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The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is urging boaters to go slow and be vigilant on the Choctawhatchee River.
The request to go slow comes after a Bay County child was severely injured June 22 on a fishing trip with his family when a large Gulf sturgeon leapt into their boat, hitting three children.
One of them, Nathaniel Smith, who turned 8 last week, was hospitalized with skull fractures but is now recuperating at his Youngstown home. He is the son of Angela and Wilson Scott Smith.
“We were bream fishing and it started to rain, so we cranked up and the kids huddled under a tarp in the front of the boat,” Smith said. “The sturgeon just came out of nowhere, and I yelled and tried to cut the motor but it was too late.”
The sturgeon, which Smith believes was 3-4 feet long, grazed the back of the head of his nephew Austin and then hit his 16-year-old daughter, Amber, with enough force to knock her out of the boat.
Smith wheeled the boat around, pulled Amber aboard and then realized Nathaniel had taken the brunt of the collision with a blow to the head. The impact left Nathaniel unconscious. Doctors later determined he had two skull fractures.
Nathaniel was flown to Bay Medical Center Sacred Heart Health System in Panama City, then on to Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola and was released on July 2.
Scott said his son still has headaches but is recovering.
“I’ve fished the river before but I never even thought that a sturgeon might jump and hurt you. That’s just something you don’t ever expect to experience,” he said.
While sturgeon strikes are rare on the Choctawhatchee, they have happened before. On Aug. 4, 2002, Brian Clements, who lived near Bozeman School at the time, was motoring down the river by himself when he caught the full impact of a leaping sturgeon in the middle of his chest. Clement spent a week in Gulf Coast Hospital with a cracked sternum and bruised internal organs.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) does extensive work on northwest Florida rivers with Gulf sturgeon. In 2012, the FWS estimated the population at 3,400 in the Choctawhatchee River and 500-1,000 in the Apalachicola River. The Suwannee River, in northeast Florida, has the most, with a population estimated at 10,000 to 14,000 fish. There have been numerous injuries to humans on the Suwannee from sturgeon strikes over the past several decades.
Scientists don’t know why sturgeon jump or leap from the water.
Meanwhile, fisheries biologists say by the end of summer Gulf sturgeon will leave all northwest Florida rivers and head to the Gulf, where they will spend the winter. They say the best thing boaters can do is slow down, wear a life jacket and be observant.