It is September. My car window is down, and the warm breeze and sun are gracing my face. The sky is a magnificent blue with no clouds or any chance of rain. I have a seemingly endless view of peaceful lakes, thick boreal forest, untamed rivers, slow-trickling creeks, and rolling grass-covered hills. I’m located two hours north of Edmonton, Alberta. As I turn off the paved highway, a tunnel of trees guides me down a long, windy country road to the boat launch on the large, fast-moving, mountain-fed North Saskatchewan River.
As an avid angler, I regularly pursue walleye, pike, and lake trout; however, there is one fish in Alberta I have only dreamed of catching: the lake sturgeon.
According to alberta.ca, lake sturgeon have coarse skin, no scales, and can live up to 100 years. They have the longest life span among the province’s cool-water fish. There’s something a little mind-boggling about the idea of catching a fish that could be older than I am. But today, for the brief moment between catch and release, my journey and a lake sturgeon’s will intersect.
Nick Porayko, the captain and owner of Lunker’s Fishing Adventures, has the boat anchored and waiting at the launch, so I quickly load my gear. As the jet engine shoots us down the river, its echo bounces off the tree- covered riverbanks.
The view from the boat is impressive, with the autumn leaves changing from green to yellow, orange, and red. Much of the landscape is untouched. With no other engine sound filling the air, I feel like the first person to fish this river.
As the boat glides around each bend, my thoughts are focused on catching a fish referred to as a living dinosaur. I can’t wait to feel the torpedo-shaped weight of the grey, armor-plated sturgeon.
The Adventure Begins
Nick pulls back on the throttle and the boat comes to a stop at our first fishing location. Here, you can see the quick change in the current of the water.
We use seven-foot medium-heavy rods and a six- ounce weight with a standard number three hook, baited with dew worms. Nick is well respected on the North Saskatchewan River and advises me that patience is a virtue when fishing for sturgeon. This watercourse is reportedly home to 28 different fish species, and it isn’t long before I catch both silver redhorse and white sucker. I’ve already caught two fish I have not reeled in before, so the day is off to a phenomenal start.
When the first sturgeon begins nibbling the bait, the bite is so soft I can’t feel it. I anticipated that a fish as big as a sturgeon would hit the hook like a freight train, but I quickly learned otherwise. Lake sturgeon have no teeth, and the mouth, on the underside of the snout, is used as a suction device to capture food.
The Tap Comes
With my full attention focused on watching the fishing rod’s tip, I wait intently for the most minor movement. Finally, my patience is rewarded. A subtle tap, tap, and I tighten the line. With one full-bodied, sweeping motion, I set the hook. The strength of this sturgeon bends the tip of my fishing rod right over. I hold tight as I watch my reel relentlessly and aggressively give up line. I tighten the drag to bring back some of the line, but this sturgeon isn’t giving up its inhaled bait.
The power battle plays out time after time, another three rounds, and each time I tighten the drag a little more, trying to avoid hurting or stressing the fish unnecessarily. She jumps out of the water in one final attempt to display her strength. Slowly and steadily, I now reel in the line as she surrenders to the bait.
We quickly remove the circle hook from the sturgeon’s lip, and I rest her gently in my hands for a quick picture. I can’t hide the emotion I feel or wipe the smile from my face.
Thinking Fish First
Nick has a fish-first attitude and guides my release effort perfectly. I hold my hands below the fish and lower her into the water. It’s a special moment. I give the sturgeon freedom to go, but she decides to rest a while longer, allowing me to give thanks. Nick has the GoPro positioned beneath the water and when the sturgeon is ready, her immense power and energy are captured as she kicks off like an Olympic swimmer to the pool’s far end.
I caught and released three lake sturgeon that day. Each provided a different experience to reel in against the fast-moving, negotiating water. I have a much deeper appreciation for the captivating dinosaurs of the North Saskatchewan River now.
A successful day of fishing for new species means learning from a knowledgeable angler, absorbing infor- mation, and growing. The genuine reward is the beauty of the surroundings, the smell of changing leaves, the feel of the fast-flowing water, the adrenaline, and the en- ergy I get from people when I’m fishing. Receiving such wondrous gifts and catching the fish I came for is a day I will never forget.