Atlantic Sturgeon


My first meeting with the Atlantic Sturgeon was on the Kennebec River in Augusta Maine. I had waded out into the river to cast a fly to a school of frenzied striped bass which were driving blue back herring up to the surface. The sun was just beginning to light the horizon across the far bank while the city of Augusta, a stone throw behind me still slept. I had paused my casting for a moment to see where the bass would surface, when off to my left something crashed into the water. The sound of the splash seemed out of place for a river, like a loud single drum beat in church or a gun shot close by in quiet woods. Somewhat startled; I quickly swung around to see large ripples radiating out from the spot of the concussion, tucking my fly rod under my arm I squatted down and waited.

To hear the splash of a sturgeon is one thing to see a sturgeon leap in the distance is another to see one leap close up is nothing short of awesome. When a sturgeon leaps it draws the surface of the river along with it, like water pouring back into a pitcher in reverse, the surface tension stubbornly clings to its body. When this tension releases, the water cascades down over the great fishes heavy armor plating. As it breaks free from the water’s grip, what appears to be a throwback from the Pleistocene epoch rockets straight up into the air. At the apex of its leap the sturgeon, unlike a salmon which carves a confident course out of and back into the water, appears surprised to be so far out of its element. Suspended in thin air for a moment it turns half around before plummeting back down toward the surface tail first. While falling the sturgeon arch’s awkwardly, stumbling in the air like someone who has stepped of a step expecting to find a landing, only to find that there was another step instead. It then strikes the water with an unmistakable clap that echo's up and down the river.

To the Norridgewocks at Kennebec or the Wampanoags at Cotuhtikut the sight and sound of a leaping sturgeon signaled a time of plenty in their villages. Sturgeons were an important source of food for them, and today on the Kennebec you can still find small fragments of the sturgeons armor plating in fire pits that are thousands of years old. Today in 2002 this awesome sight and sound signal the Atlantic sturgeons return from the brink of extinction and the rebirth of a once wild river.

The Atlantic Sturgeon is the largest of our anadromous fish species, females being the largest of the genders. One female from the St. John River in New Brunswick measured fourteen feet long and weighed more than eight hundred pounds. They are extremely long lived, sometimes reaching sixty years of age. Their historic range included most major river systems along the Atlantic coast between Florida and Atlantic Canada. Like many other anadromous fish species the building of dams and pollution decimated the sturgeon’s populations, commercial fishing also contributed to their decline.

How abundant Atlantic Sturgeons were in our river is not clear, however it appears that they once used it for spawning. From time to time people fishing, and boaters see them in the river. Several years ago biologists sampling the mouth of the river caught some in their nets. However, they did not feel that these specimens represented a spawning population (we hope to contact these individuals in the near future to get more detailed information on the results of their survey). Atlantic sturgeons like the American shad rely on the waters of the river to spawn and rear they’re young. Here again like the shad, the only significant difference between the river then and now is the quality of the water. How it affects these great fish today we do not know for sure. However we do know that according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  " Water quality is critical to the survival of adults and juveniles. Excessive amounts of nutrients in waterways can create sudden blooms of phytoplankton. After the phytoplankton die, decomposition uses up large amounts of oxygen. This can lead to dangerously low dissolved oxygen levels along the bottom where sturgeon feed. "

Complete photo sequence of leaping sturgeon  HERE

Follow this link for more detailed information on our good friend the - Atlantic Sturgeon

Video clip of sturgeon leaping, HERE