Columbia River Sturgeon

Columbia River Sturgeon

When it comes to catching North America's largest freshwater fish, no other river rivals the Columbia's white sturgeon fishing. Knowing where to go and what gear to use is crucial.

By Scott Haugen

It was my first day of sturgeon fishing on the Columbia River, and I couldn't get a line in the water fast enough. And within five minutes of launching guide Dan Ponciano's sled at The Dalles, we had baits in the water. Ten minutes later, I was locked in battle with my first oversized white sturgeon.

It was a 9-foot monster, and when we struggled to bring him alongside the boat for a quick release, his massive girth caught me by surprise.

By the time we called it quits, we had hooked 13 sturgeon and landed 11, the largest of which was a fat female that stretched the tape to just over 10 feet and weighed in at an estimated 542 pounds.

A few weeks later I was back on the Columbia with Ponciano, this time targeting keeper-sized sturgeon below Bonneville Dam. Between four anglers in the boat, we landed just shy of 100 fish, and came away with some fine eating meat.

On my latest trip with the seasoned guide, we employed a series of techniques, including back-bouncing, to take our share of oversized and keeper-slot sturgeon. The opportunities to tie into sturgeon along the Columbia River are many, and by knowing where to go, what to look for and how to fish them, anglers can realistically travel to this river and expect to catch fish - even on the first time out.

Mike Bogue and his son, Jaret, make the trip to the Columbia annually from their northern California home to sample its excellent -- and fun -- sturgeon fishing. Photo by Scott Haugen

STURGEON FACTS

With healthy numbers of big sturgeon present throughout the Columbia River, the time has never been better for pursuing these monsters of the deep. The past decade has experienced a resurgence in trophy sturgeon fishing, a sport that can be as addicting as any fishing out there.

"One of the main reasons people didn't fish much for big sturgeon is because few knew how," shares Ponciano. "No one thought of putting an entire eel or a whole shad on their hook and tossing it out there. But once people learned that these fish could be targeted and caught with surprising regularity, the sport forever changed."

If a whole shad sounds like too much bait, consider a client of Ponciano's who once landed a 59-inch sturgeon, one that falls on the high end of the keeper slot. This sturgeon weighed 61 pounds, yet when cleaning the fish, Ponciano discovered 10 adult shad in its stomach. If that's what a small sturgeon eats, a full-sized shad is nothing for a magnum fish to consume.

The white sturgeon is North America's largest freshwater fish, and the Columbia River is one of the few rivers on earth where these fish can be retained. One of the oldest living fish on the planet, the white sturgeon ranges from Alaska to south-central California. Reports of sturgeon taken in the 1800s tell of three fish weighing over 1,500 pounds. One sturgeon, reportedly succumbing to a gill net in the Columbia River near Vancouver, weighed a whopping 1,285 pounds.

Traditionally, the best months for catching oversized sturgeon are from May through July, when fish move to and from spawning beds and seek migratory food. The water below many of the dams on the Columbia offers excellent fishing this time of year, as their currents attract spawning sturgeon and offer a protein-rich diet.

Oversized sturgeon are caught well into October, but there are big fish to be had year-round. The coming of the spring chinook migration takes a great deal of pressure off the sturgeon, meaning late spring and early summer are ideal for focusing efforts on the bottom dwellers. Some guides, like Ponciano, offer combination salmon and sturgeon trips, a real treat for many anglers.

For anglers looking to focus solely on keeper sturgeon, June is the time to be at the river's mouth. "Astoria is the best place for keepers this time of year," points out Ponciano. "This is when the sturgeon are following fresh baitfish into the system. Sand shrimp are very effective in 20 feet or less of water, with deeper holes finding anchovies and smelt more attractive to the fish."

GEAR UP FOR MAGNUM STURGEON


If there was ever a reason to hire a sturgeon guide, it's because they have quality gear to handle big fish. But if you're looking to get into this sport seriously, gearing up should be your first priority.



