Fraser River sturgeon

I’VE been in love with rivers for us long as I can remember. They have been a constant source of joy and inspiration to me as we flowed together through the years. I was brought up in the Thames Valley west of London and first learned to fish in its tiny tributaries before graduating to the main river in search of big, hard fighting barbel and the prolific shoals of sparkling roach and dace.

One of 14 sturgeon that Martin Salter and Ben Diggles landed during a four days fishing on the Fraser River in Canada.

As I grew older and travelled further I fell in love with the crystal clear, chalk stream waters of the Berkshire Kennet. A river which, in the 70s and 80s, was as close to ‘fishing heaven’ as I have ever found. It was this river that drew me to Reading where I bought my first house alongside its banks so I could fish its hallowed waters from my own back garden.

Thirty years on and the love affair with flowing water shows no signs of abating. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have fished a few of the great rivers of the world. The Spey in Scotland for salmon, the Subansiri and Cauvery in India for the mighty mahseer, the Loire and the Saone in France for carp, the mountain streams of New Zealand for brown trout and the Uruguay River on the Argentinian border for the beautiful golden dorado. But there was one place that kept calling me back – somewhere I first saw but never properly fished in 2001 whilst on honeymoon. A river that drains the Rocky Mountains in Canada and which flows with serenity and ferocity in equal measure through some of the most stunning landscapes on this planet. A river that is one of the few places to hold the giant, prehistoric, predatory fish – the great white sturgeon. It was these incredible creatures, often living to over 100 years and growing to 1,000 pounds and more, that had brought me back to the Fraser River after a 16 year break.

The opportunity arose when Vancouver Island was announced as the venue for the eighth World Recreational Fishing Conference in July of this year and I was asked to present a talk on engaging anglers in political advocacy and practical action for river restoration.

For the welfare of the fish, surgeon over five feet in length are not allowed to be brough on board a boat.

There was a sizeable delegation from Australia at the conference including several friends and colleagues that I got to know in my time living in Sydney. A quick email suggesting that it would be rude not to sample the delights of the Fraser River while we were over there elicited several replies. Quite a few of the Aussies were on an organised ‘study tour’ courtesy of their very generous Government. This meant that they had little flexibility in their post conference schedule, although I did note this included one day after the sturgeon.

Now if I’m going to travel halfway round the world in search of a ‘bucket list’ species then I want to give myself a reasonable chance of success. I figured three days after sturgeon and perhaps a day chasing the hard fighting Chinook salmon would pitch the odds in my favour and provide a perfect end to the trip. Luckily my mate and fellow Fisho writer, Ben Diggles, was up for the challenge and so all we had to do was sort out who to go with.

A huge variety of guiding outfits, of varying quality,have sprung up throughout the lower Fraser valley since the legendary Fred Helmer begun offering visiting anglers the chance to pursue giant sturgeon in the 1980s. The one name that kept coming up trumps in the research I did was Cascade Fishing Adventures run by Marc and Maggie Laynes out of Chilliwack.

Cascade are now the longest running guiding company in business on the Fraser with 27 years of experience under their belts and an enviable record of landing huge salmon and sturgeon from their well appointed boats and knowledgeable guides. A quick call to Maggie to arrange the dates and accommodation and Ben and I were all set to do battle with the Fraser River monsters when the time came.

Sturgoen are fabulous, hard-fighting predators that run, jump and make you work for every yard of line.

The Fraser River is the longest river in British Columbia and flows for 1,375 kilometres into the Strait of Georgia at the city of Vancouver. The river’s power can be seen from the annual discharge at its estuary on the Pacific Ocean measuring a staggering 3,550 cubic metres per second.

The Fraser is an incredible ecosystem and holds all five species of Pacific salmon: Chinook, Coho, Chum, Pink, Sockeye, as well as Steelhead and Cutthroat Trout. While a typical white sturgeon averages between 30 and 100 lb – big enough for any freshwater fish – these are mere babies when compared to the giants which can exceed 12 feet in length and 1000 lb. In 2012 a massive white sturgeon weighing an estimated 1,100 lb, and measuring over 12ft, was caught, released and claimed as the river record. Every year fish far larger are hooked and never seen as they simply cannot be brought to the boat or bank on conventional rod line no matter how strong the guy is at the other end. 

