Spending Time with Atlantic Sturgeon on the James River

September, 2012.  The James River during any month or season can be quite special for most people.  For me, it’s a no brainer.  But, spending time on or around the tidal James during the month of September can be absolutely extraordinary … for September has become ‘Sturgeon Watching’ season

You don’t need to be in a boat, although it helps, but you do need a clear view of the river from the shoreline, or (for real excitement) be on a bridge in downtown Richmond … really.

This story started with a phone call.  I was on the tidal James, near the Varina-Enon Bridge, looking at bald eagles when Chris Hull called me.  Chris, a former president of the James River Outdoor Coalition, excitedly said, “I’m on the Mayo Bridge, RIGHT NOW, in downtown Richmond and watching four sturgeon in the river.”  At first, I thought no way, but then remembered how much of an avid fisherman Chris is, and was certain he could tell the difference between an Atlantic Sturgeon and a REALLY BIG carp or gar.  I was in somewhat disbelief, but thought, “Why not!”  There had been so many sightings of breaching sturgeon over the last few years that they could certainly be reaching their historic breeding grounds at the fall line of the James River in downtown Richmond.  The fall line is the point where a river turns from being free flowing to tidal, or where the oceanic tide effects a river.  For the James, the fall line is located at a point 240 miles from it’s headwaters, and 100 miles from the Chesapeake Bay.

The next evening, my wife, Lynda and I took a ride down to the Mayo Bridge about 5:00pm, roughly the same time of day the sturgeon were spotted the day before.  Upon our arrival, Mark Holmberg, a local TV news reporter and his cameraman were already there, diligently looking.  The four of us scanned upriver, to the west, then downriver, crossing the road numerous times to peer down into the water from each side of the bridge.  We methodically searched for over an hour with no sighting.  By this time, Mark was in the water, telling his story, while his cameraman recorded from the bridge.  Mark was summing up his sturgeon watching experience from a unique perspective, while giving some historical background information.

About 6:15, Lynda and I decided to slowly work our way back to the car, call it a day, and head home.  As we began out walk towards the south side of Mayo Bridge something caught my eye … something almost better than a sturgeon showed up.  It was the James River Park System’s own Ralph White and his wife Cricket. 

Ralph, the manager of the James River Park, was quite excited at the thought of seeing a sturgeon.  We met and talked for a while, enjoying the evening sun and beautiful river with the city skyline at our backs.  Lynda and I told Ralph & Cricket of our intensive search and that we had no luck.  About ten minutes into our conversation, I stuck my head over the rail and looked down into the river.

I was instantly rewarded, surprised and shouted.  I saw something unexpected … a six-foot, prehistoric fish in the fall line of the James River.  I yelled, “STURGEON!” Everyone on the bridge reeled towards the side and looked over to share in the historic moment … the return of the Atlantic sturgeon to Richmond. 

In an instant a few special memories that will last a lifetime all happened at once. 

Lynda snapped images from her camera and captured a wonderful image of the great fish, an image that tells the story of a fish’s return from an absence for more than a century.  Ralph’s face beamed for an hour … culminating with a story he told that I will remember forever. 

With a curious smile on his face, Ralph White recalled something from his past … from 38 years ago.  He said, “When I was interviewing for the park manager job, with the City, I told them if I was hired I would work until the sturgeon returned to Richmond.  Well it has happened now, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes … I can now retire a happy man.”  For those who know how dedicated Ralph has been, and remains for the James River Park, you know how incredible that moment was.

A couple of days later, I went back to the Mayo Bridge for an early morning Atlantic sturgeon watching trip.  I met Andy Thompson, outdoor writer for the Richmond Times Dispatch, and Matt Balazik, a leading researcher on Atlantic sturgeon, and doctorate student at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.  Matt was out of town during the three days of sturgeon sightings from the bridge, he was busy trying to capture sturgeon on the upper Bay.  On the fourth day, Matt was in the water, searching for fertilized sturgeon eggs, something that has not been found anywhere in the Chesapeake Bay for over 100 years.  It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack, but if they were there, the ‘Sturgeon Whisperer’ would find them.  Matt believed the sturgeon in the area were more than likely spawning, and he wanted to discover that first fertilized sturgeon egg. 

With fins and goggles, Matt searched for hours in the cool, clear river.  Eventually he began looking in a shallow riffle that flowed crosswise in the middle of the river from the south to the north.  Sturgeon eggs have a very adhesive quality to them, and he guessed that this would be a perfect spot for them to attach to the rocks.  Chilled to the bone, and looking in just a few inches of water Matt clearly became overly excited.  Not in a ‘woo whooo’ sort of way, but in a shaky, can’t control the hands sort of way.  I could not tell if Matt was ‘that’ cold or if it was just pure excitement, but he could not hold his hands still.  They were shaking wildly as he was trying to pull a couple of potential fertilized sturgeon eggs from a rock and place them into a vile.  After a few intense moments, he waded out of the river and up the rocky shoreline.  The smile on his face when he held that vile after leaving the river was just awesome.  I love it when the James’ quality as a fountain of youth kicks in.  Matt was excited as a 10 year old kid who just discovered something in the river.

Matt left the river and headed to VCU to check the validity of his find.  A few hours later, I got the call.  They were not sturgeon eggs; they were blue-green algae, which can look exactly like the aforementioned prize.

Even though a sturgeon sighting was not involved with the second part of the story, the excitement level of the potential historic find was heart pounding.  I know Matt will continue looking, and for now, I suppose we’ll just have to be satisfied with knowing Ralph can finally retire, and that the first image of an Atlantic Sturgeon in the fall line of a tributary in the Chesapeake Bay has been officially documented.

--Capt. Mike


The Photo's Stories.  Top Left:  Historic image of Atlantic sturgeon in the fall line of the James.  Photo by Lynda Richardson.