out to meet us at the hotel the night before we fished, then picking us up there each morning, to the food supplied on the boat, which was both thoughtful and tasty. If you fancy trying your hand at sturgeon fishing with a good friendly guide, this man will put you on the fish. If you like, you can take a look at the website for Grant’s company, Aqua Ventures at www.AquaVentures.ca or visit their Facebook page.
Chilliwack is situated around an hour’s drive East of Vancouver, on Canada’s West Coast. You can fly directly into Vancouver from a number of UK airports. I booked my flights through Canadian Affair, www.canadianaffair.com who are part of the Thomas Cook group and offer a good range of flights to Vancouver from at least 3 UK airports.
I booked my accommodation through Aqua Ventures, who put us into the Rhombus Hotel, which is centrally located in Chilliwack and has an indoor pool, jacuzzi, bar and excellent restaurant and bar meals. There are also a few pubs, restaurants and a convenient tackle shop within walking distance. I used Chilliwack as a stop-off point on my journey from Calgary, over the Canadian Rockies, down to Vancouver and I can vouch first-hand that the area has an immense amount to offer! We packed everything into a fortnight, but you could easily take a couple of months to cover the same territory.
Sturgeon can be caught right through the summer, but the peak times are Spring and Autumn, which coincides with the spawning migration peaks of Smelt (Spring) and various Salmon species (Autumn & Spring). I fished in late September,and Grant was expecting the real monsters to go on the feed during October and November.
If you would like any further information on sturgeon fishing in the Fraser Valley, or have any other questions, I can always be contacted by email or you can get in tough with Grant of Aqua Ventures via his Facebook page.
Good Fishing to you all.
Further information about the history, life cycle and biology of Acipenser transmontanus – the white sturgeon – can be found on Wikipedia here: white sturgeon Wiki
And on Fishbase here: white sturgeon on Fishbase.org.