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Leaping sturgeon bloody Florida boaters

Forget sharks, alligators and sting rays. The latest Florida menace is giant leaping sturgeon.

Gainesville elementary school principal Lacy Redd, 34, was boating on the Suwannee River over the Memorial Day weekend when a sturgeon, some 5 to 6 feet long and between 130 and 150 pounds, leaped into her family's boat and knocked her out. She suffered a collapsed lung and five broken ribs.

On July 4, 19-year-old Danny Cordero of Perry was zipping along the Suwannee on a personal watercraft with his girlfriend when _ WHAM! A sturgeon knocked them both in the water.

"I don't remember anything," Cordero said. "My girlfriend said it was like hitting a brick wall. She saw me lying face down in the river. I had blood all over me. It cracked my teeth and chewed up my gums.

"I get picked on pretty bad. People say: "You got knocked down by a fish?' It's not any ordinary fish. It's a huge fish."

A sturgeon made headlines in March when a 6-foot-long, 127-pound specimen washed up in a Shore Acres neighborhood in St. Petersburg. The fish more typically travel from the Gulf of Mexico up into rivers to spawn in the spring and summer, then head back to the gulf in the fall. It's a ritual that went on long before Florida had people driving bass boats and personal watercraft.

No one keeps statistics on crashes between sturgeon and boaters. Some people who live on the Suwannee say the collisions are on the rise.

"If they were little, like the size of mullet, that would be one thing," said Gilchrist County Sheriff's Chief Harvey Montgomery.

University of Florida researcher Frank Chapman said that in the Suwannee River, at least, the number of sturgeon hasn't increased in the past 20 years. But boat traffic has risen.

Why do the sturgeon jump?

"We don't know," Chapman said. "They just jump!"

They were really jumping the day Redd was hit.

She said she saw a sturgeon jumping ahead of her family's boat as they cruised the Suwannee. Just as she said to her husband and children, "Look at . . .," another sturgeon hit her.

"They jump a lot," she said. "It's more common than you'd think."

The fish folded the boat's steering wheel in half. With his kids panicking, Lacy's husband, Paul, looked for his wife.

"I'll be honest. I thought she was dead," Paul said.

A minute earlier, she had handed their 1-year-old child over to Paul, which probably saved the child's life.

"The game commission decided to release the fish because it is a protected species," he said. "I told them: I want that fish. Later, I found out they released it."

On Fourth of July weekend in 1999, a Gilchrist County sheriff's deputy was in a boat patrolling the river when a 106-pound, 4-foot-6 sturgeon leaped through the boat's windshield and knocked the deputy down, Montgomery said.

"When he called in on the radio, they didn't believe him at first," Montgomery said."He said, "I'm serious. I need some help out here!' "

The Sheriff's Office called in a game warden. When the warden saw the bloody fish in the deputy's boat, he couldn't resist teasing.

"He said, "Well, you know that's a federally protected fish. You're probably in big trouble for killing that fish!' "

Leaping sturgeon also have been reported in the Yellow River, near Pensacola. Larry Foshee, 54, had two sturgeon encounters there. The first time, in 1996, the sturgeon leaped in the boat and "scraped me up," said Foshee, of Pensacola.

"It was the first time I'd seen one up close and personal," Foshee said. "He was really rough."

The second time, a sturgeon leaped in front of his 21-foot boat and kept going.

"He went all the way over the boat. He tore the trolling motor on the front of the boat.

"It's a scary thing," Foshee said.

"On their backs, they have this dinosaur-looking fin. It's very sharp," said Carol Brown, who got hit by a 36-pound sturgeon about 10 years ago, and had to have plastic surgery to repair her broken nose.

"My children thought an alligator had jumped in the boat," said Brown, 50, of Lake City. "By the grace of God, I lived, because it should have broken my neck."

At the hospital in Gainesville, nurses took one look at her mashed-up face and asked what happened.

Brown's husband joked: "I can tell you she'll say "Yes, sir' to me next time."

Abruptly, the nurses took her husband and two children into another room for questioning. But the emergency room physician looked at her wounds and declared, "She had a fish hit her in the face."

One of the few sturgeon keepsakes can be found at The Lighthouse restaurant in Trenton. In 1995, the fish leaped into a boat carrying owner Sue Nessmith and her then-husband, James. The fish knocked James down.

The Nessmiths got special permission to keep the fish, which weighed 70 pounds and was more than 5 feet long. They mounted it and hung it on the restaurant wall.

Sue Nessmith, 45, still sees leaping sturgeon on the river. And, she admits, "It makes you kind of leery from time to time."