Updated: Oct 25, 2022
By David Graham: 6.27.22
This weekend I loaded up my truck with 8 rods, a canoe, a hammock tent, and a cooler of food... and I headed north.
The aim was to scout new waters and, with time, revisit some old waters in search of big bowfin and longnose gar. I laid a course from north central Florida back down to my home waters. Stop number one would be the Suwannee River.
I selected the Suwannee as stop one for a unique reason. The chance to maybe catch a glimpse of Florida's rare jumping sturgeon. Ever since I heard there were sturgeon in Florida I was intrigued. Not as a target by rod and reel, but just as a wildlife enthusiast it was something I was fascinated in witnessing. Florida's gulf sturgeon is a very little known species absolutely shrouded in mystery. From what I could gather, they "can't" be caught on rod and reel. You hear that about some species of fish... they "can't be caught... can't be done"... and yet if you search hard enough you find evidence of bycatch.
While I didn't necessarily care to ever catch one, the prospect of seeing them leap from the water was enough to provoke a trip. To observe a man sized giant fish in freshwater leaping from the water is really a cool sight to behold... and if I could observe that incident to the pursuit of my beloved bowfin and gar, then for me, that's good enough. The one in a million odds one might incidentally to take my bait would only be an added bonus.
Between the Suwannee River, the Withlacoochee, and some basically unnamed swamps in Wesley Chapel that I could trek over the course of three days for bowfin, gar, catfish and really anything else that would eat.
Friday I made it to the Suwannee River just above the Fanning Springs area. I intended to spend maybe 1 day gar fishing outside of the many springs that feed into the river. The junctions here would likely attract big longnose gar, channel catfish, or have bowfin near shore.. But I also understood that these aquifers attract sturgeon, and it may be here that I could photograph or capture one of these rare fish jumping on video. I had neither the intention nor the expectation of one taking a bait.
It was up near Rock Bluff Spring that I launched my canoe and caught my first glimpse of one of these monstrous fish leaping from the water. It was really kind-of hard to process what I was seeing as moments later I saw another... and then another. I had seen videos in the past of these fish jumping but you can't really appreciate the size of this animal until you see it with your own eyes. Seven foot long fish jumping completely clear of the water.
I spent time drifting shiners under a float to some enormous longnose gar I saw rolling along the surface, while four other lines sat idly with nightcrawlers or frozen shrimp on bottom. For about twelve hours I sat there and caught absolutely nothing. On the occasion I was getting small subtle nibbles on my shrimp and nightcrawlers - and was repeatedly stripped of bait. I fished through a lot of the night during some insane rain showers with no real luck.
The next morning I really thought about leaving and going to one of my other marked locations further south. It rained again in the morning and I had the intention of leaving when it passed. It was shortly after the rain stopped that I looked over and one of my rods baited with shrimp was slightly bent and just kind of sitting there bent over. I thought the current had likely swept my rig into a log or something so I went to apply a little pressure and feel what was happening... when suddenly I felt the pressure pulling back on the other end. I set the hook and this thing absolutely took off. I knew nothing in this river possessed the kind of power I was experiencing BUT a sturgeon.
The fish made incredibly powerful runs up and down river - but never jumped during the fight as I would have expected... just based on what I have seen other sturgeon species do, and the fact they breach for seemingly no reason at all. The fish came to the edge of the shore several times before burning off drag again before it finally came in and basically rolled over. I took a short video clip on my phone of the fish coming in before trying to move quickly to take photos and release. I didn't waste any time getting measurements or playing around. The capture took me by complete surprise and while I appreciated the remarkable fortune of the bycatch, I understand the importance of getting them back to the water. With the fish still in the water I snapped my photos and sent it back.
At that point I couldn't believe what had just taken place... the realization of the 'impossible'. Or maybe the realization that other images I had seen around the internet of supposedly fair caught fish were real. I took a few minutes to sit down and assess the magnitude of the fish I had just been privileged to lay hands on... and immediately thought of just going home. For some reason I didn't even want to fish any more... and I wish I could pretend the capture was the result of some grand skill level or knowledge base but quite frankly, it may be the greatest accident of all time.
It couldn't have been 30 minutes later while really still reflecting that I looked over and saw a second rod arced over and slightly pulsing. I ran to the rod and engaged and again drag screamed off the reel. Lightening was striking twice... and while the first fish was an absolute fluke I was now tied to a second gulf sturgeon. This one provided a more spirited fight, taking me right to the edge of a nearby downed tree and swimming through one of my other lines causing a tangled mess. With one hand I maintained the rod, and I used my other to snip the other line. I took the severed line and wrapped it around the reel of the other rod so I could come back and re-tie it later. By some miracle in all of my fumbling, the fish stayed buttoned up.
I brought the second sturgeon in and again moved quickly to document and appreciate this iconic moment in my experience as an angler. After taking my photos I decided my time on the Suwannee was done. As incredible as the experience was, I did not want to do it again. Shortly after the release I packed up my waterlogged belongings... bilged out the rainwater from my canoe and I headed back to the truck.
It's a weird feeling knowing you've captured something that few have ever been so fortunate enough to lay eyes on. Knowing that no matter where I wet a line - on this end of the earth or the other - nothing will ever compare in terms of rarity. There are many other species I have more personal interest in seeing and catching... in terms of “bucketlist” species, the gulf sturgeon was never even a thought. Still, nothing I could intend to catch could ever match this species in terms of pure rareness.
I have to wonder why its been so repeatedly claimed that the gulf sturgeon absolutely does not feed during the summer run into the rivers... an entire summer fast. I believed this, and therefore could’ve never hoped or expected to have captured one. I can say though - what I have seen of the Suwannee river is a lack of opportunity for those chance encounters. I don't believe this is a river that sees a lot of lines in the water each year. Even fewer equipped with gear that COULD handle a fish over 100 pounds. Of the few and far between that are using nightcrawlers or shrimp, they're not likely fishing the right area or time of year for such an accident to occur. Fishing is a game of numbers... hours logged, a mathematical game of odds. To those of us who stay committed and passionate... optimistic and driven, things happen. Amazing things happen.
I stopped at a smaller tributary creek a few miles south of the Suwannee where I was able to close out the second day with my most cherished species, the bowfin. It's interesting to think of our most primitive species still making it here today. Having passed through the last Jurassic, the eventual eradication of 70% of all life on earth (including the dinosaurs), an ice age, continental drift, man made changes to river systems... these ancient survivors still swim strong together.