Huge sturgeon carcass surfaces at Lake Shasta

From the Redding Record Searchlight newspaper 
Huge sturgeon carcass surfaces at Lake Shasta
By Ryan Sabalow

Dan Frost holds a seven-foot long sturgeon he found in Lake Shasta. The California Department of Fish and Game estimate it could have been 100 years old and likely died of old age. Photo Courtesy of Sam Frost


Dan Frost holds a seven-foot long sturgeon he found in Lake Shasta. The California Department of Fish and Game estimate it could have been 100 years old and likely died of old age. Photo Courtesy of Sam Frost
Up until two weekends ago, Dan Frost had never even seen a sturgeon in the wild, let alone picked up a 7-footer to pose for a photo.
But that's exactly what happened when the 34-year-old Shasta Lake man happened upon a sturgeon carcass during a bass fishing tournament at Lake Shasta on April 26.
Frost said he and his cousin Jerrett Foster were having a rough afternoon on the lake. The bass weren't really biting as the two were fishing an inlet on little Backbone Creek, near the dam.
As Frost flipped a plastic Senko stick-bait toward the bank, he noticed what looked like a white fish belly bobbing amid the driftwood ringing the cove's banks.
"I said, 'Man, is that a fish?' " Frost said.
Frost moved his boat closer and saw the white belly was only about three feet of a much longer fish.
Even in the middle of the tournament, Frost said, he couldn't resist taking a few minutes for a photo.
He heaved the monster fish to head height and had Foster shoot a picture with a digital camera. Frost, who stands a little under 6 feet tall and weighs 200 pounds, said the fish was easily bigger than he was.
He dropped the sturgeon back into the water and it sank out of sight.
Randy Benthin, senior fisheries biologist for the Department of Fish and Game in Redding, said the fish Frost handled was a white sturgeon.
The beast was at least 20 years old, but it could have predated Shasta Dam.
Benthin said for a brief time, two decades back, the lake was stocked with hatchery-raised sturgeon.
When the planting program was discontinued, it was the last time new sturgeon entered the lake.
Sturgeon have lived in the lake's inlets since before Shasta Dam was finished in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
But white sturgeon, which can live more than 100 years and grow to well over 1,000 pounds, have been unable to spawn in the lake since the mid-1960s when powerhouses erected on the Pit River cut them off from their spawning grounds, Benthin said.
The fish resemble sharks in that they have similar-shaped bodies, a skeleton made up of mostly cartilage and have remained relatively unchanged since the time of dinosaurs.
But thankfully for Lake Shasta's swimmers, sturgeon don't share the predatory reputation of their shark cousins.
The fish are toothless bottom feeders. In Shasta, they dine on freshwater clams, crayfish and dead threadfin shad.
The largest one ever caught out of the lake was an 8-foot-long white sturgeon, landed in 1977.
People continue to fish for sturgeon in the lake, too, though all of the fish they catch are too big to legally keep and must be released.
"I know people still go out and fish for them," said Tony Messer, manager at Phil's Propellers bait and tackle shop in Shasta Lake. "When they hook into them, they tow their boat around."
Under DFG fishing regulations, white sturgeon must be thrown back if they don't fit within a "slot limit" of 46 and 66 inches.
All of the sturgeon in Lake Shasta outgrew that size limit long ago, Benthin said.
That's why Benthin and others in the DFG's Redding office have been working to see if there's a way to reintroduce hatchery-raised fish into the lake, in the hopes they would be small enough so that fishermen could keep their catch.
But there are concerns from state biologists that new fish would spread the white sturgeon iridovirus, a germ that has infected the fish in hatcheries, Benthin said.
"We haven't yet proven for sure if it exists in the wild," Benthin said of the virus.
Meanwhile, with so few fish left in the lake, Benthin can't resist the chance to study Frost's sturgeon.
Benthin said he hopes to go back out to where Frost dropped the fish to collect a sample or perhaps retrieve one of the tags biologists had implanted in the fish they released two decades earlier.
The carcass may still be there, too.
"He was really fresh," Frost said. "He didn't smell or anything. I wouldn't have touched him if he was all funky."
Reporter Ryan Sabalow can be reached at 225-8344 or at rsabalow@redding.com.