Fishermen are known to tell tales. I used to be one who stretched the truth on occasion just to make a dull day of fishing seem more interesting. Sometimes, however, the truth was even more exciting than anything I could make up.
One Saturday I went striped bass fishing with my friend, Don. While I was a good fisherman, Don was a great one. Not only did he talk about catching big fish, he actually caught fish even when others were complaining about the fish not biting. I enjoyed fishing with Don most of the time but sometimes he drove me crazy.
Don was not always patient. Sometimes, when things were slow, he would yank his fishing pole, whooping and hollering about the big one he had on his line. Often, it was just make-believe because Don hated sitting there doing nothing. It was kind of like the boy calling wolf. Usually I just ignored Don when he was going through his antics.
This particular Saturday morning had been particularly dull. After two hours, we were still anchored in Don’s twelve foot Jon boat by a sand bank on the Sacramento River waiting for striped bass. The sun was high and hot and we were baking in the heat. The sardine baits evidently were not enticing to any self respecting striper and we didn’t like the way things were going. Although we thought stripers would be running at the edge of the sandbank, the shade on the opposite bank was enticing.
“Let’s just go over in the shade and eat lunch,” Don said. “We’re not catching anything anyway.”
We reeled in our bait, started the motor and pulled over into the shade. We dropped anchor where the water was deeper and swifter. The air was definitely cooler. We put fresh sardines on the hooks and cast out again. Then we got out our sandwiches and cokes, put our feet up, and relaxed.
We were not there long before Don began trying to reel in his line. It did not budge. He tugged this way and that, trying to shake his line free. “I’m snagged,“ he announced. I watched for a few minutes, glad that my line was still free. Don by now had changed his tone. “I’ve caught a big one!” he shouted.
I could tell he was just trying to drum up some excitement and shake boredom. I feigned interest. “What did you catch?” I asked.
Rather than continue with the pretense of catching something big, Don shrugged and said, “I think I’ve snagged bottom. I can’t get my line loose either.” He started the engine and moved upstream and began tugging again. He put the end of his rod down and cranked the reel as hard as he could. “I’m either going to pull my hook loose or break my line,” he insisted. “Whoops, there it is. It’s loose, but it’s not free yet. It must be a log.” He lifted the nose of the rod higher. “Now it’s coming loose.” Then his smile turned to a frown. “I don’t understand. The log is moving upstream against the current.” Then he smiled again. “I think I’ve got a big striper hooked.”
I doubted that he was telling the truth, but suddenly the line became taut. His pole bent and the line began pouring off his reel. And yes, indeed, something was heading up river.
Don frantically tried to start the engine, all the while yelling at me, “Pull up the anchor! We’ve got to go where this fish is going.” With the anchor up we should have been drifting downstream with the current. Instead we were being pulled up river, boat and all.
For over a mile, we were towed by this underwater denizen. Other fishermen in boats stayed out of our way. They shouted encouragement and gave their opinions about what we should do. “Cut your line on that monster.” “Work your way over to a sandbank and try to pull it on shore.” “If you get it close to the boat, club it with your oar.” “Tie a rope to its tail.”
“Borrow someone’s pistol and shoot it.” Wisdom from these fishermen wasn’t what we wanted to hear. After all, we hadn’t even seen this monster fish yet.
Then I noticed droplets of water on Don’s line. He was gradually working the fish, tiring it out, bringing it in towards the boat. I got the net ready, thinking this large net was more than enough for the largest striper we would find in this river.
“Get ready,” Don panted. We could see the line coming in, and then going back out. “The fish should be showing up anytime.” He kept reeling, slowly gaining as he fought the fish. Then there were bubbles, a sure sign something was close. I leaned over, anticipating slipping the large net over the fish, just like I had done many times before.
Out of the depths, a horrible sight emerged. “Oh my gosh! He’s coming right for me!” I yelled. I gathered myself, thinking that if that fish got into the boat, then I’d have to get out.
With wide open mouth bigger than a dinner plate, the fish lunged towards me. Its eyes were yellow and catlike, its mouth fringed with ugly and menacing whiskers. Its back had prehistoric scales. It was ugly, real ugly. Worst of all, the fish seemed longer than the boat, big and wide. In reality, the fish was probably no longer than eight or nine feet, weighing 350 to 450 pounds. I couldn’t tell for sure. I only knew it dwarfed any fish I had ever seen and it scared me just a little. Okay, I was really scared! I gathered my courage. I looked at the fish, then the net, and back at the fish. “There is no way, Jose, that you’re going to fit in this net. But I’m going to try anyway.”
