In May 1779, as the shad made their annual run up the James River, Martin Hawkins found his way to the falls, like hundreds of others, and waded onto one of the river's many rocky outcroppings, searching for a catch to bring home for the dinner table. As Hawkins knelt beside the water, an Atlantic sturgeon twice his size swam up to scratch itself against a rock, just as a dog would scratch behind its ears. Eager to haul the monster fish out of the water, Hawkins silently snuck up, crouched beside it and attempted to grab the sturgeon by its gills.
What happened next is the stuff of Richmond legend. The leviathan jerked the man into the river, and he flopped onto the fish's back. Suddenly, the startled sturgeon took off, dragging Hawkins along like a rodeo cowboy latched onto a bull. After a few moments, the two of them disappeared into the roiling current. "The spectators were aghast with fright," a New York Times article recounted more than a century later, citing a retold version of the event. "They thought their friend was lost." Seconds later, the sturgeon and its rider splashed up to the surface. Hawkins was still holding on to the fish.
The sturgeon dove in and out of the water as it thrashed a half-mile downriver toward Mayo's Bridge. Both the fish and the fisherman were exhausted from the tandem ride, but Hawkins seized control and steered the sturgeon toward a sand bar. Here, the river spat them both up on shore. Hawkins had drawn a large crowd of spectators, who cheered as he safely landed the monster ashore. Triumphant, Hawkins served the 300-pound fish to a raucous crowd that night, and, as the Times recounted, "the night that followed this episode was spent in high glee, and the distinguished adventurer was ever afterward known as Martin Hawkins, the sturgeon rider."
The fisherman's adventure was not the first of its kind: Stories passed down through Virginia's Pamunkey Indian tribe told of boys accomplishing similar feats as a rite of passage.
Excerpt taken from: https://richmondmagazine.com/news/features/out-of-the-depths-02-26-2014/