The Chesapeake Bay is known for its festival of fish: striped bass, croakers, spot, white perch. But every so often, something crashes the party - like a sturgeon.
Zan Baughn, a Towson resident who has been fishing on the bay for more than four decades, reeled in a 45-inch Atlantic sturgeon while trolling off Love Point on Saturday.
Federal and state biologists who positively identified the fish called the catch unusual.
"They're rare," says Mike Mangold of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We usually see them being caught by commercial fishermen with nets, not by hook-and-line recreational fishermen while trolling."
Atlantic sturgeon, listed as a threatened species, have remained almost unchanged for 70 million years. Adults can grow to be 14 feet and 600 pounds.
They were a staple of Chesapeake Bay communities in the 1800s, with annual catches late in the century averaging 160,000 pounds. But overfishing and declining water quality reduced the population to the point where the migratory fish could no longer sustain itself.
The state began rearing hatchery sturgeon in 1992 and closed the commercial fishery in 1996.
For Baughn, the retired assistant director of the Johns Hopkins University library, catching one was an unexpected thrill. The fish took the tandem bucktail rig that was on the cabin-roof rod of Capt. Joey Sadler's boat, Kristy Ann.
Sadler, who thought his customer had hooked two rockfish, stopped the boat and brought in the other rods. Then Baughn got to work.
"I thought it was a monster rockfish. It fought at least 10 minutes. I'd get two or three turns and the fish would take two or three back," Baughn said.
When the fish was about 25 yards off the stern, the two men realized they had another species, but couldn't identify it.
Baughn brought it in tight so Sadler could scoop it up in a net.
"It looked like a little armored fish, like a stretched-out armadillo," said Baughn.
In 1996, Maryland released 3,000 tagged juvenile Atlantic sturgeon in the Nanticoke River. To gather data about the bay population, a reward program offers fishermen $25 for each of the tagged fish they catch and release and $100 for each wild sturgeon they hold until Fish and Wildlife biologists arrive to tag it.
After a few photos, Baughn released the big fish.
"I'm glad it was unharmed and we threw it back," he said. "It should live to fight another day."