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For sportsmen who live along the West Coast between Ensenada, Mexico, and Cook Inlet in Alaska, a soul-possessing epidemic has spread. The symptoms are pronounced.
In church, the afflicted can be seen with tide books tucked into hymnals. When the wife asks, "What time is it?" they reply according to next minus tide. As rains begin to fall, those possessed dip shrimp into cups of Starbuck's latte while chanting, "bite," bite."
No it's not, H1N1, these poor souls are suffering from "sturgeon fever." "There is no cure for this malady," counsels Keith Fraser, 72, of San Rafael except to go sturgeon fishing.
As winter rains wash fresh food into coastal tidal waters, and swarms of herring migrate out of the ocean into shallow bays to spawn, vacuum cleaner-mouth, telephone pole-sized monsters swim into the shallows to feast, repeating a cycle that's gone on since the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
Fraser grew up along San Francisco Bay, spending many hours in pursuit of stripers, when not playing baseball. One winter day, almost 50 years ago, dangling a shrimp in the bay, Fraser hooked and landed a submarine, otherwise known as a white sturgeon.
Aside from commercial fishermen using nets or setlines, catching sturgeon in those days was a rare event. For Fraser, the experience was an epiphany. Catching sturgeon with a rod and reel became an obsession. He studied their behavior, feeding habits, tidal patterns, and searched for the right tackle. And he began to catch fish.
There are seven species of sturgeon in North American, the biggest of which is the white sturgeon. Considering that white sturgeon may grow to 40 inches in seven years, but afterward slow to 1-2 inches a year growth, you can see why really big ones have been around a long, long time.
There are tales of California commercial fishermen in the old days landing fish over 1,000 pounds, but the state record for hook and line is a 468-pound monster landed by Joey Pallotta, July 9, 1983. It took Pallotta five and half hours to land the fish, which towed his 18-foot boat all around the bay.
A former speech and journalism teacher and award-winning high school baseball coach for 40 years, in 1970, at age 33, Fraser opened a bait shop specializing in sturgeon baits and tackle. Loch Lomond Live Bait has become the epicenter of sturgeon fishing of the world as well as a hotspot for stripers and halibut.
Fraser knows the fish by their first name as he is out on the water just about every day, sometimes joined by his lovely wife Gloria.
Fraser, Kevin Wolfe, and Mike Anderson recently returned from two hours at one of Keith's secret spots in the bay. They had a hefty stringer of six stripers.
"Caught them on shiners on the tide, and jigs, when it stopped," says Anderson, on a busman's holiday as he captains the Loch Lomond charter boat, "The Predator."
Possessed by sturgeon fever, Fraser began to hold seminars on sturgeon fishing to spread his passion. Four decades later, upwards of 500 or more people turn out every year in late fall to hear Keith's "sturgeon sermons."
According to Fraser, known to many as "Baitman" (he also founded United Anglers of California), grass and ghost shrimp are No. 1 on the sturgeon menu for the Bay, followed by mud shrimp, herring, lamprey eels, and salmon roe.
"You want a sturdy rod with a light tip, and at least 300 yards of 20-40 lb test," Keith advises. His personal choice is a Tica Custom Pro Rod and Reel, which just happen to be the Keith Fraser Custom model.
At the business end you use 1 or 2 5/0-8/0 hooks on a short, two-feet-long wire leader. Thread on one shrimp per hook, tail first.
To keep your bait on the bottom means from four to 12 ounces of sinker hooked to a slider just ahead of the leader, plus 1 or 2 half ounce rubber core lead weights on the leader.
Sturgeon can feed at any time, but a minus tide after a good rain is preferred. Fraser says wistfully that the last three hours of an outgoing minus tide is Valhalla for sturgeon fishing.
Sturgeon can also be caught from the bank. Fraser has seen people come in with 100-pounders from a McNear's county park just down the road, but the best results come from anchoring in a boat in 5-40 feet of water. Once a spot is chosen, shut the motor down to a crawl 100 yards away and slip in gently. In shallow water, sturgeon do spook.
Put some space between you and any other boats before you toss in the anchor. The fish come to you, slowly, rooting along the bottom like wild boars.
According to Fraser, there is no need for Herculean casting. Flip your rig out 40-50 feet, make sure that it's holding the bottom, set the rod in a secure place, sit back meditate on your rod tip and enjoy the weather.
A sturgeon bite is a pull, a "pumper," not a strike. Strikes are from stripers, which are a nice bonus that can get to 40 pounds. Halibut and sharks also possible, but when the really big guys come on, they gently inhale the bait.
When the rod tip slowly bends down, pick up the rod, point the tip nearly at the fish, and strike hard. That monster sucker mouth is heavy cartilage.
Once hooked, not only do sturgeon tear off on runs like a freight train, but in shallow water they will also jump clear out of the water like billfish.
Sturgeon fishermen typically hook their anchors to buoys so they can cast off quickly when a fish is on. Once on a charter boat, a good fish was hooked and it broke the surface like a marlin about 50 yards away, and then it decided the other side of the bay looked better.
The anchor buoy got tangled around a cleat. Line was about gone. In a flash of genius the skipper lashed the rod to a life jacket and tossed it over the side, instructing the crew to climb on top of the cabin and follow the life jacket as he untangled the anchor.
Ten minutes later the life jacket was located and the pulled in. After reconnecting, the 98-pound five and a half feet-long sturgeon was flopping on the deck 45 minutes later.
Sturgeon cannot be gaffed, or shot with a gun. Fish up to 50 pounds may fit in a net, but for anything bigger you've got to toss a rope around the head or tail and drag them over the side if you plan to keep them.
There are fish as big as Joey Pallotta's state record out there, probably some twice that big, but there now is a slot limit nothing smaller than 46 inches or longer than 66 may be kept. Bag limit is one a day, and three keepers per year.
With the winter rains starting, the sturgeon bite has really taken off. Several anglers reported hooking over 20 sturgeon this past weekend Some were shakers, but one was over seven feet, which had to be released.
From Alstair Bland's "Fish Wrap" in the Marin Independent Journal, he wrote that Carl Moyer and crew used grass shrimp near the Carquinez Straits recently to catch 80 sturgeon over four days "Virtually all were undersized shakers, however. One was oversized at 85 inches and four were right in the window. Just one, a 5-footer, went home with Moyer for dinner, and the rest still swim."
Anyone fishing for sturgeon needs to have a California Sturgeon Fishing Report Card that comes with three tags. You can catch and release fish, but you need to report each one on your sturgeon report card. Fraser has caught and released hundreds, several over 300 pounds.
Making the pilgrimage to Loch Lomond Live Bait in San Rafael is like going to the holy land for sturgeon fishermen.
Appropriately, when you arrive Fraser sells a bible, "Keith Fraser's Guide to Sturgeon Fishing," for a modest $5, gives wise counsel, arranges charters, sells bait and has a scale for the big ones.
If you are lucky, you may be there when a staff meeting is going on. Regular participants include a great blue heron "Nasty," a night heron named "Sylvester," an American egret "Ernie" and a snowy egret "Little Ernie", who come to Keith's call for their pay in shrimp and dead minnows, landing an arm's length away from the boss or on his arm or head. The birds all have been on the staff for over a decade. The scout, a one-legged Herrmann's gull named "Ahab," has been a regular for 15 years.