Two Chicoans find ‘work’ on the river relaxing and rewarding
Salmon season has charged into full swing, but on this mid-August evening few skiffs are working the Sacramento River, and the rush of the current past the bow of the 18-foot aluminum boat is about the only sound. The dragonflies are out in swarms above, the sun sinks toward the trees, the Chinooks roll at the surface and Chico residents Matt Manuel and Nate Hall are getting paid by the hour to watch their fishing rods and wait for a bite. And, despite the season, their prey isn’t salmon; it’s the mighty green sturgeon, or Acipenser medirostris.
“I wonder who I was in a previous life to get such a great job,” muses Manuel, a 28-year-old Chico State biology major with a philosophy degree already under his belt. “I must have been pretty good.”
Manuel works for the Glenn Colusa Irrigation District as a fisheries biologist. He has no office duties and does not fry his eyes staring at a computer screen. When he says he’s going to work, what he means is that he’s going to drive over to the GCID station in Hamilton City to grab some bait and tackle and take a boat out fishing.
Manuel has been doing this for four seasons with co-worker/fishing buddy Hall, a 26-year-old with a geography degree from Chico State. In that time the pair have caught, tagged and released more than 100 green sturgeon. Manuel and Hall make it out three or four times a week and, although sturgeon spawn in the summer, they’ve caught them as early as May and as late as December.
The tags Manuel and Hall use are sonic transmitters, three-inch cylinders that they surgically insert into the body cavity of each fish. The surgery takes five to 10 minutes to perform.
“We just make an inch-long cut underneath, slip it in and sew it up,” explains Hall.
Aluminum-encased receivers embedded at numerous points in the Sacramento drainage system and on the floor of the Pacific Ocean detect the transmitters, allowing scientists from several sturgeon projects on the West Coast to study the movements of the tagged fish. Green sturgeons live in the Pacific and coastal bays and spawn in fresh water. Here in Hamilton City, the primary objective is to monitor the upstream movement of the greens.
“We’ve seen that they have no trouble getting up the river, but what worries me is that they’re not spawning like they should be,” says Manuel. “We don’t see any babies.”
The sturgeon that Manuel and Hall catch, in fact, are big. In the course of the study, they have averaged more than 6 feet in length and 90 pounds in weight, with the largest measuring 9 feet and weighing approximately 300 pounds.
“If all these fish were spawning, there’d be tons in the river,” Manuel says. “But they’re declining, without a doubt, and hardly anyone knows about it.”
UC Davis has a large sturgeon research project going; so does the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Manuel has done work with both of them. He says plenty of researchers are worried about the situation, but acknowledges that the public is relatively ignorant.
Manuel and Hall lounge in the boat, still hard at work. They use ghost shrimp for bait, weighted with lead to the river bottom 30 feet below, where the greens feed. But sometimes the fish jump, and 50 feet downstream a sturgeon suddenly breaks clear of the water. It’s just a 4-footer—"a peanut,” says Hall. Several salmon roll before another, larger sturgeon leaps straight up just 10 feet in front of the boat, splashing the bow. Night begins to fall.
While Hall is a trout fisherman at heart and might prefer to be fly fishing on a creek, Manuel is right at home here on the muddy Sac River. He has come to love sturgeon in the past decade with an almost inexplicable enthusiasm.
“I started fishing [recreationally] for them about 10 years ago, and I fell in love with them,” he says. “There’s just something about them. Their eyes are almost human. When they’re in the boat they follow you around, check you out, see what’s happening. I love sturgeon.”
Manuel hopes his research will eventually lead to a greater respect for and understanding of this fish. The green sturgeon is protected by law, but many people cannot distinguish it from the white sturgeon, a popular game fish.
“In a lot of bait shops I see photos on the wall of guys with dead greens. I’ve even met wardens who can’t tell them apart.”
It’s 9 p.m. and the stars have come out high above the Central Valley. Hall has stoked up a lantern, and a mess of insects orbit the glowing bulb. Manuel pulls in his line to find that some small bait-stealer has torn the shrimp to bits. He refreshes the hook and casts out again. Not 30 seconds pass before his rod tip bends quickly over, bobs back up and bends again. He jumps to his feet. There is a latent power in the bite, for this is no dinky bait thief.
“Stick him!” whispers Hall, as the rod tip sinks down to the water, and that Manuel does. He rears back with a strike that sets the hook, and the fight is on. Hall reels in and grabs the tail-snare while Manuel plays the fish. Hooked sturgeon frequently leap, but this one remains underwater. It makes a run downstream of 100 yards. Slowly, Manuel regains the line, but not before the fish runs again, this time just half the distance. It tires quickly, and in seven minutes a man-sized creature rises from the murk into the glow of the lantern. It’s green, nearly 7 feet long and well over 100 pounds.
Hall slips the cable noose around its tail while Manuel grabs the upper end of the fish. They haul the sturgeon into the boat, straining to keep it subdued, and lay it in a sort of collapsible canvas stretcher—"the sturgeon cradle"—which Hall has wetted with river water. He jumps to the bow and hauls up the anchor. Manuel fires the engine, flips on the floodlights and races downstream. The ride is several minutes to a small beach nearly overgrown with blackberries.
The two biologists step into the shallows and lift the cradle out onto the bank. They arrange the fish with its head in the water and its tail end on the sand. The sturgeon does not fight even as Manuel, on his knees, slices into the fish’s belly with a scalpel 4 inches above the vent. He activates a transmitter by removing an adhered magnet from its side, and slips it inside the sturgeon, where it will live amongst the internal organs for about two years. A quick suturing job finishes the operation, and with a snip of the thread Manuel and Hall scoot the fish back into the water. It swims slowly off.
The night is through, and the pair drive the boat back to the dock at Montgomery Island, clock out and go for a beer at Panama’s Bar in Chico. They might go fishing again at dawn, or perhaps the next evening, but they know they must ration their work carefully, for the GCID project terminates this season, probably in October or November. In their toolbox only 19 sonic transmitters remain, and when the last has been sewn into the body cavity of a green sturgeon, the party ends for Manuel and Hall.
“It’s been a great gig. We’ve had a lot of fun out here,” says Hall, who plans to find work with a trout conservation group.
“I’m not sure yet what I’ll do afterward. I’ll finish school, then maybe work for UC Davis or the federal government. Somehow, I’ll keep fishing for sturgeon. I have to. I can’t not fish. I cease to function.”