Several years ago my old high school buddy, Al (Class of ’58 – yeah, I mean old!), drove down from Oregon to go fishing with me. Our plans included a visit to the Delta for a couple of days to get him onto a big ol’ sturgeon. We towed the boat with the motorhome and spent the night at Brannan Island. The motorhome adds a very comfortable dimension for us old graybeards. There’s nothing quite like having all the conveniences of home available when the day’s fishing is done. A hot shower and a soft couch is quite an improvement over the V-berth after a long day of fishing.
We launched at Brannan Island State Park near Rio Vista (California) on Wednesday morning, then headed directly to nearby Decker Island and anchored near the edge of the ship channel. I have caught several sturgeon at that spot over the years, but haven’t had much luck recently. I very seriously considered cruising down to Suisun Bay, but since we planned to stay at Brannan Island that night, it seemed a waste of fishing time to do so much cruising to and from the bay.
We began fishing a bit before noon as an incoming tide was well underway. The tide would begin to turn about 3 O’clock and we planned to fish ‘til nearly dark if necessary. We tossed a couple of lines out over the transom in hopes of catching Al’s first ever striper or sturgeon. My hope was to get him onto a mighty sturgeon for a fishing memory he’d never forget. One line had my usual lamprey chunks on both hooks as our best offering for attracting a sturgeon. The other line was baited with shad. This was Al’s first sturgeon trip and while the odds of getting someone onto a sturgeon in one trip were pretty slim, we had high hopes.
Predictably, the shad were high maintenance as the little nippers kept stealing them. The lamprey attracted only a few nips but the thieving little nippers couldn’t steal it. Occasionally I added small bits of lamprey to the hooks to keep the scent fresh and strong. Al managed to snag one very small striper with the shad and we tossed it back. He was pleased to have actually reeled it in. He’d “caught” his first striper. I had much higher aspirations for him.
Finally, about 1600, after the outgoing current became just strong enough to turn the boat, there was a gentle sturgeon nibble on the lamprey. And… we were hooked into something of substance! At first the fish seemed to swim toward the boat as the hook was set and we thought we had just a small, shaker sturgeon on. But soon it was apparent that it was no small fish.
I reeled in the other line and commenced shouting instructions to Al as he began the fight:
“Don’t give him any slack, man!” I hollered. “Don’t let him rest! If he isn’t taking line, pull up, reel down!”
“Whatever you do, do NOT get the rod tangled into those raised motors! Reach way out over them if you have to!”
“If the line suddenly feels slack, reel like heck – he might be running toward the boat!”
“Aw, shut up, Dale”, I said to myself. And no doubt Al had the same thought. But Lord knows it’s hard to remain calm and collected in the middle of a battle!
Al’s face showed his disbelief at the power of the fish he was suddenly battling – he’d never fought such a mighty fish before. He was completely awed by the fish’s ability to peel off line against a strong drag. The Penn’s lever drag was pressed forward to the stop and yet the fish ran at will, taking line with wild abandon. Al has fought his share of steelhead and salmon and knows how to fight fish, but nothing could have prepared him for the raw power of the mighty sturgeon. He traded the rod from one hand to the other and back again, his muscles aching from the stress of the battle.
Al’s sturgeon was unusually strong! He refused to come to the boat and remained unseen for nearly twenty minutes. Al was beside himself as he fought the fish of a lifetime! For twenty minutes the battle wore on, taking its toll on both fighters. Eventually the big fish began to tire and came nearer the boat. When the monster first surfaced, Al nearly dropped in disbelief; he had just reeled in the biggest fish he had
I had the net in hand and as the tired beast lay in submission by the boat I gave him a poke with the handle to see if he had any more fight in him. It was about this time that things got dicey…
The big sturgeon did not react to the poke, and I attempted to net him. In the process, I snagged the second hook in the netting when the big sturgeon was only about half netted. It was about this time that I gouged myself with the hook and ripped my finger open. %*$#@&!!!
So there we were having the time of our lives, one hook firmly attached to the net, the other firmly attached to the fish, the fish out of the net and me bleeding like a stuck hog. The only things in our favor were the very firm hookup we had and the fact that he had nearly given up the fight. We were living a Keystone Kop movie! Somehow, while bleeding all over the net and the fish, I managed to get the sturgeon stuffed back into the net. I then grabbed the fish knocker and administered a few righteous whacks to the fish’s broad head – and I bled all over the fish knocker. I heaved the net and the fish over the gunwale and onto the deck. I bled on the gunwale. I bled on the deck. I was ecstatic! Al was wide-eyed in amazement at his huge catch. I bled on Al. I splattered blood everywhere. We were having a ball!