Carp, pike, salmon or catfish will usually feature, depending upon the anglers range of knowledge. If a sea angler is there he will probably chuck in a shark or two. (Tell him to shut up though because there are no freshwater sharks in this country). You can’t blame people for getting it wrong because there is very little that has ever been written about the really big British fish for the simple reason that we don’t have any left. Kept you in suspense long enough? Okay then. And the answer is
On the 25th Sept 1933, on the White Mill stretch of the river Towey, Camarthenshire, Mr A.L. Allen was fishing for sea-trout when he hooked and, after a what must have been a stupendous battle, landed a Royal Sturgeon of 388lb. It was 9ft 2ins long and had a girth of 59ins.
In the immortal words of Michael Cain, "Notta lotta people know that".
Sturgeon are a native British fish which, until comparatively recent times, were found in a great number of British rivers. Legend has it that my own local river, the Thames, had them in abundance throughout it’s length at one time. Pictures on the stained glass windows of churches in the Oxford area seem to support the myth – how else would a stained glass window maker of perhaps 900 years ago know what they looked like?. Exactly just how long ago that they were in abundance is in question. If they were common when those churches were built, they certainly were not common a few hundred years later. Even in early angling literature, mentions of these fish was rare. Walton’s ‘Compleat Angler’ does not even mention them at all. But they were there and they were caught.
In the past couple of decades hardly a mention has been made of the sturgeon in the angling press, yet they were reported fairly regularly at one time. I have just a half-dozen old copies of the Anglers News from 1922/3. In three of those six papers there were mentions of odd sightings and/or captures of sturgeon. The November 11th 1922 edition states that that it ‘was no rare thing’ for sturgeon to be caught around East Anglia. And "Large sturgeons have been taken from time to time in Norfolk and Suffolk rivers; sometimes by being barricaded in a creek until tide fall, and have also been shot." (20th Jan 1923) The Lowestoft trawlers took them regularly around this time. In the major rivers they were also still spotted, though rarely caught. Referring to the Trent :"The other day at Farndon, two Nottingham anglers noticed a sturgeon ploughing the waters on the North Bank" (31st March 1931).
Sturgeon are of course a highly prized fish, but in years gone by it was not just the famous caviar eggs that they produce that made them so sought-after. The Victorians prized them for the scutes. Where other fish have scales, the sturgeon has an armour of bony plates with a few lines of these protruding scutes running down the length of the fish. The scutes are razor sharp on smaller, younger fish but as the years go by, the sharp edges dwindle to a dull edge. The Victorians made jewellery out of the scutes, setting them in silver and gold in the same manner as with semi-precious stones.
The European sturgeon were hunted by professional fishermen throughout the ages and survived everything man could chuck at them - until the Industrial Revolution finally finished them off. The new factories of the time had no pollution controls at first, and when they did get them, they all but ignored them. The filth these places emitted, combined with the canalisation of the major rivers with the weirs and locks associated with those canals, spelt the final chapter in the death of the British sturgeon. The last documented record of a Thames sturgeon that I can find was of a 66lb fish caught at Putney by Lewis Gibson in May 1867. By this time the Industrial Revolution was well under way, although ten years later ‘Otters Modern Angler’ recorded that the Thames water was still clean enough to attract the fly-fishers. So it was probably not just pollution that killed the sturgeon off but also overfishing with the more efficient nets/tackle and methods that the times had produced.
In the rest of northern Europe, industrialisation came a little later and the sturgeon was graced with a few extra years. In some places, like the River Maas in Holland, the sturgeon clung on for decades longer than they had in Britain. The building of the oil refineries on the Maas in the 1960’s seems to have coincided with the final vanishing trick of this fantastic dinosaur of a fish. In other places, several other different reasons were responsible for the destruction of the sturgeon populations. In Spain, modernised commercial fishing of the river Ebro along with the pollution from increased urbanisation probably did its part. I go to the Ebro a couple of times a year after the catfish. I stay with a family who live in a riverside village which hundreds of years ago had sturgeon fishing as it’s main industry. Just one sturgeon was recorded from this stretch last year, and that was the first for years. But that’s all by the way, wherever one looks the story seems to be the same, man wiped out the European sturgeon everywhere it came into contact with it.