I lowered the net towards the fish but it looked at me in disdain. Then, with one last glance at me, it rolled over, gave a flip of its tail and dove down, deep into the river. “Holy smoke,” I muttered. “What kind of fish is that?” Don had not released his grip on the pole and was renewing the battle. “That’s a sturgeon,” he gasped. “I’ve seen small sturgeons in this river, but this one is by far the biggest.”
The fish now headed downstream and we passed other boats, other fishermen with new advice, and one man who handed us a large gaff. “Just in case the sturgeon gets close again,” he said. The gaff looked formidable but I was doubtful it could handle the sturgeon. “Let’s forget about the gaff,” I said. “Let’s bring the sturgeon to shallow water and tie a rope around its tail.” Don was silent for a few seconds, but since the sturgeon was still pulling us downstream and still had energy, he shook his head and replied, “I don’t think so. The fish is still green.”
For over an hour we were towed by the sturgeon. I heard Don announce again, “Here he comes! He should be tired this time.” “I hope so,” I replied as I lifted the gaff and got ready for the onslaught.
The fish appeared again, bursting from the water. Then it lay alongside the boat, gasping for air, but eyeing me warily. I struck with the gaff, hoping the sharp point would plunge deep into the sturgeon. The sturgeon slid sideways, avoiding a direct hit, and the gaff’s point glanced off. The giant appeared irritated and with new found strength swept his mighty tail, drenching us, and then dove again.
“It’s a good thing you didn’t gaff him,” Don said. “He would have pulled you right out of the boat.”
That really made me feel secure. I could have been spiraling underwater right now, being pulled by that monster. Was there any way to stop him?
Don played tug of war with the fish for thirty minutes more before I saw bubbles again rising. As my gaze followed the line upward I noticed there were grooves worn into the eyelets on his fishing pole. I looked again at the line. It was frayed and looking very fragile. “Don, how much longer do you think it’ll take before you can land this fish?” So far the sturgeon had been on the line for over three hours and I was hoping it would be completely tired the next time it broke water. I looked at Don more closely. He, too, looked worn out, but there was still a determined glint in his eyes.
The sturgeon surfaced again and quietly rolled next to the boat. It lay there, motionless. “Uh, Don, why don’t we get this fish to shallow water and tie a rope around its tail?” “Just gaff him and let’s get it over with,” he croaked hoarsely.
I lowered the gaff into the water and yanked upward. At that moment the waves from a large passing boat bounced us around. The sturgeon changed direction with an oncoming wave and our boat moved away. The gaff scratched the skin and turned the monster over, but did not pierce into the flesh. Moreover, in the same motion, the gaff arced away in a direction I had not intended. To my horror, the gaff sliced through the fishing line. The sturgeon floated six feet away, and then with one last look at us, swished a mighty spray of water in our direction, and dove, never to be seen again.
Both Don and I sat motionless for a few minutes. I was ashamed to have let Don’s prize get away. He was just too tired to move. Finally he just said, “Let’s go home. It’s been a long day.” I apologized profusely. “I’m really sorry.” “It’s okay,” he muttered. “It still had too much strength left. It would have pulled you in.” But looking at his exasperated expression made me think he would have preferred me being in the river, trying to bring in his fish, rather than saying “I’m sorry.”
We didn’t tell anyone about the sturgeon for several weeks because we weren’t sure anyone would believe us without any fish, any pictures, or any other evidence. It was just a big fish story. Later that year, however, a 450 pound sturgeon was caught in the Sacramento River. Perhaps that was Don’s fish, the one that towed us up and down the river, the one I lost, the one I could not tell other people about. I saw this fish up close, with its cat-like eyes, long whiskers, and prehistoric scales. I did not have to make it up or exaggerate in the telling. It was true enough to make me scared and to look in the water carefully any time I went fishing after that. In any case I want people to know that in some of these rivers there are fish that can make memories, or nightmares, depending on who’s telling the tale.
By Dan Roberson
Nov. 25, 2008