The goal is to get these big fish to the boat in a timely manner, say 20 minutes or less. I've caught several fish in the 400-pound range and up with guide Dan Ponciano, and he always makes an effort to get them in fast, so as not to fatigue the massive beasts. The person running the boat needs to help the angler by properly positioning the craft, and the person fighting the fish needs gear to which they can apply considerable pressure.



If fishing from a boat, get a stout 6- to 7-foot rod rated for at least 60 pounds, such as the Loomis Hybrid or comparable rod. Fill a large-capacity saltwater level-wind reel with 80-pound-test Dacron line. Your 200-pound braided nylon leader will front a 9/0 hook. Leader color appears to make no difference. Some anglers use wire leaders to keep the bait on the bottom.



Depending on water conditions, turbidity and where you fish, weights will range from 12 to 64 ounces. Cannonball sinkers are preferred, as they don't get hung up as easily as other weight styles in the rocks.



The typical setup consists of a sinker clipped on a slider, which runs up the mainline. A heavy swivel connects the mainline to the leader. Leaders run from 2 to 6 feet.



Bank anglers go with one-piece 10- to 15-foot rods, to accommodate long casts and fighting fish from shore, and open-faced reels.



Large, fresh baits like shad and eel seem to be the best. Look for baits no more than a day old. -- Scott Haugen

 

STURGEON TECHNIQUES

For decades the standard sturgeon-fishing approach has been to drop anchor and fish weighted bait directly

on the bottom. In this approach, anglers let the current carry the scent of the bait downstream, whereby a sturgeon picks it up and follows it to the bait. It's a waiting game, but a very effective way of consistently nailing sturgeon, both keeper and oversized.

When it comes to sturgeon, using the proper bait is important. "The fresher the bait, the better," points out Ponciano. "If the bait is more than a day old, try looking for fresher stuff. Whole shad and whole eel are excellent for the magnums, while shrimp and/or smelt are super for keeper sturgeon."

While bottom-fishing is the primary sturgeon technique, and unquestionably the most effective for the majority of anglers, several of these fish are taken each spring by salmon anglers back-trolling herring-wrapped Kwikfish. Some sturgeon fans have even targeted sturgeon by back-trolling plugs, by finding where the fish are jumping and working the boat and baits in front of the fish. While this strategy is quite hit-and-miss, it is exciting to have one of these monsters come up and take a plug, especially when you're holding the rod.

Recently Ponciano has taken sturgeon fishing to a higher level by applying a proven salmon-fishing technique. Back-bouncing for sturgeon is a new concept on the Columbia, a river most sturgeon fans dismiss as being too large to pull off this style of bait presentation.

"I've been using my TR1 autopilot on the motor to free myself up in the boat, without having to be on anchor," notes Ponciano. "We've been covering much more water this way and getting on to greater numbers of fish. Back-bouncing a whole shad or eel really seems to get the fish fired up."

Back-bouncing is a technique whereby anglers use just enough weight to tick the bottom. Motors are set to idle at a rate that allows the boat to move downstream about one-half to three-quarters the speed of the river flow. By continually lifting the rod, the bait elevates and lands in a different spot each time the rod is let back down.

This approach not only disperses scent into the river more rapidly, it also allows anglers to cover more water. In addition to being productive on giant sturgeon, back-bouncing smaller gear with shrimp or anchovies has also proven itself effective on keeper-slot fish.

FISHING THE COLUMBIA

"If looking to catch big sturgeon, concentrate your efforts below any of the dams found on the Columbia River," advises Ponciano. Dams are an important element in the life of big sturgeon, for they offer food and running water.

While migrating shad, eel and other baitfish make their way to the dams, several perish by natural causes. This is especially true above Bonneville Dam, where spawning cycles near an end and fish become weak. This is a major reason why the bigger sturgeon hang out below these waterways.

During the spawning months of May and June, adult sturgeon are drawn upstream by the cool current flowing from dams. They create ideal spawning conditions and can attract sturgeon from many miles downriver. This is another reason fishing is restricted directly below dams.