The European sturgeon (Acipenser sturio) is considered by some biologists to be the same fish as the Atlantic sturgeon. They both grow to about the same size, but not enough is really known about them to be sure. On the other side of the pond, the Atlantic sturgeon is better documented. Authenticated records exist for a fourteen footer which weighed 811 pounds, though most caught in recent years weigh less than 200lbs. The Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus) does not grow to quite the huge size of it’s Pacific cousin, the White sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus). White’s grow, when allowed, to huge sizes. Three fish taken in the 1800’s exceeded 1500lbs and many since have been taken over 1000lb. These have all come from the rivers of Oregon, Washington or British Columbia. (The Columbia, Snake and Frazer rivers all contain a good head of these fish). As in Europe, during the late 1800’s the White’s were also almost fished to extinction. In a fifteen year period starting from 1879, the sturgeon population on the American North West coast was reduced almost to zero. Eventually legislation was introduced, imposing a minimum and maximum size limit. Happily, on several rivers, the sturgeon now thrive and have become an important fishery resource once again. A few years ago, my wife Maggi and I had the experience of fishing the Frazer river in Canada and we caught quite a few of these prehistoric looking monsters. We only caught small ones – up to 100lbs. Yes, I know it sounds big, but as I have said, the Frazer river has produced 1000lb fish in the past, and could easily do so again. This despite the fact that conservation groups in Canada repeatedly slam the government there about how the Frazer river is the ‘dirtiest river in the Northern hemisphere’. The Frazer fish are the Pacific sturgeon, White’s and Greens, which are a slightly different species to the ones that we used to have, but that makes little difference to the angler. (There are a couple of dozen different species in all).
Sturgeon are without exception the most powerfully fighting fish that I have ever encountered. And they are not that hard to catch either. Souped up pike tactics will work fine. They will take livebaits but this method is forbidden on the Frazer, at least it was when I was last there. A more common method is to deadbait with a small fish known locally as Ooligan, though I probably haven’t spelt that right. Due to the very powerful currents, up to a pound of lead is used to get the bait down to the 30ft depth favoured. Multipliers loaded with braided lines of 60lb BS are used in conjunction with one-piece, ten foot Plexiglas rods. These rods can only be described in one word. Brilliant! They would be perfect tools for the Ebro Catfish but unfortunately, transporting them across the world is impractical. An interesting sturgeon fishing technique, to me anyway, was the "egg bag". In this, a ladies stocking toe is cut off, filled with salmon eggs and knotted to close it. The 6/0 Owner single hook is nicked into the knot and the resulting presentation looks remarkably like a present day carp anglers ‘hair-rig’. The way a sturgeons mouth is arranged makes this a highly efficient anti-eject rig! Sturgeon will take plenty of other baits, worms being a favourite and they are fantastic sport, often a hooked fish will leap 6 foot into the air. If you ever get the chance to try fishing for them, don’t pass it by.
Now, the sturgeon has always been considered to be a migrant species, living it’s life out partially in the ocean and partially in freshwater. With modern commercial fishing trawlers being able to hoover the oceans, the sturgeon would not last long if they were re-introduced to our waters. Or would they?
The interesting thing about those Frazer river fish is, according to the guides I spoke to, that these are resident fish which are often recaptured, year in and year out. That puts a whole new perspective into play. If those guides I spoke to are right, then perhaps there is now a case to re-introduce sturgeon into our waters. That huge dead area for anglers, the lower tidal Thames and its estuary, could be a pleasure fishery of enormous importance. Our Environmental Authorities are quick to tell us how clean it now is, and how we now have a hundred plus species inhabiting the tidal reaches. So how about adding another one and trying it?
Sturgeon, remember, are a native fish to our waters. We wiped them out and we should put them back. In my head I can hear the arguments against re-introduction already. Of course they have nowhere to spawn – but so what? Nor do our stillwater rainbows. Sturgeon can be bred in artificial conditions, a California University has been breeding them for some time. And we won’t really know that they won’t spawn unless we try it. Their migratory habits might not be such a big thing either, and there are such things as lake sturgeon – with a name like that I don’t think they would want to go out to sea. Food supplies? Well They will grow to the size that the food chain allows them to. That’s all. I’m no scientist, but common sense tells me that it’s possible, and simple economics tells me that it’s viable, to put the sturgeon back in the Thames. Naturally, we should have a zero taking policy to go with it and a special licence perhaps to eventually pay for it. These fish live to a very great age. A nine foot specimen sturgeon is probably around 50 years old - so a stocked fish could last a very long time. Over the years, that fish could generate a lot of money in licence revenues for the EA, if they have the guts to try something different. Think about it. Game boats under Waterloo Bridge!
The other evening I was watching a TV documentary featuring the leading marine biologists of our times. I quote from one of those very bright, highly educated men." We know more about the moon than we do about our own planet’s oceans and its inhabitants". That is a direct quote from one the worlds top experts. A friend of mine is a leading UK freshwater ecologist. From him I have learned that probably well over 80 percent of the studies done on our fish species centre around the salmon, very little is known about any other species by comparison. So if I am told that a scientist with a string of letters after his name has said that the re-introduction of the sturgeon can’t be done, I simply won’t believe it. The only way that we will ever really know is by trying it.
If sturgeon are re-introduced, and do take a foothold and prosper, it will be too late for me as an angler to take advantage of it. These fish take ages to mature, 15 to 28 years. If a re-introduction programme started now, I would be as old a sturgeon angler as Mr A.L. Allen would be, if indeed he is still around. Next incarnation perhaps?