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Written By: Steve ‘Hippo’ Lau, February 11, 2013
It may seem like a silly question to ask, but ... when are you sturgeon fishing?
The answer to the question is, you are sturgeon fishing when you are trying to catch a sturgeon, duuuuh! But the answer to the question can be more complicated than that of first appearance.
From as far back as I can remember, sturgeon fishing was always with the use of bait (I can't imagine sturgeon biting any kind of lure, can you?) rigged on a sliding sinker rig. The most popular bait when sport fishing for sturgeon back in the day was rotted chicken guts. How this came about, I will have to research at some point, but I think the original sturgeon fishermen figured sturgeon were bottom suckers like catfish are and so they used a similar bait.
Sturgeon fishing turned into the modern age when it was discovered that sturgeon were partial to grass shrimp. Sturgeon sucked up these minute crustaceans with gusto, and it wasn't long before other baits, including ghost shrimp, mud shrimp, mud suckers, lamprey eel, salmon roe, herring, and herring roe were all added to the sturgeon's gourmet menu.
From its beginning in the 60s, almost no one who seriously fishes for sturgeon has used anything but a sliding sinker rig with a leader made of nylon coated wire. While it is fairly widely known that sturgeon have no teeth, they do have some very sharp spines on their sides (often referred to as "buttons" or "scutes"). Sometimes the leader gets wrapped around a scute and the wire leader keeps from getting cut.
Within the last decade or so, a number of sturgeon fishermen have moved away from the nylon coated wire and have moved on to either heavy mono or heavy braided line for leader material. The theory of this is that the mono or braid is softer than the nylon coated wire and sturgeon are less apt to drop the bait Also, the possibility of getting cut off on a scute is really low, so it is worth the risk of not using wire.
Which brings us back to the original question ... when are you sturgeon fishing?
This question came up because this year the brilliant folks at the Department of Fish and Wildlife (that's right, folks, Fish and Wildlife, not Fish and Game!) decide to change the decades old rules for sturgeon fishing. This year, 2013, the rules have changed so that now it is legal to use only a single barbless hook when fishing for sturgeon. Seems harmless enough from first glance, but then it begs to question, when are you sturgeon fishing?
You see, sturgeon aren't the only fish in the bay that will eat grass shrimp, ghost shrimp, mud shrimp, mud suckers, and herring. Striped bass, various species of sharks, halibut, kingfish (white croakers), starry flounders, and bat rays also eat these baits. Using barbed hooks is still legal in the pursuit of all these extra species, so when are you fishing for one of all these other species and when are you fishing for sturgeon?
This question, apparently, will be answered for you by the polite game wardens who are charged with enforcing the rules around these here parts. And the answer will be, you are fishing for sturgeon when they say you are fishing for sturgeon!
Let's just say you want to catch leopard sharks in the bay. One of the best ways to fish for these tasty sharks is with a sliding sinker rig with a nylon coated wire leader (think: sharp teeth), the exact type of leader one used to use for sturgeon.
Well, since you aren't fishing for sturgeon, you decide to use the standard two barbed hook rig baited with herring for your leopard shark fishing. A game warden decides to check up on you and noticesthe wire leader and the two barbed hooks baited with herring. You say you are fishing for leopard sharks and he says you are fishing for sturgeon. Guess what? You may get a ticket for sturgeon fishing.
It may not help your case if you have the package the leader came in since it may have "Sturgeon Leader" printed on the package. It may not help your case if you claim you are aware of the new regulation stating that only a single barbless hook is legal while fishing for sturgeon.
It may not help your case if you claim you aren't carrying your new, paid for sturgeon report card because you weren't planning on catching sturgeon. You may get a ticket for fishing for sturgeon with barbed hooks AND for not having your report card.
The laws for Fish and Wildlife are not like those other criminal laws. In California, it is based on the Nepoleonic system ... guilty until proven innocent. The burden of proof lies with you. And the problem is that there are no guidelines as to when you are sturgeon fishing and when you aren't, so I am expecting that I will be hearing about lots of cases where people are going to be tagged for sturgeon fishing with a barbed hook when, in fact, they were fishing for something else.
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