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‘My dream fish’: Fisherman who helps protect the bay hooks the catch of a lifetime

An illustration of a huge sturgeon beside a small boat on open water.
White sturgeon, a large long-lived fish, are a threatened species. Yet somehow a monster specimen was caught in Suisun Bay in March 2024. | Source: AI illustration by Clark Miller

A nearly imperceptible flutter on the tip of the rod set off Zack Medinas’ fisherman’s intuition.

The Gatecrasher Fishing Adventures charter captain left the cover of his boat’s cabin where his client, Corey Lingafeldt, and his two teenage sons, Chase and Tristan, were sheltering from the cold and drizzle. Despite the 28-foot Farallon swinging side to side in the blustery wind of Suisun Bay, the shallow estuary where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers meet 38 miles northeast of San Francisco, Medinas somehow knew subconsciously to test the rod. After all, he’d fished on this spot and other Bay Area waters for 40 years.

Medinas grabbed the rod and reared back on it, pulling the line to set the salmon roe-baited hook. Instantly, a huge white sturgeon jumped out of the water 50 yards in the distance.

“It looks like a piano!” Medinas recalled Lingafeldt shouting.

A white sturgeon of gigantic proportions was caught by Capt. Zack Medinas in Suisun Bay in March. | Source: Courtesy Zack Medinas

The gigantic charcoal-hued fish crashed into the water Shamu-style and then fully jumped out again, revealing its glossy white belly. Medinas handed the rod to 16-year-old Chase, who held it with all his might for 15 minutes before passing it to his father for a turn reeling in the monster.

After 35 minutes, they got the prehistoric-looking creature boatside. Medinas tried to pull it up, first by himself and then with the older Lingafeldt, to get a clean look at their catch and to take some photos for proof—but they couldn’t. Its sheer weight and the current prevented the pair from getting much more than its head out of the water.

Medinas, who’s caught thousands of white sturgeon, said the fish was the biggest he’d ever hooked; its mouth was large enough to swallow a chicken whole.

“I've never had a fish that wasn’t penetrated completely through by the hook,” Medinas said. “It didn’t go through.”

After taking celebratory photos and videos and tagging it for California's sturgeon database, the anglers set the beast free. Casting another line didn’t make sense—anyway, that was the only bite they’d had all day. Besides, nothing would beat snagging the big one. Medinas, who’s studied images of large white sturgeon caught in the area over the years, estimated the fish was 10 feet long and weighed between 400 and 500 pounds.

White sturgeon
Capt. Zack Medinas caught a huge white sturgeon in Suisun Bay on March 29, 2023. | Source: Courtesy Zack Medinas

Redwoods of the Estuary

The March 29 fishing expedition was a dream come true for Medinas, who had wanted to catch a white sturgeon of that size since he was growing up in San Leandro, where he’d often see pictures of them on bait shop walls.

The most famous sturgeon catch around was the record-setting 9-foot-6-inch, 468-pounder caught in 1983 off the coast of Benicia. Unless fishing laws change, it’s a record that will never be beaten: California now prohibits the harvest of white sturgeon over 48 inches in length.

One of the oldest types of fish, sturgeon can be found in the fossil record across the world dating back more than 200 million years. The white sturgeon, or acipenser transmontanus, is North America’s largest and oldest freshwater fish, having lived in waterways along the coast for 46 million years. They take 15 years to mature, can live to be 100 years old, measure 20 feet long and weigh hundreds of pounds. A white sturgeon weighing 1,387 pounds was recorded in British Colombia in 1897, according to Freshwater Fishes of Canada.

With a cartilaginous skeleton like sharks and rays, and scales that are more like bony plates, sturgeon are rarely preyed upon by other fish after they emerge from the juvenile phase. In general, there are not many predators—aside from sea lions and some shark species—that can kill the bottom feeders. As a result, they live a long, long time.

Famously prized for their roe, which is processed into caviar, local sturgeon are no longer recommended for eating because of the heavy metals that accumulate in them.

