By: Kynan Vine
When in search of new adventures, sometimes you just need to go home.
To say I have been excited for this trip for weeks would be an understatement. Being an old rodeo cowboy the best way to describe the feeling would like waiting for the weekend knowing you have drawn the best animal in the heard. You spend sleepless nights researching and fact finding just trying to temper your excitement enough to drift off for a few minutes.
The strangest thing that may have ever happened to me, in terms of going on a brand new adventure, was that I was literally going home. The old saying, “all this time it was right in my backyard” could not be more fitting in this case.
My family is from a small Southern Alberta town on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River called Redcliff. I spent days riding horses, building forts and generally just exploring the river coulees that surrounded my hometown. When we eventually moved out to our farm, it would have been (as the crow flies) about 20 minutes from the river where we made our annual trips down to the rattle snake dens or helped our friends gather cattle off the river flats. For some reason though, I have fished all around that county but I have never fished the river for sturgeon. Not once in my thirty five year existence have I fished for sturgeon on the river that sat only minutes from my door step. As I write this, I feel almost guilty even saying the words.
As an avid angler, I have had to opportunity to cast a line in some of the most beautiful places around the world including Belize, parts of American and even Brazil. For some reason though it had not occurred to me that I could be floating on the river, only minutes from my home town, wrestling with legitimate dinosaurs.
When one of my oldest friends showed me photos of these massive prehistoric fish he was catching, I knew that it had to be my next adventure.
As I said, sometimes you just have to go home. As we pulled up to my soon to be new friend’s house I realized that he lived only steps behind my Uncle, on a street a mere stone’s throw from my childhood hockey arena.
We pulled out of my hometown and headed up the gravel road toward the river. With each ranch we passed, a faded memory rushed back into my consciousness. When we turned and dropped down into the river coulee, the seemingly endless view of sun bleached river banks blended into the native prairie grasses felt like watching my favorite childhood movie. It was exactly how you remember it but perhaps even a little bit better, more vivid.
It was projected to be a typical fall day in sunny Cypress County but as we pulled up to the boat launch there was still frost on the grass. The boat launch sat on a friends land offering yet another homecoming moment. Ronnie, the seasoned river boat captain, launched the boat into the shallow water, still cloaked by the shadows of the steep valley walls. As the jets kicked in and we shot down the river, the near freezing air should have sent shivers straight down my spine but instead, I felt the familiar warmth of an old friend. Nothing else mattered in that moment, nothing at all.
A few cattle still lingered on the side hills, likely belonging to the ranchers and cowboys that I knew well from my childhood. Mule deer darted through the willows off the banks of the river and a bald eagle soared overhead. The native lands in the area remain untouched by modernity which brings a smile to my face thinking that the rugged landscapes of this vast river coulee could resist modern development for at least as long as I am on this earth. As I considered that thought it brought me back to reality. I was snapped back into the task at hand and the main reason we were out here in this land before time. My old pal and local rancher slash team roper, Jay Hogg, had promised me the fight of my life versus a real live dinosaur.
As Ronnie readied our bait and tackle I could hardly contain the butterflies in the pit of my stomach. Somewhere below the murky green sixteen foot pool of river water lurked a prehistoric beast. I could barely contain my excitement at this point.
With a quick tutorial on how to set my hook and what to expect, we were underway and we watched as they sunk to the bottom. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect. Some say you won’t know you have one on until they are swimming away with your bait. Fishermen often reminisce about their rod disappearing right off of the boat. So here I sat, rod in hand, waiting for my moment. It wasn’t long before I felt the ever so slight tap of the line and then another. I was not prepared for what came next. In all the fish I have had the fortune of latching onto I have never felt so much power. My line stripped off the reel as though the drag had not been set at all but in reality it was so tight I couldn’t even pull line by hand. The fight was on and I was having to come back from being sucker punched by this possibly 100 year old man. Thankfully, my first fish was on the smaller side but as it turns out, a twenty pound sturgeon still expends more effort and energy trying to get off the hook than most fish. I have a theory on the origins of their intensity. A sturgeon’s mouth sits beneath their body and is actually back from the tip of their nose about eight to ten inches. So, it would be like trying to turn a horse on a run away with just the halter around its jaw and no control over its nose. This combined with the fact that a sturgeon’s bones are actually outside of their body, means you are fighting with muscle bound torpedo.
