A fisherman reels in an Atlantic sturgeon at the mouth of the Merrimack River.

NEWBURYPORT — They grow to lengths of 15 feet, live for as long as six decades and are some of the most primitive animals in the waters of North America.

Though resilient during their lives, Atlantic sturgeon are on the state’s endangered list, which makes Jeff Hajjar’s catch of a 6-footer about 50 yards from the north jetty at the mouth of the Merrimack River on Monday night all the more surprising.

Hajjar, a Methuen native who now lives in Idaho, caught the fish using a 6-inch Sluggo — which looks like a rubber eel — on a two-ounce lead head jig.

“He was a big son of a gun,” he said. “We thought we caught some kind of giant shark at first.”

Hajjar said he was fishing with his brother, “and that was the first cast of the night, and we bring in this sturgeon. I couldn’t believe it.”

Kristen Ferry, a biologist for the state Division of Marine Fisheries, is also surprised at the catch.

“In my time working with sturgeon, I haven’t learned of anyone catching a sturgeon in the Merrimack,” she said. “It is not unheard of, but it is not at all common.”

Ferry said the Atlantic sturgeon is a migratory fish and moves up and down the East Coast of the United States. She said biologists will find a sturgeon that has originated from Southern states that has migrated to the bays and waterways of the Northeast.

Because of that, she said there is an extensive tagging program for sturgeon to help biologists track their movements.

“They are moving around all the time,” she said.

At 7:30 p.m. Monday, an Atlantic sturgeon just happened to be moving around the mouth of the Merrimack.

Hajjar said when he first hooked the fish, he thought he might have caught a really big striped bass, a popular and much more common catch for that part of the river.

“But then he just made a run straight out to the ocean, and I never felt a striper make a run like that,” he said. “Then it was just like pulling in dead weight.”

Reeling the fish in, he said, was a struggle.

“It took us forever to get that fish to the boat,” Hajjar said. “We were going at it for 15 to 20 minutes. We didn’t know what it was. We didn’t have a clue of what was going on.

“It was a lot of fun.”

When he finally reeled it to the boat, he said he immediately realized it was a sturgeon, which he said was shocking. But knowing that in Idaho the fish are protected, he figured the same must be true here.

Instead of trying to bring the fish into the boat, Hajjar said his brother reached into the water and pulled out the hook.

“We didn’t want to lift it out of the water. I know how rare they are,” he said.

The origins of Atlantic sturgeon date back more than 120 million years and the animals grow to as big as 15 feet and 800 pounds, according the Chesapeake Bay Program, a restoration partnership for that body of water, which is a popular place for sturgeon to live and spawn.

Sturgeon do not have scales but rather five rows of bony plates called scutes. They use their hard snout to look for food along the bottom of the waterways. They typically eat mollusks, insects and crustaceans.

The first market for sturgeon on the East Coast started in 1628 in Brunswick, Maine, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program. Beyond food, the fish’s skin was used as leather for clothing and book bindings.

Sturgeon are still valuable, especially the roe, which is used for caviar that can fetch more than $250 a pound.

The fish usually spawn in rivers. Juveniles stay in the fresh or brackish water for one to six years before moving out to the oceans. The fish tend to stay close to the shore when they become adults.

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