Part of it is freshwaterness. The ocean is the densest wilderness
on the planet, the jungle, the unexplored deep, filled with mysteries and monsters, mostly unmapped, the endless blue world
where human beings are unmoored; whereas the rivers are land
veins, serpentine lakes, people paths, arteries through the muscled earth; and we are more comfortable in general with fresh water, which we drink and in which we bathe, than with salt, which
we cannot drink and in which we are not only uncomfortable but
essentially unwelcome. Even the biggest rivers and lakes are stories with endings, they can be plumbed, they are the land’s liquid
cousins, the land embraces them; whereas the ocean is landless,
endless wilderness, its denizens often savage and terrifying. So to
ponder an enormous creature that is not terrifying, that lives in the
river I can see from my o;ce window, that remains pretty much a
total mystery to biologists and ichthyologists and the United States
Army Corps of Engineers — this gives me hope.
I ASK FISHERFOLK what it’s like to haul up a big sturgeon from
the bottom of a river. Like dragging a refrigerator, says one man.
Like fishing for bear, says another. Like having an air conditioner
on the end of your line and if you give it slack it will sink and if
you pull too hard you will snap your line, so basically you are
doomed to an hour’s weight lifting, at the end of which you haul
up a nightmare from the Paleozoic, says another.
They have the most subtle bite, says a man who guides men
and women to sturgeon in the mouth of the Mighty Columbia.
We call it a soft bite. You’re hardly aware your hook’s been taken
until you set and pull and realize there’s a dinosaur on your line.
And they’re very fast. People don’t think they are quick because
they get so big. People think they are like manatees or whatever,
but I seen them rip o= fifty yards of line in ten seconds. They
dart, man. Something to see, a ten-foot animal whipping through
the water, and they jump like tarpon, and they tail-walk especially
in shallow water, and the first time you hook a serious dinosaur
and he or she decides to light out for the territory you’re . . .
flabbergasted. Awed. Fascinating animal. Very, very adaptable.
They live deep, they live shallow, they eat everything, their only
enemies are sea lions and us. What else can I tell you? They have
the worst eyesight imaginable, but they have a very sharp sense
of smell. One sturgeon tagged in the Columbia showed up in
San Francisco Bay. Others go out in the ocean and disappear for
years. No one knows what they’re doing or how far they travel.
Isn’t that wild? We think we know everything science-wise but
the fact is we know about half of nothing.