Almost as soon as the first one was released into the river, a second fish took the bait. This time a much more formidable foe. The battle lasted five minutes and my arm was already starting to complain about the effort. After the initial flurry of activity we settled into somewhat of a pattern with some quiet time in between bouts. For those of you that know and those of you who don’t, the moments between the catching are really the best part of any outdoor adventure. Surrounded by beautiful scenery and accompanied by good friends, maybe even new friends, is what draws me to nature and fishing. To me this is the cake. Catching fish really is just the icing. The moments we found ourselves without a fish to reel in meant we had time to chat about local ranchers whose land connects with this mighty river. Naturally, we begin to reminisce about our younger days when catching rattle snakes by hand was a sport but also in some ways a necessity. The preservation of these sacred reptiles is a passion for most in the area. Inevitably, we find ourselves speculating about the length of time it has taken the river to carve its way through this valley or what the Natives may have been doing to survive in the harsh environment of the prairies hundreds of years ago. Of course, aside from the fact that all three of us were born and raised in the area, we have no real conclusive evidence to prove any one of our theories. What brings me the most joy is the overwhelming love and appreciation we all share for the land we were raised on. There is something profound about the feeling I get surrounded by a place we know so intimately yet still holds a certain degree of mystery.
When the sun finally hits its peak, in true Southern Alberta fashion, it begins to slowly raise our core body temperature and spirits. With the lull in action our man Ronnie decided it was time for a change in location so, anchors are pulled and the bait is reeled. Off we shoot up river to yet another one of his “Honey Holes” and although the two hundred foot high red shale cliffs offered an impressive view, this new location proved less productive than the first. At this point, fueled by a mixture of pride and obsession, we made our way to the third and final fishing hole. This spot felt better and I think we all knew it was going to be battle royal when we struck sturgeon gold in our late afternoon blitz. Sure enough, the moment I had been waiting for all day was upon me. As I set my hook I could feel what I could only describe as a log stuck on the end of my line but this was no log. With all of its weight and ancient strength, the dinosaur came shooting to the surface propelling its entire body out of the water. In my mind, I saw a small whale walking across the water on its muscular tale but in reality, it was the sturgeon dancing across the surface flaunting its prehistoric physique and unreckoned power. I was in the thick of it with this old guy and he was pulling out all his dirtiest punches. He ran back and forth up and down the river. At points when we thought he was giving in and could see him under the boat, he would simply flick his tail and be gone again. The fight probably lasted fifteen minutes before he finally began to tire. With victory in sight, we pulled him over to the net. It in that moment when you put your faith in your net man and pray you will be getting to hold your opponent in your arms. Jay swiftly nets him and sets him in the boat. Although not the biggest fish in the river at 46 inches he was still my biggest for the day and by far the largest freshwater fish I have landed. Not to mention according to his size the fish could have been up to 80 years old.
Having the opportunity to land a species of fish that has traveled these waters for over 200 million years is a humbling experience and truly made me even more proud of where I come from. The fact that we have preserved this amazing species and the people I know in the area are such stewards of the land really does bring a smile to my face. In the end any day spent outdoors exploring new waters is a great day and even more special when spent catching fish I had yet to see in real life. Better yet, I was back home and in the back yard of my memories with one of my oldest friends. That is an experience I won’t soon forget. It was just the reminder I needed to appreciate where I had come from and what the land had provided us. So, no matter how far you roam and what grand adventures you may embark upon; just remember that there is truly nothing like coming home.
Blog courtesy of @kynan_vine