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Constant Rain Has Bay Area Reeling, but Fishermen Are Finding This to Be the Best Time to Take. . . . : Sturgeon by Storm

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Trevor Kennedy dipped his rod tip forward, then reared back and set the hook. The fish sprinted toward the lush, green hills of nearby Tiburon, and leaped and tumbled before crashing down and speeding off again.

Kennedy gained line when he could, but he had trouble stopping the beast, which had no intention of leaving the safety of its murky world at the end of a line.

Finally, after about 25 minutes, the fish had no fight left. Kennedy reeled it to the boat, where it was netted by deckhand Bob Heath and heaved over the rail and onto the deck of Scott Baggett’s old wooden sportfisher, the Nobilis.

Kennedy’s arms trembled, but he managed to raise them in triumph and slap a few high-fives with his buddies.

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After all, it was quite a catch. He had pulled from the depths of San Pablo Bay something of a dinosaur, a prehistoric-looking creature called a sturgeon, measuring about 4 1/2 feet and weighing nearly 50 pounds.

“I feel kind of weird, though, killing something older than I am,” said the 23-year-old college student from Stockton.

Baggett, one of the top sturgeon guides who operates from his home office in nearby Antioch, estimated the age of Kennedy’s fish at 40 to 50.

A mere youngster.

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Biologists, dissecting pectoral fins and using a technique similar to counting rings in trees, have put the ages of some sturgeon well beyond 100 years, and some believe they can live much longer.

“There are fish swimming around down there that were here before the Civil War,” said Heath, 47, a lifelong Bay Area fisherman.

He might be wrong, but one thing is certain: People are marching to the sea in record numbers this winter, hoping to catch a sturgeon.

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There is no such thing as wide-open fishing for sturgeon, but Bay Area guides say they haven’t seen so many fish pulled from delta waters in nearly a decade.

The reason?

One needs only to look down at the chocolate-brown water racing through the bay, said Baggett, 62, an ex-cop turned skipper, as he maneuvered the Nobilis from its dock at San Pablo Bay Yacht Harbor, a picturesque little marina just below Richmond.

The rains that have been drenching this region practically all winter--it rained 17 consecutive days in one stretch--have created so much runoff that the entire San Francisco-San Joaquin Delta system has become a muddy mess.

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And sturgeon love that dirty water.

“The rain always helps the sturgeon (bite) because what it does is (it) gets the water looking like this,” Baggett said, pointing from the wheelhouse of his boat. “The sturgeon is like a catfish, he moves along the bottom and feeds along the bottom. So when the bottom gets stirred up, it rolls over the mud and exposes things like clams, crabs and shrimp. And if it’s something he wants, he’ll suck it up like a vacuum hose.”

And if that something has a hook in it, the angler above might have his or her hands full. Kennedy proved that within 15 minutes of Baggett’s first stop, at an area south of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. And his fish was small by sturgeon standards.

White sturgeon, the prevalent species throughout the vast delta system, grow to more than 10 feet long and can weigh more than 1,000 pounds, though the all-tackle world record is a 468-pounder caught by Joey Pallotta north of here at Benicia in 1983.

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Baggett once bagged a 322-pounder.

“But that was years ago, when I could keep ‘em,” he said.

These days, the big fish swim the delta practically unmolested, although a good many are killed by poachers’ nets. Sturgeon are off-limits to commercial fishermen and in 1990 the California Department of Fish and Game imposed a “slot limit” on recreational fishermen, making it legal to keep only fish measuring from 46 to 72 inches.

Sturgeon can survive in salt and freshwater. Nobody knows how many sturgeon inhabit delta waters, but estimates range from 23,000 to 36,000, which is down considerably from the mid-1980s estimates of about 120,000.

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“Sturgeon fishing became so popular that we needed to reduce angling mortality,” said David Kohlhorst, a Stockton DFG biologist. “Sturgeon don’t spawn until they’re about 15 years old and not every year but only once about every four years, if that. The limit is designed to maintain a large quantity of large females to protect the fishery.”

Sturgeon fishermen for the most part understand and abide by the rules, but some can’t help but have mixed feelings about letting the bigger fish go.

“We just give those people a crying towel and move on,” Baggett said.

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Some people don’t need a crying towel. Some never catch a large sturgeon, or a legal sturgeon for that matter. This winter has been good, but when it comes to sturgeon fishing, there are no guarantees.

“It can be really slow, but if you get into a bite, if you just happen to fall into an area where they happen to be congregated and feeding, you’ll get multiple, triple hookups,” Baggett said.

If you don’t, you can spend hours being pelted by raindrops while staring at the tip of your rod and hoping it twitches. Serious sturgeon anglers accept such drudgery as part of the game.

“They say it takes 100 hours on the water to catch a legal-size sturgeon,” said Kennedy, his face reddened by the bone-chilling wind blowing over the bay. “It took me 250 hours last year to get one.”

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It took him only 15 minutes on his trip aboard the Nobilis, but he was fortunate. His was the only sturgeon landed during a seven-hour excursion on a bitter-cold and blustery day.

Heath said Kennedy and his group handled the situation well.

“Some people don’t realize the patience it takes and before long they’re in the cabin asleep,” he said. “I just go around at about 2:45 and pin a note on their shirt that says, ‘You had a good time,’ and then wake them up back at the dock.”

Baggett said that what brings his regulars back are the challenge of catching a sturgeon and the mystique of the fish itself. Then of course there’s the matter of the meat.

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Sturgeon fillets are boneless--sturgeon, like sharks, have cartilage but no bones--and fishermen have compared the flavor of the fish to everything from chicken to pork chops to abalone.

White sturgeon are also capable of producing large quantities of high-grade caviar. But, as is the case with sturgeon fishing, eating raw fish eggs on a cracker takes some getting used to.

“I tried it drunk and sober and I don’t like it either way,” Baggett said, half-jokingly. “I figure if I can’t eat it drunk, I can’t stand it. Caviar, to me, is sort of a status symbol and it’s so salty that it makes you want to drink more and I don’t need that excuse. Besides that, I just don’t like the taste of it.”

Hours passed with the sky growing darker and the rain falling harder on Baggett’s recent trip. Another sturgeon was lost at the boat shortly after Kennedy’s was landed. Other than that, a visit by a seal and later by a sea lion were the highlights of the trip.

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Baggett blamed the slow bite on conditions. The incoming tide was being offset by the outgoing runoff and the water in the bay was not moving fast enough to stir the muddy bottom.

“I wish we could have had two hours more of low tide,” he said, reflecting on the line of work he chose 12 years ago. “Sometimes you get it wide open. That’s the days you feel like you died and went to heaven. That makes up for all the days you sit out here all day and don’t see anything. Days like that I wish I had taken up knitting or something.”


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