All Wayne Van Burger needed Saturday to wrap up shooting a segment on the Rogue River's green sturgeon for his new television outdoors show, "The Joy of Fishing," was to catch one more green sturgeon on camera.
But after two hours of sitting in a boat on the lower Rogue without a bite, it was anything but a joy. Then the rod tip fluttered, Van Burger set the hook, and cameraman Travis Cooper started filming.
White sturgeon, the largest North American sturgeon, live in rivers from central California to southern Alaska, as do their cousins, the green sturgeon.
Sturgeon can live for more than 100 years, growing to 20 feet long and weighing more than 1,500 pounds, but fish over 10 feet now are considered rare.
They remain relatively unchanged since their appearance in the fossil record 200 million years ago.
They possess bony scutes on their backs and have round mouths on the undersides of their heads. When feeding, they slurp up bottom organisms such as worms, crustaceans and mollusks.
They are anadromous fish, spawning in larger freshwater rivers with tidal-influenced estuaries, such as the Columbia and Sacramento rivers. They are known to travel in the ocean between basins.
Most white and green sturgeon in the Rogue River enter in the spring and leave during the first fall freshet, so anglers here typically target them in the spring and fall along the lower Rogue.
In Oregon, anglers may kill one sturgeon a day and up to five per year, but they must be between 38 inches and 54 inches long to protect larger breeding adults. Killed sturgeon must be logged on an angler's $21.50 combined tag for tallying salmon, steelhead, sturgeon and Pacific halibut.
Only one single-point barbless hook may be used, and oversized sturgeon must be released unharmed and not removed from the water.
— Mark Freeman
"In the beginning, we thought he was a small fish," Van Burger says. "I got him up to the surface in about 10 minutes. That's when we realized he was an absolute monster."
Almost two hours and one snapped fishing rod later, Van Burger got his big fish to the boat on cue, but it was not the green sturgeon he needed on video.
It was a white sturgeon, and at an estimated at 12 feet long it's one of the biggest of these rare critters seen on the lower Rogue.
Not exactly what he bargained for, but it was a moment built for television and it will add drama to the show for viewers tuning into this upcoming segment on Fox Sports Northwest.
"For most people, a sturgeon's a sturgeon," Van Burger says. "Instead of catching a green sturgeon, we caught what might be the largest sturgeon caught in the Rogue River.
"We'll use it," he says. "You bet."
A retired Coos Bay high school teacher and wrestling coach, the 60-year-old Van Burger has parlayed his communication skills and a lifetime of fishing to become the latest Southern Oregonian to open a new outdoors show on cable television this year.
Central Point native Jeremy McLaughlin hosts "The Wild Life with Jeremy," which recently wound up its inaugural season on Comcast SportsNet.
Eagle Point resident and former American Idol contestant Kristy Lee Cook this summer landed her own hunting show called "Goin' Country," which airs at 9 a.m. Sundays on Versus.
"The Joy of Fishing" is perhaps the most Oregon of the shows. Of the 12 30-minute shows already shot for this year, at least half are in Oregon, including two each on the Columbia and Rogue rivers and segments on the Nestucca River and Crane Prairie Reservoir.
These are all old haunts for Van Burger, a National Wrestling Hall of Fame inductee who retired from teaching and coaching in 2005 with no real plan for a second career.
He quipped to a fellow teacher 41/2 years ago that he was going to start hosting some hunting and fishing shows. By luck, that teacher had a visiting former student in town — Cooper, a seasoned videographer with 3D animation and video credits who happened to be between jobs.
The pair became friends and now are partners in Beaver Hill Productions, which produces "The Joy of Fishing," which often entails vast amounts of both joy and fishing.
"It's also a tremendous amount of work, far more than I ever anticipated," Van Burger says. "But it's great fun. I've had a great time."
They have a two-year contract with Fox Sports Northwest for weekly airing, with 13 episodes per year.
One Rogue show, on fly-fishing for steelhead, has been ready for a while. The second one, on green sturgeon, includes information about fishing for them, as well as information about an ongoing study that is tracking adult green sturgeon on their migration to spawn up the Rogue.
With just one more green-sturgeon fight needed to wrap up that segment, the pair
Saturday joined Denny Graves of Gold Beach and anchored in the Rogue's Little Canyon area.
When their final fish surfaced, however, it was clearly the wrong color.
"We all thought he came up peeking at us to see who had him on," Van Burger laughs. "Then off he went to the bottom."
That is a common modus operandi for sturgeon on the Rogue. Even though green sturgeon outnumber white sturgeon 8 to 1 during netting surveys, whites show up more often in the catch, says John Weber, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist who has studied Rogue sturgeon.
"It's like the whites bite and the greens really don't," Weber says.
Over the years, most white sturgeon are caught downstream from the mouth of the Illinois River near Agness.
It's most always a catch-and-release fishery because white sturgeon that migrate into the Rogue are almost always greater than the 54-inch maximum length for anglers to keep.
A 12-foot sturgeon would be anywhere from 25 to 40 years old, and old photographs sprinkled along the South Coast show a handful of fish in that category, Weber says.
"I've seen them close to that around here, but not a lot of them," Weber says.
After Van Burger's sturgeon sounded, it took a while to see it again.
Battling it with a light salmon rod and 30-pound test, the great white had his way with Van Burger. When it finally tired and started toward the boat, the fish snapped Van Burger's rod.
He hand-lined the sturgeon to the boat, Van Burger says. They couldn't get a rope around its tail quickly enough for an accurate measurement, so they quickly unhooked the sturgeon and it returned to the depths.
"The best we could say is it was half the length of the boat, and the boat is 241/2 feet long," Van Burger says.
But it stuck around long enough to earn its future 15 minutes of cable fame.
"It was all kind of crazy," Van Burger says. "And some of the show will be built around it. The Great White Sturgeon."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail email@example.com.