I’ve long ago given up being obsessed by the size of the fish I target and while I met guys out there on a mission to catch a 500 pounder (and good luck to them) I just wanted to experience the thrill of battling one or two of these prehistoric creatures in the beautiful surroundings of the Fraser Valley. As it turned out we were going to be having four full days on the sturgeon as the Chinook season, which normally starts in mid July, had a delayed opening due to a drop in the numbers of fish entering the system. Although this was somewhat disappointing as both Ben and I were hoping for a bit of variety in the fishing, it was an object lesson on the need to manage the exploitation of a fishery according to what the stock can handle rather than what fisherman – both commercial and recreational – think they’ve a God given right to catch.

The first day saw us team up with Australian emigre ‘Bowie’ as our guide so at least there would be no language problems for Ben! The tactics are industrial but effective and to be honest it’s the guides that catch you the fish through their knowledge of the river and their ability to put you on the best locations for any given set of conditions. The rods are usually eight or nine foot fibreglass blanks with softish tips for bite registration and plenty of power down below. These are teamed up with quality Shimano multipliers holding 120 – 130 lb braid to an 80 – 100 lb mono leader. The baits are fished behind a running lead from 5 – 25 ounces to an 8/0 or 10/0 forged barbless hook. Basically, it’s giant barbel fishing but with big game tackle from a boat.

Fisho’s UK correspondent Martin Salter bending the rod on another Fraser River sturgeon.

The boats themselves are 21 – 24 foot all aluminium jet boats powered by 300 hp inboard V8 engines. Absolutely perfect for negotiating the shallow bars and snags that are spread all across the river and capable of running up against the current at some speed and in comfort.

The day starts at the very civilised time of 7.45 am when Marc and his team pick up their clients from the hotel car park and take us on a short drive to the boat ramp. With the salmon season still closed the water was nowhere near as crowded as it can be when a fair few of Vancouver residents drive themselves a couple of hours or so up river in search of the Chinooks.

We head off to a small backwater to catch some fresh bait. The target species are 4 to 7 inch long pike minnows that look a bit like a mini snook. Float fishing worms is second nature to any Brit and in no time we have enough in the bucket for the day ahead. The rules in British Columbia prohibit the use of live baits but a freshly killed pike minnow is considered the next best thing. Other popular baits include lamprey sections, fish roe wrapped in a nylon mesh and, a little later on in the season when the salmon are running in numbers, large lumps of salmon meat affectionately known as stink bait.

Interestingly, my one and only previous visit to the Fraser all those years ago coincided with the end of a massive salmon run, which saw the higher reaches awash with dead and spent salmon. This ensured that the sturgeon were gorged senseless on this abundance of free food and showed no interest whatsoever in our baits. For some obscure region we were not allowed to use salmon flesh as bait in that part of the valley and consequently we remained biteless. 

Not so this time as within 15 minutes of anchoring at the head of a mid river gully my rod was away and I was battling the first fish of the trip. At 6 feet long and around 170 lb I was assured of a healthy workout and it didn’t disappoint. Mindful of the presence of a couple of nasty looking, partially sunken trees, Bowie steered the boat towards some quieter, safer water at the confluence of one the tributaries. While the area was snag free, my sturgeon positively hated the clarity of water coming in from the smaller river and made several powerful runs back into the murkier depths of the Fraser. In the absence of a convenient looking beach we opted to unhook her by the side of the  boat and save the trophy shots for another time and place. Quite rightly, strict conservation rules are in place and the guides are serious about fish welfare. Sturgeon are not able to support their own body weight out of the water and it is prohibited to bring any fish in excess of five feet aboard a boat. And those that do come aboard for tagging or a photograph are to be supported in a sling.

Ben and I ended a memorable four days on the Fraser with 14 fish to 220 lb. Fabulous hard fighting predators that run, jump and make you work for every yard of line. All caught in one of the greatest rivers on Earth surrounded by snow capped mountains. Do try it if you get the chance. 

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