Spending Time with Atlantic Sturgeon on the James River

September, 2012

The James River offers up its secrets at odd times, but to discover one, you have to be out there. At any moment of any month, an event can happen that becomes so special it can change someone's life. Spending time on the tidal James during the month of September can be absolutely extraordinary ... even life changing … for the month of September has become ‘Sturgeon Watching’ season. 

You don’t need to be in a boat, but you do need a clear view of the river from the shoreline. And if you are really lucky, sometimes, for real excitement, go out onto a bridge in downtown Richmond … really.

This story started with a phone call.  I was on the tidal James about 16 miles downriver of Richmond, near the Varina-Enon Bridge when I received a call from Chris Hull. Chris, a former president of the James River Outdoor Coalition, excitedly screamed, “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 then thought, “Why not!”  Could they be reaching their historic breeding grounds at the fall line of the James River in downtown Richmond? Had they been and no one had seen them until now? A fall line is the area where a river turns from free flowing to tidal (where the oceanic tide effects a river). On the James, the fall line is located in downtown Richmond at a point 240 miles downstream from it’s headwaters in Iron Gate, VA, and 100 miles upstream from the Chesapeake Bay.

The next evening, my wife, Lynda and I took a ride down to the Mayo Bridge about five in the evening, roughly the same time 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 crystal clear 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 our 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 excited at the thought of seeing a sturgeon. We met and talked for a while, enjoying the evening sun, beautiful river, and 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 and surprised. I saw something unexpected … a six-foot, prehistoric fish in the fall line of the James River directly below me and I yelled, “STURGEON!” Everyone on the bridge reeled to the side and peered over to share in the historic return of the Atlantic sturgeon to Richmond. 

Ralph, Cricket, Lynda, the cameraman and I all watched as the sturgeon swam upriver, turned and swam downriver back under the bridge and out of our sight. Two seconds later, anothe sturgeon swam out of the darkness of the bridge and into the light of the shallow clear water. In that short sequence a special memory was burned into my peabrain that will last a lifetime. Wow.

Lynda snapped images from her camera and captured a wonderful picture 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 as we kept a look out for more sturgeon over the next hour. I had to ask Ralph why he has such a curious, huge, unfliching smile on his face and his answer was one I will remember forever. 

With that curious smile continuing on his face, Ralph recalled and shared a memory 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 you hire me, I pledge wo work until sturgeon return 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 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, as 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.