The white sturgeon is the largest freshwater gamefish in North America, and a nearly 13-foot-long specimen hooked earlier this month may well be the largest freshwater catch ever recorded on the continent. So says the fishing guide who led a 65-year-old angler to the epic encounter. Dean Werk, owner of Great River Fishing in British Columbia, videotaped angler Michael Snell as he fought the 12-foot, 6-inch sturgeon July 16 in Canada's Fraser River. The 90-minute battle ended with Werk (left), Snell (right) and Snell's wife, Margaret, snapping trophy pics with a fish estimated at nearly 1,100 pounds and more than 100 years old. The catch dwarfs the IGFA world record for white sturgeon, and Werk says it surpasses anything recorded by the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society in its 18-year sturgeon-tagging program.
The Fraser, the longest river in British Columbia, flows out of the Rocky Mountains and empties into the Pacific Ocean at Vancouver, some 850 miles downstream. Werk and Snell were fishing a beautiful stretch north of Chilliwack accessible only by airboat. “It’s a beautiful, mountainous area and the river was running close to 35 feet per second through there, which is a pretty mean, quick river to be battling a fish of that size,” Werk says. “It’s a special stretch of river and it turned out to be a special day indeed.”
Snell, of Salisbury, England, had fished with Werk in 2009 and decided to return for a longer trip in July. The sturgeon was the first fish he hooked on the first day of a weeklong booking. “We set the hooks out and it didn’t take long to get our first bites,” Werk recalls. “We were anchored in 27 feet of water. The outside rod dipped, then dipped heavier and heavier, and I told Michael to pick up the rod. I said, ‘Let him take it, let him take it. Now set the hook, set the hook!'” Most sturgeon bites are gradual affairs rather than quick strikes, Werk explains. “These fish have tubular mouths with no teeth, so you have to be sure the fish has got the bait in its mouth before you set the hook. I encourage my guests to be very patient after they pick up the rod. When it really feels like the fish is going to rip the rod out of their hands, that’s when I tell them to set the hook.”
Instead of heading downstream in the rapid current, as most hooked sturgeon do, the fish ran across the anchor line and turned upstream. “I’ve had probably three or four fish do that to me in 25 years,” Werk says, “and they’ve all been big fish. The last one fought for six hours before breaking off.” Werk immediately fired up his engines and took off after this surging giant. “It peeled out 200 yards of line in about 30 seconds. We were down to about a quarter spool of line pretty quickly.” The sturgeon eventually turned and headed downstream. At one point, with the line pinned by an underwater obstruction and only 75 yards on the spool, Werk was forced to back off and try to free the snag. The line cleared with a loud pop and the fish was off to the opposite side of the half-mile wide river. “We fought that fish from bank to bank for about 6 miles. We passed through one section where the river is 150 feet deep. Mrs. Snell was holding onto Mr. Snell’s belt, but he wouldn’t have fallen in because he was in a full standup harness and had a fighting belt on.”
Snell’s first attempt to land the fish failed, and the chase was on once more. Some ways downriver they tried again. “I found a little back eddy and pinned the boat up against the shore slightly, then guided Michael to bring the fish to the side,” Werk says. “After only 90 minutes, we got to see the fish.” “It’s a real miracle, I’ve got to tell you. We were so blessed. A fish that big would typically be a 3- to 5-hour fight. That’s if everything went right. The chances of landing a fish this big with a rod and reel are less than 2 percent.” Werk says he and his guides hook many big fish in a year, but laying eyes on one is much more rare. “Last week we hooked two big fish and both were lost after a two-hour battle.”
The sturgeon’s head measured nearly 3 feet across. The fish stretched 12 feet, 4 inches long and measured 53 inches around. Based on a mathematical formula that uses length-girth measurements to project a fish’s weight, the sturgeon was estimated to weigh 1,046 pounds. Werk did not take a fin clip to age the fish, but based on data gathered on other large sturgeon (including a 12-foot long dead specimen that was found to be 130 years old), he estimates the fish is well over 100 years old. “To be able to actually touch a fish of this size that quite likely no one else in the world has ever seen or touched is a pretty surreal moment for all of us,” Werk says.
Since the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society began tagging sturgeon in 1995, Werk and other volunteers like him have tagged 47,000 fish and performed more than 90,000 scans on line-caught sturgeon, providing valuable research data on the catch-and-release fish. A 2009 report from the group estimated the lower Fraser River population at 43,628, a 25-percent decrease from 2003. There are six genetically distinct white sturgeon stocks in Canada, and the lower Fraser population is one of only two that are not listed as endangered. In the absence of federal protection, the FRSCS works to monitor and sustain the sturgeon population in the river. A quick scan of Snell’s catch told Werk that this particular sturgeon had never been tagged–meaning it had not been caught since 1995. “They’re true living dinosaurs,” he says. “This is a fish that has been around for 170 million years and survived two ice ages. It has taken virtually everything that mankind has thrown against it, and survived. They’re kind of a miracle fish.”
The sturgeon’s longevity contributes to its size, but so does the Fraser’s rich forage base. Werk says 20 to 60 million salmon pass the through river each year, and the sturgeon take their share. “They are eating machines: lamprey eels, pike minnows, salmon, live fish and dead. Some of these sturgeon gain 20 to 50 pounds in a season.” To catch them, Werk and his guides use custom-made 8-foot medium-heavy rods built by Jim Mercier at X Rodz. Penn International VSX 16 reels are spooled with 150-pound test Power Pro braided line. A 33-inch leader of the same Power Pro line, a 250-kg Coastlock barrel swivel, an 18- to 28-ounce lead weight, and a 10/0 Gamakatsu straight eye hook baited with a 2-inch by 1-inch strip of salmon topped off Snell’s winning rig on July 16. A series of 3/8-inch beads protect the knot and keep the weight from tangling.
After consulting the database compiled by the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society tagging program, Werk is convinced that no bigger sturgeon has come out of the Fraser–at least not since 1995. “There may be some fish that are close, but this definitely ranks as one of the largest ever caught in the area. This is definitely the first time there has been video caught of the whole entire thing.” The IGFA all-tackle world record for white sturgeon is a 468-pound fish caught in July 1983 by Joey Palotta III in Benicia, California. Werk says he’s not certain that Snell’s catch will be submitted to the IGFA. “I think we’ll try to see what we can do, but I’m not sure it will be accomplished.”
After tagging the fish, Werk says, he and the Snells “gave it a nice kiss” and sent it back into the wild river that has sustained it for a century and more. “It was surreal. I think we were all shocked by what we caught, and it took [the Snells] a few days before they realized what they’d done. It will probably never happen again for any of us. But for that one moment, for that one fish, we’re attached now for the rest of our lives.”