Boaters scramble to save rare fish
By Blake Belden, Staff Writer
Oct 28, 2013, 10:19
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO A photo from a cell phone shows the 100-pound sturgeon after it jumped into Keith Barker’s boat in the Appomattox River.
HOPEWELL — It was just another beautiful day cruising down the Appomattox River along the banks of Hopewell in his 14-foot aluminum Sea Ray fishing boat, when suddenly Keith Barker heard his friend, Cindy Blackwell, scream and looked up to see a five foot, 105-pound prehistoric fish thrashing about on the floor of the boat.
It was an Atlantic sturgeon, a giant fish with a long, dense body characterized by small ridges that line its backside and a large, pointed tail, and it had launched out of the water crashing into Barker’s boat.
“It hit the boat kind of like if you threw a cinderblock in there. Man, it was a heck of a noise, and it hit right where I had my fishfinder mounted. ... It broke the whole housing of my fishfinder. It snapped that, and the whole fishfinder fell in the bottom,” Barker said.
When the sturgeon landed in the boat, it flopped around and hit Barker in the leg forcing him to scramble backwards onto the motor, and Blackwell moved up to the bow of the boat.
“When it first happened, it scared me to death because I didn’t know what was in the boat. You know, it happened so quick, and then when I saw him I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I knew it was a sturgeon but the first thing in my mind was ‘Get the heck out of his way,’” Barker recalled with a retrospective chuckle.
Barker determined he would not be able to throw the fish out of the boat without additional assistance, so he drove up toward Anchor Point Marina with Blackwell still perched at the front tip of the boat to avoid the whipping movements of the sturgeon.
After about five minutes or so, Barker had his boat to the shore where it took him and another guy four tries to successfully lift the sturgeon up and out of the boat releasing him back into the water.
“On the fourth try we got him over the side, and his tail flapped around and hit the other guy that was helping me. I mean it slapped him back a good ways. You know, a fish that size is really strong, all muscle,” Barker said.
Barker said the sturgeon struck the other guy in the ribs with its tail and scratched his arm and his leg.
Despite the damage to his boat, and the initial fright of the incident, Barker said it was fortunate that the sturgeon hit the boat where it did and missed both of them in it, and that under different circumstances there could have been dangerous results.
“You’ve got be careful because if one jumps up like that, you don’t have time to react, and if they’re running 60 or 70 mph out on the water, it’s not going to be good. ... It happens so quick there’s nothing you can do. I mean, boom, it’s done and over,” he said.
After calling the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Barker said that, although he frequently witnesses sturgeons jumping out of the water on the river, he was told this was the first time there was any official documentation of one landing in someone’s boat.
The Virginia Commonwealth University Rice Center, a facility located on the James River that is devoted to environmental studies, describes the Atlantic sturgeon as “the largest and longest lived aquatic organism in the Atlantic rivers of North America,” which was largely present during the settlement of Jamestown.
Researchers for the Rice Center have previously caught an Atlantic sturgeon seven feet in length and approximately 300 pounds, according to the center’s website.
Because of the sturgeon’s endangered population due to a long history of overfishing and habitat destruction, biologists have a limited knowledge and understanding of the fish’s behavior and reproductive patterns in Virginia.