Below the Dalles Dam is one of the best, least-pressured spots for oversized fish. Most of the action on the Columbia occurs below Bonneville Dam, but don't neglect other dams in the system. Boaters can rely on depthfinders to locate deep pockets, where big sturgeon often congregate.

For bank-fishermen, the section below Bonneville Dam is the best place to fish for oversized sturgeon. The water in this section of river is closed to boaters, giving bank anglers full reign.

While anglers can spend time pulling off a double whammy in water from Cape Horn to the deadline below Bonneville Dam, the best success will be found when launching from The Fishery. Concentrating between Beacon Rock and the deadline below the dam will provide the greatest chance of hooking into big and keeper-sized fish.

The Fishery (541-374-8577) sits just off exit 35 on Interstate 84 east of Portland. Here you'll find an excellent ramp, overnight camping with RV capabilities and a bait store.

On down the Oregon side of the river, Beacon Rock, Cascade Locks and Sundial launch, on the east end of Portland, are all good ramps from which to launch. Near the Portland airport, the 42nd Street Ramp is a solid bet, with the Hammond and East Mooring Basin near Astoria prime launch sites.

On the Washington side, between the Dalles Dam and Bonneville, both the Drano Lake and Wind River ramps are good places to launch a boat. Across from Oregon's 42nd Street Ramp, Portco Ramp can be accessed from the Washington side, followed by the Richfield Launch as well as another ramp right at the mouth of the Lewis River. The Kalama and Cowlitz ramps are also good places to set sail, and across from Astoria, Ilwaco and the ramp at the town of Chinook are prime spots.

COLUMBIA RIVER GUIDES


Several sturgeon guides oper-ate on the Columbia River, from both the Oregon and Washington sides. Be sure to clarify the type of trip you want, be it for keepers, magnums or both.



Dan Ponciano, Dan Ponciano's Guide Service, Vancouver, WA, 360-573-7211, dan@columbiariverfishing.com, www.columbiariverfishing.com.



Don Schneider, Don Schneider's Reel Adventures, Sandy, OR, 877-544-REEL, www.donsreeladventures.com.



Frank Russum, Frank's Guide Service, 503-240-0631.



Mike McGillevry, Northwest Guide Service, 509-427-4625.



Eric Lindy, Lindy Sport Fishing, 360-607-6421.



Trevor Storley, Red's Guide Service, 503-695-6515. -- Scott Haugen

 

PLAYING BY THE RULES

The world of sturgeon regulations on the Columbia River is one of seemingly constant change, testing the cerebral capabilities of seasoned anglers. At the time of this writing, meetings were underway to adopt possible intermittent closures, be they over-extended blocks of time or simply over the course of a few short days.

However the decision turns out, it appears there should be a June 1 opener on keeper sturgeon, with the season possibly closing around July 4, though nothing had been decided when this story went to print. There is also a proposal to extend the closure on adult sturgeon, to provide sanctuary during the spawning cycle.

None of these new laws were included in Oregon's 2004 Sport Fishing Regulation

s, so anglers are responsible for knowing the new rules prior to fishing any stretch of the Columbia. However, the keeper slot appears to be the same as last year, with 42 inches being the minimum and 62 inches being the maximum length of keepers from the Dalles Dam down to the mouth. Above the Dalles Dam, 48 inches is the minimum-length requirement, 62 inches the maximum for keepers. The daily limit remains at one fish, though the annual limit has been cut in half this year, to five fish.

Anglers should note the boating waters below Bonneville Dam are closed from May 1-July 15 to provide spawning refuge. Once the daily or annual limit has been reached, or the proposed quota attained, catch-and-release fishing should continue throughout the year. No matter when or where on the Columbia you choose to sturgeon fish, be cognizant of current rules and regulations.

(Editor's Note: For signed copies of Scott Haugen's latest book, Summer Steelhead Fishing Techniques, send $23 (includes S&H) to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489. The 136-page, full-color book is loaded with the latest steelheading strategies.)



Discover even more in our monthly magazine,

and have it delivered to your door!

Subscribe to Washington-Oregon Game & Fish


Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.