Although white surgeon are found from the Gulf of Alaska to Mexico, they spend much of their lives in freshwater and estuarine habitats. But water diversions from Central Valley rivers, deadly algae blooms and overfishing have diminished their numbers.

They're designed to survive, and yet we're at risk of losing them because of the various ways that we're impacting the bay.

Jon Rosenfield, evolutionary and conservation ecologist

In October, the state Fish & Game Commission tightened regulations on fishing them due to a decline from 200,000 harvestable fish in 1997 to around 33,000, according to state figures. In 2022, a comprehensive assessment across the world found two-thirds of sturgeon species were critically endangered. It also confirmed the regional extinction of ship sturgeon in the Danube River, the extinction of wild Yangtze sturgeon and the complete extinction of Chinese paddlefish, a type of sturgeon once called Chinese swordfish.

Now Bay Area environmental groups and some fishing enthusiasts want to take protections even further and have asked for the California white sturgeon to be listed as an endangered species. Last year, a group of Bay Area environmental and fishing groups submitted to the state and federal governments petitions to add the fish to the endangered species list.

Jon Rosenfield, an evolutionary and conservation ecologist with San Francisco Baykeeper, believes the white sturgeon population needs additional protections, specifically under the Endangered Species Act, because of its long-term decline, as well as some short-term threats.

The long-term threat, he said, is driven largely by inadequate river flows. “We divert too much water from rivers upstream of where these fish spawn and then export even more of the water out of the Delta,” he said. The short-term threat comes from harmful algal blooms in San Francisco Bay, which have occurred the last two summers. “A red tide in 2022 culminated in the deaths of thousands of white sturgeon, and also some of their imperiled cousins, the green sturgeon, which are already listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

The state Fish and Game Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are considering applications to protect them. Rosenfield said decisions are anticipated later this year.

White sturgeon are “designed to survive, and yet we're at risk of losing them because of the various ways that we're impacting the bay,” Rosenfield said. “I've compared them to the redwoods of the bay—the redwoods of the estuary—because they're gigantic, they live a long time and they see a lot in their lifetimes.”

Two boat captains pose for a photo on a boat beside salmon filets.
Capt. Virginia Salvador, left, and Capt. Zack Medinas of Gatecrasher Fishing Adventures lead charters on both the ocean and in the Delta. | Source: Courtesy Zack Medinas

Dream Fish

After all was said and done aboard the Farallon, the majesty of the monster white sturgeon cast Medinas into a meditative spell.

For over an hour after the catch, Medinas thought to himself, “You've never seen anything like that. You never have. You've never seen a mouth that big. It felt like a car tire. That was just a different day all the way around.”

In the spring and summer, Medinas and his Gatecrasher Fishing Adventures co-captain Virginia Salvador can be found directly in the tourist action on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, where he leads expeditions for halibut, king salmon and rock cod. In the fall and winter, he’s in the delta leading catch-and-release charters for sturgeon.

In April, Medinas was awarded a contract by the state Fish & Wildlife to run commercial-style lines—600 feet long with a hook every 15 feet—to catch, tag and release as many sturgeon as possible over a four-month period. He recently completed a project collecting tissue samples from sturgeon near the Martinez refinery spillway to test for contamination for the San Francisco Estuary Institute.

“At this point in my life, anything I can do to make the water better for fish and better for people excites me,” Medinas said.

The whole experience had this lifelong fisherman thinking about what the bay and the ocean have given to him—and what we owe back to the waters.

“You fast-forward some decades, and you come to realize it was really never about how big the fish was, but it just was an appreciation for a really cool animal and wanting to understand its nature better, its habits and the habitat it lives in,” he said.

Unlike a big fish story, Medinas has proof of his catch: He posted a video on social media with a soundtrack to match the rapture he felt: Aerosmith’s “Dream On.”

“After decades of trying and more sunburns and freezing days and nights than I can remember,” he wrote, “I finally saw my dream fish.”