Sturgeon fever

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — As hunting seasons wind down some sportsmen succumb to the postseason blues, a malady that can be treated by good books, visits to sportsman's shows and attending fund-raising dinners to buy hunts and trips for next year.

For sportsmen who live along the West Coast between Ensenada, Mexico, and Cook Inlet in Alaska, however, another more soul-possessing epidemic is spreading.

The symptoms are pronounced. In church, the afflicted can be seen with tide books tucked into hymnals. When the wife asks, "What time is it?" they reply according to next minus tide. As rains begin to fall, those possessed dip shrimp into cups of Starbuck's latte while chanting, "Bite," bite."

There is no cure for this malady, counsels Keith Fraser of San Rafael … except to go sturgeon fishing; for these poor souls are suffering from "sturgeon fever."

As winter rains washes fresh food into coastal tidal waters and swarms of herring migrate out of the ocean into shallow bays and rivers to spawn, these vacuum-mouthed, telephone-pole-size monsters swim into the shallows to feast, repeating a cycle that's gone on since the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Fraser knows sturgeon fever. He's had it for nearly 45 years.

Fraser grew up along San Francisco Bay, spending many hours in pursuit of stripers, when not playing baseball or winner awards as a high school baseball coach.

One winter day, dangling a shrimp in the bay, Fraser hooked and landed a submarine, otherwise known as a white sturgeon.

Aside from commercial fishermen using nets or setlines, catching sturgeon in those days was a rare event. For Fraser, the experience was an epiphany. Catching sturgeon with a rod and reel became an obsession.

He studied their behavior, feeding habits, tidal patterns, and searched for the right tackle. And he began to catch fish.

There are seven species of sturgeon in North American, the biggest of which is the white sturgeon. In Russia, where beluga caviar is more valuable than gold, white sturgeon 20 feet long and weighing more than 1,500 pounds have been landed.

Considering that white sturgeon may grow to 40 inches in seven years (but afterwards slow to 1 to 2 inches of growth per year), you can see why really big ones have been around a long, long time.

There are tales of California commercial fishermen in the old days landing fish to more than a thousand pounds, but the state record for hook and line is a 468-pound monster landed on 80-pound line by Joey Pallotta in July 1983 outside Benicia. It took Pallotta five and half hours to land the fish, which towed his 18-foot boat all around the San Francisco Bay.

When he wasn't coaching winning baseball teams, Fraser opened a bait shop specializing in sturgeon baits and tackle — Loch Lomond Live Bait — which has become one of the world's epicenters of sturgeon fishing.

Possessed by sturgeon fever, Fraser began to hold seminars on sturgeon fishing. Decades later, it's not unusual for more than 500 people turn out to hear his "sturgeon sermons."

Along the West Coast, you can catch sturgeon in the ocean, but tidal inlets are generally more productive.

They can be caught any time of the year, but the big guys are especially drawn to winter's muddy waters, where they hug the bottom and hunt with a refined sense of smell more than sight.

According to Fraser, known to many as "Baitman" (for he also founded United Anglers of California), grass shrimp and ghost shrimp are No. 1 on the sturgeon menu for the San Francisco Bay, followed by mud shrimp, herring, lamprey eels and salmon roe.

"You want a sturdy rod with a light tip, and at least 300 yards of 20- to 40-pound test," Fraser advises. At the business end, tied on one or two 5/0 to 8/0 hooks on a 2-foot wire leader.

Thread on one shrimp per hook, tail first.

To keep your bait on the bottom requires a sinker weighing from 4 to 12 ounces hooked to a slider just ahead of the leader. Use one or two half-ounce rubber-core lead weights on the leader.

Sturgeon can feed at any time, but a minus tide after a good rain is preferred. Fraser says wistfully that the last three hours of an outgoing minus tide is Valhalla for sturgeon fishing.

Anglers also catch sturgeon from the bank. Fraser's seen people come in with 100-pounders from a county park just down the road.

But the best results come from anchoring a boat in 5 to 40 feet of water. Once you've chosen your spot, shut the motor down to a crawl 100 yards away and come in gently. In shallow water sturgeon does spook.

Put some space between you and any other boats before you toss in the anchor. The fish come to you, slowly, rooting along the bottom like wild boars.

According to Fraser, there is no need for Herculean casting. Flip your rig out 40 to 50 feet, make sure that it's holding the bottom, set the rod in a secure place, sit back meditate on your rod tip and enjoy the weather.

A sturgeon bite is a pull, a "pumper," not a strike. True strikes are from striper bass, which are a nice bonus that can go to 40 pounds. Halibut and sharks also are possible. But when the really big sturgeon come around, they gently inhale the bait.

When the rod tip slowly bends down, pick up the rod, point the tip nearly at the fish and set the hook hard. That monster sucker mouth is rimmed with heavy cartilage.

Once hooked, sturgeon not only tear off on wild runs, but in shallow water they also will also jump clear out of the like billfish.

Sturgeon fishermen typically hook their anchors to buoys so they can cast off quickly when a fish is on. On one charter boat that I was on, we hooked a good fish that broke the surface like a breaching whale about 50 yards away; then it decided the other side of the Bay looked better.

The anchor buoy got tangled around a cleat. The line was about to the spool. In a flash of genius the skipper lashed the rod to a life jacket and tossed it over the side, instructing us to get the binoculars and climb on top of the cabin and follow the life jacket as he untangled the anchor.

Ten minutes later we caught up with the life jacket, reconnected with the fish and 45 minutes later all five and a half feet of a 98-pound sturgeon was flopping on the deck.

Sturgeon cannot legally be gaffed, or shot with a gun, like they do with barn door halibut in Alaska. Fish up to 50 pounds may fit in a net. But a rope typically is used to retrieve and drag over the transom anything bigger, if the fish is expected to be kept.

No one is going to match Joey Pallotta's record sturgeon (also an International Game Fish Association all-tackle world record) because there now is a slot limit in California, with nothing shorter than 46 inches or longer than 72 inches able to be kept.

The bag limit here is one a day, but there is no limit on catch and release. Fraser has caught and released hundreds of sturgeon, several estimated to have gone more than 300 pounds.

Sturgeon can be found in virtually any West Coast tidal waters between Mexico and Alaska, but the two best areas are San Francisco Bay and the Columbia River.

Making the pilgrimage to Loch Lomond Live Bait in San Rafael is like going to the holy land for sturgeon fishermen.

Appropriately, when you arrive Fraser sells a bible, "Keith Fraser's Guide to Sturgeon Fishing," for a modest $5.00, and also provides wise counsel, arranges charters, sells bait and has a scale for the keepers.

If you are lucky, you may be at the bait shop when a "staff meeting" is in progress. Regular participants include a great blue heron named "Nasty," a night heron dubbed "Sylvester," an American egret ("Ernie") and a snowy egret ("Little Ernie"), who come to Fraser's call for their pay in shrimp and dead minnows, landing an arm's length away from the boss.

The birds all have been on the staff for more than a decade. The scout, a one-legged Herrmann's gull named "Ahab," has been a regular for some 15 years.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click here to purchase a copy.

To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.