Ural River delta
Johnny fighting a Beluga
Asp was the preferred bait for Sturgeon
Johnny with Fringebarbel/Schipp Sturgeon
Johnny with Beluga Sturgeon
To me the
beluga sturgeon has
always seemed a fantasy fish. Until ten years ago it hardly ever
appeared in the sports fishing community there were almost no
photographs of these caviar leviathans.
Of course, the fish was known for its expensive caviar, but it was only
in the beginning of the 1990's, when the stiff communist system started
to mellow up, that the beluga sturgeon was made available to anglers.
The beluga sturgeon, or house
sturgeon, is difficult categorize as either salt- or freshwater fish. It
spends most of its life in the huge inland sea, the Caspian Sea, which
is brackish to salt, and runs up the big rivers to spawn.
The beluga doesn't have teeth, but lives solely as a predator and,
man, can it consume some fish. The biggest beluga sturgeon ever to be
registered, was caught by local industrial fishermen. It weighed 5.500
lbs, and it was close to 6 metres long.
The IGFA all-tackle record is no more than 232 lbs, so, needless to say,
the record doesn't really reflect the actual potential of this monster
fish. Many fish, much bigger than the record, are caught every year.
In 1993 I got the chance to do
battle with these monsters myself. The previous years reports said, that
the Ural River was almost paved with spawning sturgeon in the month of
I tend to take such information with a little scepticism too many
times I have heard "over-positive" fishing reports but this time I
have to admit, that it was all very true.
The first we saw of the beluga
sturgeon were their lumpy grey backs, breaking the surface of the cocoa
coloured water of the Ural River and there were fish everywhere!
The sturgeon cruised like sharks in search of prey in the river delta,
using their highly sensitive barbels and sidelines to locate the smaller
All of a sudden the water erupts, as if somebody has thrown half a ton
of lively fish into the river a shoal of sturgeon have managed to
drive thousands of smaller fish up against the reeds, and as if on cue
the belugas charge the prey it virtually sounded like an explosion.
The next sounds you hear are the huge mouths sucking and I mean
super-sucking the prey fish in. This actually sounded like flushing a
particularly big toilet
To testify that there were many
sturgeon, I have to tell you, that our small boats were literally
torpedoed by the huge nearsighted fish, and driving the boats into the
smaller side channels of the river delta, we had to go on very low power
in order not to get sunk by the big beasts.
We totally fished our butts off.
We were really fighting almost all day long. Not to say, that we landed
all the fish, because many fish were lost. The trick was to keep them
from picking up too much speed, and try and turn them around before they
reached the Caspian Sea.
Most of the fish were fought and landed within 15 minutes, but some
really gave everything, and these fights usually lasted 2 to 3 hours.
Imagine our arms at the end of the day boiled spaghetti
I have fished many places in the
world, and I have fought and caught big fish before, but all that didn't
prepare me for what I had in store in the afternoon of our fourth day of
After a good long fight of almost 2 hours, which resulted in a nice big
fish of 90 kg (200 lbs), I recast and hooked another fish straight away.
This fish didn't initially feel very big, so I relaxed a little bit,
letting it do whatever it wanted to do; and that was a major mistake
Suddenly the sturgeon charged toward the Caspian Sea, and its back broke
the water as it crossed the shallow water of the river mouth. Man, what
a fish it writhed like crocodile colouring the water even more as it
thrust over the mud bar, partly free of the water. It was absolutely
There was no chance of fighting the fish from the river, so we powered
the foul smelling Russian boat engine up, and followed the fish as it
headed in the general direction of Iraq. During the next couple of hours
I made no impression on the fish, whatsoever. It didn't want to come
closer than about 100 yards of the boat, no matter how much I struggled.
Getting closer to sunset, we started to get a little worried about the
whole situation. We were a good mile out in the Caspian Sea, and our
guide let us in no doubt about the difficulties of trying to enter, let
alone find, the river mouth in the dark. I honestly put every last bit
of energy into pumping the fish closer to the boat, in the vain hope of
catching this monster. Vain, because I didn't know what our guide,
Pasha, had in mind.
At last the fish gave in a little, anyway. At about 10 yards from the
boat we finally got a good look at the immense fish. It was well over 4
metres long longer than our boat. I started to get my hopes up, feeling
that the end of the fight was near. Well, the fight ended all right, but
certainly not the way I had visualised.
With a quick move of his hand, Pasha cut the line and gave me a great
big smile. I can't express my feelings at that moment, except for total
and utter devastation. Pasha realised from my facial expression, that I
needed an explanation very quick. He explained in faltering English,
that we would have had absolutely no chance of landing or bringing the
fish to shore. Both the time involved, which would put us in total
darkness, and the immense fish, that could easily turn the boat over. In
retrospect, I have to agree with his decision, but what a disappointment
to let that beast go.
When we were safely in the river
delta we asked Pasha about the estimated weight of the fish, and as he
usually did, he wrote with a wet finger on the boat side 800 meaning
800 kg (1760 lbs).
I have to emphasize that the guides were never more than a few kilos off
"guestimating" the fish we know that because we weighed the biggest
The last day I managed to land
the biggest beluga sturgeon of the trip: 152 kg (335 lbs) 3 metres in
length. We were 8 fishermen, and all in all, we landed a grand total of
110 sturgeon, with an average of 80 kg (175 lbs), and with 20 over 90 kg
(200 lbs). The majority of the sturgeon were beluga or
house sturgeon (Huso
huso), but some were the less known schipp or
(Acipenser nudiventris), and sevruga or
starry sturgeon (Acipenser
During the trip we tried the famed beluga caviar several times, and I
must admit that the freshly marinated caviar tasted absolutely
The fishing gear we used was
stand-up biggame rods 30-50 lbs, and Ambassadeur 9000C reels with 0.60
abrasion resistant line. We used a 2 metre leader of 1.00 mm nylon line
to take the worst of the abrasion from the sturgeon's sandpaper skin,
and size 5/0 to 8/0 Gamakatsu single hooks. The best bait was
undoubtedly a half
asp (Aspius aspius), or a half
When we arrived at Copenhagen
Airport, we went straight to the Finefoods Shop, where we checked out
the caviar prices. At that time, the beluga caviar cost the eqv. of
100,- UK £ per 100 gram. Our guides let us know, that a third of the
weight of the female beluga sturgeon is caviar, and assuming that half
of the sturgeon we caught were females, we calculated that we had caught
close to a million UK £ worth of fish eggs.
Na Starovia !