By Steve Bergsman
My record for winter fishing has not been stellar. In fact, it was abysmal. My first shot at it was off the coast of Alaska, deep-trolling for salmon while cruising through a snowstorm. After freezing my bunions off, I ended up with zero fish caught.
My second try was ice-fishing near Canmore, Alberta. I went out with a guide and his young son to carve a hole in the ice and drop a line. After freezing my beejeebees off in subzero weather, I once again ended up with zero. The young boy, however, caught three fish.
So here I was once again in Canada, this time in the Frazier Valley about an hour-and-a-half drive east of Vancouver. Thankfully the winter weather was moderate and the only snow was on the high peaks surrounding Harrison Hot Springs Resort and Spa, a popular Vancouver getaway where I was laying up for two nights.
Most people come to soak in the hot springs, but my objective was to catch the monstrous sturgeon, a fish dating back to the time of dinosaurs that swims in the cold rivers of North America and Europe. I figured I had no hope of catching anything so exciting, but it would be a beautiful journey to travel up the bucolic rivers of British Columbia. My time wouldn't be wasted.
When I first met my guide, Yves Bisson of BC Sportfishing Group, I said right off, "I am the worst fisherman you've ever encountered."
Bisson, a very patient soul, wasn't deterred.
"Well," he responded, "almost no one fishes for the sturgeon in winter. You'll be about the only one out there. If you came in summer or autumn there would be hundreds of fisherman on the river and your chance of catching a sturgeon would be slim. I'm optimistic."
It's always good to have an optimistic guide, especially one who has been taking landlubbers like me out on the Harrison-Frazier rivers for the past 14 years.
"Have your customers ever caught a sturgeon?" I asked.
"About 1,000 a year," he casually answered.
I was dumfounded.
OK, maybe this was going to be my time. Or not.
When we left the confines of Harrison Lake to go down the Harrison River, Bisson stopped his boat near some shallows.
"I want to catch some baitfish," he said. "This won't take much time."
Twenty minutes later still no baitfish. We moved locations. Finally he got the two fish he needed and we moved to a location only he and just about all other guides knew to be a higher-percentage spot for making contact with the sturgeon. Apparently sturgeon are fairly territorial for a fish that swims in fast-moving rivers.
Bisson was a thorough instructor, making sure I understood the finer points of angling for a sturgeon. Most important is the "gotcha" moment when the fish takes the bait. The rod, which is resting in the holder, must be pulled straight up with both hands so it pops directly from the holder and you are jerking it upward at the same time. If you get that right, then the fish is nabbed and it's hold on because the sturgeon will test your strength.
Bisson baited the line, casted, then placed the rod in the holder. We stood around chatting and I was thinking I wouldn't see a sturgeon that morning. Ten minutes into our little discussion, Bisson saw the rod bend and called to me, "Line one, line one!" I rushed to the pole, and much to my surprise expertly pulled upward. The rod came out of the holder immediately and I jerked it upward. The fish was stuck.
This, I quickly learned, was the easy part. The sturgeon pulled at the line, and it was all I could do to hold on. In the middle of the fight between me and the fish, my arm muscles began to hurt. But it was more than holding on. When the fish turned to run toward the boat, than I had to pull the rod upward before lowering it again, all the while madly reeling until the fish turned again. It ran, I held; it turned, I pulled the rod upward and then reeled in on the lowering."
I'm not sure how Bisson knew this, but he told me the fish was going to jump, and sure enough this beautiful, sleek creature vaulted out of the water and then down again, disappearing below the surface.
It was either it or me, and I'm glad to say the sturgeon tired first. It actually gave up, recumbent in the water as if it were dead. Bisson pulled the boat to shore. My job now was to help measure and scan the fish as part of the conservation effort and then grip its mouth with my thumb inside the jaw to keep it steady. The water wasn't freezing, but it was plenty cold as it was running with melted snow from high mountains bordering the Frazier River Valley. It was just me maneuvering an uncooperative 6-foot fish, and after a while my hands were getting numb.
Bisson indicated it was time to let the poor fellow go, which I did. Bye, bye, sturgeon.
It all happened so quickly that we decided to try again. Bisson put bait to two poles and slipped them into the holders. With nothing happening, he took a phone call and I opened a bottle of water. Suddenly I heard, "Line two, line two!" I threw down the water bottle and grabbed fishing pole two as expertly as I had done the first time. I jerked back the pole as I was taught. The fish was nabbed and it was even stronger than the first one, pulling out about 100 yards as it tried to lose the hook.
This was a bigger fish, Bisson calmly observed. It sure felt that way as I braced my feet against the side of the boat and hung on to that pole for dear life. I'm not sure how long we fought, the sturgeon and I. Eventually, it, like the first one, rolled over. It did all it could and frankly so did I. After measuring, scanning and, yes, picture-taking, the fish joined its friend, probably about as far from the boat as possible.
Bisson asked if I wanted to try again. I thought better of it. Two sturgeons in a row was two more than I expected. It was time to go back to the hotel, wade into the hot springs pool, soak my sore muscles and tell big fish stories.
WHEN YOU GO
Harrison Hot Springs Resort and Spa: www.harrisonresort.com
Sturgeon-fishing with BC Sportfishing Group: www.bcsportfishinggroup.com
Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.