Skip to main content

Holiday warning: Beware of flying sturgeons

By Kim Segal, CNN Supervising Producer
A sturgeon is "like an alligator on the outside of their skin," FWC officer Dorvan Daniel says.
A sturgeon is "like an alligator on the outside of their skin," FWC officer Dorvan Daniel says.
  • Sturgeon jumped in a boat, breaking Tina Fletcher's tibia and fibula
  • Gulf sturgeon can grow up to 8 feet long and weigh up to 200 pounds
  • Up to 14,000 of these fish swim into the Suwannee River each season, official estimates

(CNN) -- Still using crutches to walk, Tina Fletcher is the most recent victim of a gulf sturgeon strike while on the Suwannee River in Florida.

"I have been on the river my whole life," she says. "For some freak accident like this to happen -- it's just crazy."

It was Memorial Day weekend when Fletcher and her boyfriend borrowed a friend's airboat for a joyride on the river. Fletcher was seated with one leg bent on her chair and the other leg stretched out straight atop a footrest when a sturgeon jumped in front of the boat.

"When the fish was coming down I was like, 'Oh my gosh, it's going to hit me!' so I went to pull my leg up, and when I pulled my leg up I made it about halfway -- like about my calf muscle," recalls Fletcher. "Then the fish collided with my leg."

Jumping fish break boater's leg

The impact broke her tibia and her fibula, sending Fletcher to the hospital for the remainder of the holiday weekend.

"The report said it [the sturgeon] was between 4 and 6 feet and between 60 or 70 pounds," says Fletcher. "But I think it was bigger than 60 to 70 pounds. It looked huge."

It may have looked huge, but it was a relatively small fish considering that gulf sturgeon can grow up to 8 feet long and weigh up to 200 pounds.

"They're really bony, hard fish," explains Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Officer Dorvan Daniel "It's like an alligator on the outside of their skin. They're really almost as hard as a rock."

As the Fourth of July approaches, public services announcements warn of firework and campfire dangers, but near the Suwannee River in Northwest Florida the message to the public is: Beware of flying fish.

"We don't want to scare anyone off the river," says Karen Parker, FWC spokesperson, "but we do want to make people aware that these fish they do jump and people have gotten injured by them."

In 2010 there were no injuries by sturgeon reported.

"We were hoping for another quiet year like that," says Parker, "but we've already had nine encounters so far this year."

The encounters occur when a sturgeon jumps out of the river as a watercraft is approaching and just as the fish is on its downfall it lands in the vehicle.

"There's a bunch of theories out there, but we're not really sure why they jump out of the water," says FWC Biologist Allen Martin. The largest population of gulf sturgeon can be found in the Suwannee River, Martin says. The sturgeon travel into the river from the Gulf of Mexico every summer to spawn.

"The Suwannee is the last of what they call 'wild rivers' left in Florida," explains Parker, "There's no dams or man made structures in it. So the sturgeons can get on in and up here." Parker estimates that between 10,000 and 14,000 of these fish swim into the river every season.

The spawning season takes place when the weather is warm, schools are on summer break and most companies are closed for the long holiday weekends. These factors contribute to the river's popularity as a place for people to celebrate.

Daniel works hard to assure that celebrations do not turn into catastrophes. A few years ago, Daniel witnessed a sturgeon jump out of the water and hit a 9-year-old girl in the face.

"I heard the thump, and I saw a young girl fly out of the boat, not just fall out of the boat, she actually went up in the air," recalls Daniel. "Probably about 15 feet up and out of the boat and she hit the water."

When the little girl was rescued from the water she had two deep lacerations on her jaw and neck, Daniel remembers. He guesses the sturgeon that hit her was 5 feet long and weighed about 70 pounds.

Witnessing that accident has changed the way Daniel patrols the 30-mile stretch of river that he is assigned. In the past, Daniel would occasionally warn boaters about the dangers of the jumping fish.

"Now it's almost every boat I will stop and say, 'Watch out for these sturgeons, they are really dangerous,'" he warns. "I wouldn't sit anybody up front."

The front of the boat is where Fletcher was sitting when she was injured. Since her accident, Fletcher doesn't even want to be on the back of a boat on the Suwannee River. She admits it may take some time to get over her fear of the flying fish, but in the meantime she is trying to keep a sense of humor about her accident.

"I joke with everybody (who asks what happened) and tell them I was trying a new type of fishing lure -- I was trying my toes out to see how it worked."