The Fraser River flows calmly on an overcast Thursday just outside of Hope, BC. It's the longest river in British Columbia and snakes its way from the Rocky Mountains to Vancouver, passing through Hope, the town whose claim to fame was the backdrop for the first Rambo movie.
The towering mountains on either side of the river make for jaw-dropping scenery and the hum of Canadian Pacific cargo trains is cathartic. If Andrew Ladd was looking to provide a beautiful and unique setting for his second annual charity sturgeon fishing event - this is it.
It's about 8:15 a.m. when the boat carrying Nick Leddy and Mathew Barzal - two of the guest NHLers - parks at the "money hole," right on the edge of a deep ledge that one of the local guides predicts should see plenty of fish at the early hour.
For a laugh, Barzal walks out to the back of the boat and goes full Tarzan, pounding his chest, yelling and letting the echoes bounce between the mountains. Barzal elicits laughs from his boat and the media vessel tailing them, but Leddy reels the rookie of the year in a little bit.
"Can you please be quiet," Leddy says slyly. "We're trying to fish."
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In hindsight, the "sturgeon call" works because Barzal catches a 9'4 fish on his first castoff. It takes about 20 minutes for Barzal to reel it in, which is pretty impressive, let alone for a first-timer.
And if 9'4 sounds like a big fish, it's because it is. The sturgeon swimming in the mighty, but muddy waters of the Fraser hover in the six to 10 foot range. They weigh north of 200 pounds and takes three or four grown men - including a professional athlete or two - to hold them for a quick photo in the water before releasing it. They're thick-skinned, scaly and sharp, but fascinating fish.
Barzal is awe struck by its size as they guide his catch towards the shore. There's no pulling these fish out of the water, so the fishermen go in for a picture before setting them free. If you've never gotten close to one before, they're deceptively big and can spook even pro athletes when they make sudden movements, or swim past your leg.
"The first time is a little intimidating," Ladd said.
Leddy high-fives Barzal after they let the fish go. The Isles defenseman has become an avid fisherman since picking up the hobby two years ago and tries to impress upon Barzal the scope of his accomplishment.
"It'll be a long time before that ever happens again," Leddy says.
Or maybe not, as Barzal later hooks a 10-footer, the biggest catch of the two-day event.
Barzal may have recorded the biggest catch, but the Ladd Foundation is the big winner at the event, as Ladd and his wife Brandy raised $72K for the Canadian Mental Health Association Calgary and the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society.
"We just do it because we've been given this great opportunity and this great platform, so we just wanted to give back," Brandy Ladd said. "We have to, we want to, it's important to us…mental health is a cause near and dear to our hearts and so is the environment so that's how we chose these two beneficiaries this year."
Ladd's charitable nature can be traced back to growing up with an uncle with down syndrome and his family fostering two special-needs adults. (MSG Networks did a great feature on it back in March and can be seen here.) He wanted to use his platform as a pro athlete to raise money, but wanted to do something different from the typical golf or hockey tournament.
They settled on sturgeon fishing, so Ladd hooked up with his friend Kevin Estrada, who owns and runs Sturgeon Slayers, a sturgeon fishing guide on the Fraser River.
Estrada was a former pro hockey player, who carved out a seven-year pro career in the AHL, ECHL, the German, Danish, Swiss and Slovakian leagues, turned fishing guide. He was Ladd's roommate in Lowell, Mass., during the 2005-06 season when they were both in the Carolina Hurricanes system.
Estrada has the personality of a hockey player, complete with quick quips and a little self-deprecation and the patience of an experienced fisherman. At one point he was playing hockey in the winter and laying the foundation for his business during his offseason. Estrada is passionate about fishing and knows all the best spots on the river to keep his clients happy. He's also the one who introduced Ladd to the world of sturgeon fishing.
"For me fishing is about the experience and all these other things - the intangibles - it's not just the fish," said Estrada, who amazingly played two ECHL seasons after surviving a plane crash in 2009. "The fish comes as a bonus to what you get to see, the people that you're with, the nature that you get to be involved with. With sturgeon being so old and so unique as everyone has seen now, it's a bit of another level up."
He also lured Ladd into his cause - conservation and preservation of the BC's sturgeons.
Fishing tournaments conjure images of trophy fish scooped out of the water and mounted on a wall, but that's not the case with Ladd's tournament. All the fish caught during Ladd's tournament are recorded for scientific studies by the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society before they're released.
Anytime they catch a sturgeon, they bring it to shallow waters, flip it on its back and scan it for a tag - a pulse-induced transponder. The tags help them keep track of a wealth of information, like population increases and decreases, where they're being caught and how often. Since 1999, an estimated 64,000 fish have been tagged via the program, according to Karl English, chair of the FRSCS. If they aren't tagged, they insert one into the sturgeon before letting it go.
"All the data work that helps us gain a better knowledge of where these fish go, where they spawn and how big they're getting," said Estrada, who is on the board of directors for the conservation society. "We've basically been at the forefront of conservation and we're active politically to try and help these fish… We're trying to do everything we can to make sure future generations can come here and see what we've seen."
Ladd grew up in Maple Ridge, BC, which is about 50 miles downstream from where he's hosting his guests at the Fraser River Lodge, so this slice of the world means a lot to him.
"You really just don't appreciate [BC] until you get away and travel the world and realize how good we have it here," Ladd said. "It kind of hits home that you want to be apart of preserving it for future generations and allowing other people to enjoy it as much as I have."
Truth be told, Ladd wasn't much of a fisherman growing up, citing a short attention span and love of water sports as two reasons he didn't regularly fish. Now that he has three young kids of his own, he appreciates the peace and quiet out on the water. He is all-in on sturgeon fishing and is getting the Islanders involved as well, taking a group of teammates - including Nick Leddy, Ryan Pulock, Cal Clutterbuck, Anders Lee and Josh Bailey - out fishing when the team had an off-day in Vancouver in March.
Leddy has especially taken to sturgeon fishing, even heading out to BC a few days early to fish with his father.
"It's such a unique experience," Ladd said. "When you talk to people who have fished all over the world and they come here and can't believe how much of an experience it is. It's a bucket list thing for a lot of people."
Ladd estimates his biggest catch is about 8'3 and his longest fight was about 45 minutes. A long battle with a sturgeon feels like a bag skate and these beasts can cause a boat to pull up its anchor and follow the fish downstream. He wouldn't recommend trying it from the riverbanks.
He's pretty experienced now and is in his element when the Isles digital team floats up on the banks of the Fraser on the first day of his event. Ladd is holding a good-sized sturgeon allowing the cameras to get their footage. He's got a big smile on his face, even after catching as many as he has, the feeling doesn't get old.
"To be in the water with them after fighting it for 30 minutes or so and you finally get to shore, you can barely wrap your arms around the whole fish, it's a pretty cool experience," Ladd said.
The experience is a cool one for his guests too. He wants to keep the event small, adding to the intimacy. It's about four or five to a boat, including one NHLer - Winnipeg Jets defensemen Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers were two of the attendees. Ladd and Estrada both appreciate the NHL players coming out to entertain, fish and tell stories as it helps further both of their causes, increasing exposure for Sturgeon Slayers and the conservation society, while raising more money for the Ladd Foundation.
"A lot of people hadn't heard of sturgeon until Andrew and others got on board," Estrada said. "For us it's a big thing and it does help and it brings in funding and goes into the next level of helping us take the preservation into the future."