Is Old Moe still out there? You bet
By R.E. Graswich
Freshwater fishermen know the best time to catch a sturgeon in the Sacramento River is right about now, early March, when white sturgeon run upstream to spawn. The big fish search for rocky substrate in the river bottom. They love fast-moving, cold water clouded by dirt.
I’m no fisherman. But I hope to wake up one morning and open an email from a Sacramento angler who, in the hunt for sturgeon, has sighted an awesome beast that defies belief, an ancient sturgeon of supreme size and weight whose emergence from the muddy depths can resemble a submarine breaking the surface.
I’m talking about Old Moe.
For about 30 years, Old Moe was a big deal. Every bait and tackle proprietor from Isleton to Knights Landing knew somebody who had seen the massive sturgeon. Countless local fishermen did something better than witness Old Moe. They
tied into her (or maybe him).
Sacramento newspapers once employed writers who covered fishing. They published stories about epic battles with Old Moe. Accounts describe four-hour fights, reeling the hooked fish in near the boat, close enough to reach out and touch. Inevitably, the tale ends as Moe issues a mighty and conclusive thrash, snaps the rod, straightens the barb and swims away.
Estimates varied as to Old Moe’s true dimensions. Since the fish never held still for a tape measure and always slipped past dockside scales, estimates were dreamy.
One Sacramento marina manager placed Moe’s length at 31 feet. This speculation was based on a 1973 fishing trip. Silently and suddenly, a monster sturgeon eased alongside the boat, which was licensed at 36 feet. The fish was about 5 feet shorter than the vessel. The marina boss swore it was Old Moe, having seen the same classic white-mottled exterior several times between Freeport and the Tower Bridge.
As for weight, assumptions were even more fantastic. One fisherman insisted Old Moe weighed 800 pounds. Others believed the sturgeon was somewhat leaner, closer to 500 pounds. The arguments were left unsettled. Split the difference and Moe is still one amazing fish.
Old Moe escaped capture, but her fishy talent for generating publicity expired in the 1980s. After starring as Sacramento’s most famous sturgeon for more than a generation, Moe became a has-been. The media moved onto other thrills—for one thing, the Kings came to town—and fish stories were suddenly regarded as unworthy and lacking sophistication by editors of local fish wraps.
But a media blackout doesn’t mean Old Moe is dead and buried. Sturgeon can live 100 or more years. Moe could easily be active today, approaching the age of maximum Social Security benefits in sturgeon years.
I checked with Mike Rasmussen, a professional fishing and hunting guide who bewitches every bend in the river from Knights Landing to Colusa in the chase for sturgeon. He isn’t familiar with Old Moe, but has no problem swallowing the legend.
“I’ve heard stories of old boys using a whole chicken for bait, and light cable or rope for line,” he says. Rasmussen knows senior anglers who encountered big sturgeon on the Sacramento River and “generally describe the fight of the giant fish as similar to hooking into a truck as it drives away.”
Our expert outdoorsman believes California’s largest white sturgeon are probably imprisoned behind Shasta Dam. Sturgeon historically swam up the Sacramento River to spawn in the Pitt River. Conditions were perfect. The huge dam blocked the confluence in the early 1940s.
Rasmussen says the biggest sturgeon found in Lake Shasta run about 9 feet and 300 pounds. “I personally feel, knowing what I know, that the possibility exists that there could be sturgeon twice as big as the ones known to exist in Lake Shasta, trapped since the dam’s construction,” he says.
Old Moe preferred cozy Sacramento. And I believe still does. To hook a line from “Moby Dick”: “In maritime life, far more than in that of terra firma, wild rumors abound, wherever there is any adequate reality for them to cling to.”
R.E. Graswich can be reached at email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.