When Mark Zona, host of the World's Greatest Fishing Show on ESPN2, locked down his co-host on the Bassmaster Tour and outdoor television legend Tommy Sanders for his show, he wasn't sure what they would do. But he knew what they wouldn't do.
"It would have been so cliché to go bass fishing," Zona said. "That would have been too much of a layup. Going and doing a fishing show with Sanders is like having a friend that doesn't need anything for a Christmas gift. He's just very hard to shop for."
A few calls to his sources and he landed on the name John Garrett, a giant sturgeon guide in Hood River, Ore. Garrett has been guiding for giant sturgeon for 19 years.
It was something, maybe the only thing, neither Zona or Sanders had ever chased. They didn't know what to expect, so they planned a day and a half of fishing, hoping for a couple 100-pound sturgeon to make the show.
"As we're getting closer to shoot, I'm talking to Garrett, and he's talking about 8 to 12 footers that are weighing 500 to 1,200 pounds," Zona said. "Now you do those eye rolls, like 'Oh, I know where this is heading. It's going to be a train wreck.'"
This spot on the Columbia River is less than an hour drive from the Portland airport, and is pretty much in the middle of town.
"You'd think it was out in the wilderness somewhere," Sanders said. "The town is right there, you can see the Burger King and Starbucks. It was very urban."
Zona described it as "the most picturesque place I've seen since I've been alive. It's just one of those places."
"That place is available to anybody," Zona continued. "You drive an hour from the airport, launch a boat and you're within 20 minutes of something that I didn't think was out there. It was as dreamlike of an outdoors shoot that I have ever been on in my life."
The baiting process
The crew met Garrett first thing in the morning, took the short ride to their first spot and Garrett started the process.
"When Zona showed up at the boat ramp he was so excited about fishing and that's contagious," Garrett said. "I've guided for these every day for 19 years, and I get comfortable, but when you see that kind of passion, it helps you get ready."
Once at the spot, they took a shad, removed the gill plates, trussed it up in the line, put a hook through the head and dropped it straight down. After letting it fall to the bottom, they ran 75 yards up river, hooked to an anchor and waited for their rods to start bouncing.
"You think these 10-footers are a fish of 1,000 casts where they put a cow head on a hook, throw it out there and leave it for weeks," Sanders said. "It's a lot simpler than that."
Setting the hook
It didn't take long for the rods to start showing life, and it was time for action. Sanders said it was like setting the hook on the foundation of your house. Zona was a little more animated.
"When you set the hook into an 11-foot fish, it's like walking out your office door and setting the hook on a Suburban," he said. "And then the Suburban takes off. It was that incredible."
But the fight hadn't really started. Garrett pulled the anchor and Sanders, who caught the first of three sturgeon over 10 feet long, said he felt like he was really making up some ground in the first 75 yards.
"When you get on top of him and he feels that line, it's obviously not current to him," Sanders said. "Then he takes off."
Sanders compared the sturgeon fight loosely to a battle he once had with 140-pound tarpon, but he said there's no real good way to describe what it's like pulling on 1,000 pound fish. Sturgeon act a lot like a tarpon when they're hooked. They run and they jump.
"You see this 10-foot thing come out of the water with a giant gut hanging down and you just think, 'Good God.' It's like a Godzilla movie or something," Sanders said.
The fight lasts about 45 minutes and requires non-stop pressure on the fish, which means non-stop strain from the guy reeling it in.
"You see how massive this dinosaur is — and we've caught some damn big fish on that show — seeing that it really puts things in perspective and shows how miniscule we are," Zona said. "As tired as you are fighting this thing, you just couldn't stop. You are wondering two things: am I ever going to see something like it again and is this for real?
"Or am I going to wake up tomorrow morning and say, 'Ah, I knew it, that didn't really happen.'"
Once it reaches the side of the boat, Garrett shoves his hand in its mouth (sturgeon don't have teeth) and tries to pull it up along the side of the boat to be measured so he can get an approximate weight.
At the end of a couple days that included only eight hours fishing, Zona and Sanders had reeled in nine sturgeon that weighed in the neighborhood of 5,000 pounds.
Sanders said it was one of the top five fishing trips of his life. Zona said it was something he didn't think he'd ever see and doubts he'll ever see something like it again. Garrett said it was just another day on the water.
"Sanders always uses a term, 'What just happened?'" Zona said. "He always says that to tell a story on TV and what happened on that boat, neither of us can describe correctly. I'm not saying that in an over the top manner or to blow it out of proportion. I've never seen anything like that."