Early one April afternoon under a bright blue spring sky, Josh Cohn and Connor Lynch were bouncing a fishing jig off the bottom of the Potomac River thinking they might catch a sucker or quillback carp.
Lynch felt the line tug, and Cohn pulled the fish to the surface.
“It’s a sturgeon!” Lynch said.
“The hell it is,” Cohn replied.
But Lynch was right. The line had snagged the back of a shortnose sturgeon, a relic of the age of dinosaurs that is rarely seen in the Chesapeake Bay or its rivers — and not reported at all in more than a dozen years.
Fishing across the river from Fletchers Boathouse in the District of Columbia, Cohn said he would have been less surprised to have landed a bull shark. But it was a 2-foot sturgeon, he said, “the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me, period. Full stop.”
Keeping the endangered species in the water, they snapped a couple of photos of the sturgeon — covered with bony “scutes” that give it an armored appearance — to prove the story they had to tell. “I wouldn’t have taken pictures if it had been anything else,” Cohn said. “But there’s a reason no one believes in Bigfoot.”
The Chesapeake is home to two species of sturgeon. The Atlantic sturgeon, which historically could reach lengths of more than 14 feet and weigh hundreds of pounds, and the smaller shortnose, which can reach a bit more than 4 feet and about 50 pounds.
Both are endangered, but scientists in recent years have found an increasing number of Atlantic sturgeon in the Bay and some of its rivers. Shortnose, though, are hardly ever seen.
In fact, during a three-year study on the Potomac River starting in 2004, biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey caught and tagged only one shortnose sturgeon. A commercial fisherman caught another, and it also was tagged.
Before the catch by Lynch and Cohn on April 9, the last time one was documented was in 2009, also in the Potomac.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, in cooperation with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, operated a reward program in the Chesapeake region from 1996 to 2012 for recreational and commercial fishers to report incidental sturgeon catches.
During that time, 1,590 Atlantic sturgeon turned up, but just 93 shortnose sturgeon — even though the shortnose spend most of their lives in the freshwater rivers where they spawn and in nearby brackish water. Atlantics, in contrast, spend most of their lives in the ocean after spawning in rivers.
While some of the shortnose were found in the Potomac, most were captured north of the Bay Bridge.
That has contributed to speculation that many, if not all, shortnose has seen in the Bay in recent decades are migrants — not Chesapeake natives — who have come into the Bay from the adjacent Delaware Bay through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.
A 2009 paper studying DNA collected from shortnose along the East Coast found that samples from within the Chesapeake showed that the fish appeared to have originated in Delaware Bay.
“In the Delaware, there’s a healthy spawning population,” said Mike Mangold, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service who tracks sturgeon reports along the East Coast. “It could be they might out-migrate and are colonizing a new area.”
Such colonization might be necessary if, in fact, any remnant native population in the Bay has vanished, as the genetic works suggests.
Still, it’s also possible that shortnose sturgeon are simply being overlooked. Marty Gary, executive director of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, said that he hears reports from commercial fishermen that shortnose occasionally turn up in their nets, but they “have some trepidation” about reporting catches of an endangered species because they worry it could trigger restrictions.
For his part, Cohn, who caught the sturgeon in DC, said he viewed the catch as tangible evidence that the river was improving. A native of the District, Cohn worked at Fletchers when he was young and volunteers to help address pollution problems in the river.
“It just really made me hopeful for the upward trend of the health of the river and all that goes with that,” Cohn said.
The Potomac Conservancy’s most recent grade of the river’s health last year was a B- which, although a slight drop from the group’s previous report card, still reflected a “river on the mend” from a legacy of industrial and agricultural pollution decades ago. As recently as 2011, the group had given the river a D.
“Thirty to forty years ago if you jumped in the Potomac you would be getting a tetanus shot if you were within sight of downtown,” Cohn said. “Now we got shortnose sturgeon hanging out. It seems like the water quality is dramatically improved.”
This article originally appeared on BayJournal.com on Tuesday, May 11, 2021.