May 31, 2012
By Scott Haugen
When it comes to salmon fishing, back-bouncing is one of my favorite approaches. So, when good friend and noted Columbia River guide Dan Ponciano (www.columbiariverfishing.com) invited me on a back-bouncing trip for Columbia River sturgeon, I couldn't resist.
No matter the species being targeted, when back-bouncing, the principles are the same. What changes is the gear and where the fish are found.
The common approach to sturgeon fishing is to get the bait on the bottom, letting the scent carry downstream and waiting for a sturgeon to sniff it out. However, in recent years, anglers on the Columbia River who've been targeting chinook by back-trolling wrapped plugs have discovered sturgeon like this presentation, too. Back-bouncing is another salmon technique that's proving very effective on sturgeon and when thought of from the perspective of a scent-based presentation, the approach makes sense.
Back-bouncing is a technique where an angler lets the terminal gear drop to the river bottom, pumping the rod up and down as the boat and/or lines move downstream in unison. The goal is to hit the bottom with each drop of the rod. With each lift of the rod, the current moves the bait slightly downstream, whereby it hits the bottom on the downward rod motion. In most sturgeon back-bouncing situations, the boat is moved downstream at a controlled rate, since the river is big, with so much moving water.
On rare occasions a boat may be anchored and the lines back-bounced downstream from a fixed position. This is more typical in slower moving water where keeper-slot sturgeon are targeted. In big river situations with heavy current flow, pumping the rod to match the speed of the boat as it moves downstream is critical.
"It's almost like side-drifting for winter steelhead, in that you want the bait and the boat to move at the speed of the water," shares Ponciano. "A natural presentation is important, and for this you want to have the lightest sinker possible, and still hold that bait in the strike zone."
The purpose of back-bouncing for sturgeon is the same as the common approach of anchoring bait on the bottom, in that a scent trail is established. The difference lies in the fact that back-bouncing moves the bait downstream, expediting the release of scent and how quickly it moves downstream.
"There's no doubt you can catch a lot of fish while on anchor, but on those days when the action is slow, back-bouncing allows you to cover more water," points out Ponciano. "It allows you to work through fish you otherwise couldn't access by anchoring in one place."
When Ponciano first introduced me to back-bouncing for oversized sturgeon, I was surprised at the water we fished. It would have been impossible to anchor in such fast-moving currents, let alone keep a bait on the bottom. Back-bouncing is an efficient method in that using it doesn't tie up holes, allowing more anglers to fish through a stretch of what might otherwise be unfishable water. This style is also highly effective when searching for sturgeon.
"How effective back-bouncing for these fish can be is a bit dependent upon the person working the rod," Ponciano points out. "If running heavy gear next to the boat, make sure you're always feeling the bottom with the sinker at each drop of the rod. When fishing power water for oversized sturgeon, try and dribble the weight across the bottom like a basketball. It's tough fishing, and being able to distinguish between the feel of the bait, sinker, bottom and a fish is key."
Whether targeting oversized or keeper-slot sturgeon, you want easy-to-manage gear that's lightweight yet sturdy, to handle the pounding sturgeon deliver. When back-bouncing for magnum-size sturgeon, Ponciano has found the G. Loomis Pelagic, a 7-foot, one-piece rod, to be ideal. His reel of choice is a Shimano Charter Special 2000 lever drag reel spooled with 65-pound Tuf Line.
As for the terminal gear setup on giant sturgeon, tie the mainline to a 250-pound test-rated barrel swivel. On the other end of the swivel, tie a 3- to 5-inch piece of 300-pound test braided dacron, which becomes the bumper for the sinker to slide along. Before tying off the other end of the bumper to the leader, slip a McMahon barrel swivel on to the bumper line. Sinkers can be easily changed out on the snap end of the swivel. If the sinker gets hung up, they are also easier to break off when rigged in this fashion. Sinker weight depends on the water being fished.
Ponciano recommends using about 1/3 the amount of weight for back-bouncing that you would if anchor fishing the same hole. This allows for an easier interpretation of what's going on with the terminal gear, resulting in fewer hangups. The last thing you want is to continually hang up, not only because valuable fishing time is lost, but because you don't want to litter the bottom with gear.
Finally, tie off the end of the bumper to another McMahon snap swivel. This can then be clipped on to a barrel swivel that's on the end of a pre-tied leader. The leader consists of 300-pound test dacron (sturgeon are not leader-shy) tipped with a 7/0-13/0 Octopus-style hook. Though they start out about 4 feet in length, leader length averages 10-12 inches once large baits such as a full shad have been half-hitched on. Hook size is dependent upon the size of the bait being fished.
When focusing on keeper-slot sturgeon, the terminal gear setup is similar, just a bit lighter weight. A leader weight of 80-pound test teamed with 50-pound Tuf Line for the mainline is Ponciano's preferred combination. He'll use a G. Loomis HSR 983, a one-piece Hot Shot rod, combined with a Shimano Charter Special 1000 reel, which allows as little as 1 ounce of weight to be easily fished. Such a lightweight setup is especially effective when back-bouncing estuaries, where tidal flows and currents are subtle.
How much weight to use depends on two overall water conditions: depth and rate of movement. Ponciano prefers to back-bounce for keeper sturgeon on the slack ends of tides, when there's not a lot of moving water, and in 15-20 feet depths. In this scenario, bumping 1 ounce of lead is ideal. Of course, not all holes on the Columbia may share these characteristics, which means anglers will have to experiment to find which weight setup best meets the water conditions being fished. We've had good success back-bouncing in as little as 8 feet of water. Hook size for keeper sturgeon ranges between 5/0-7/0.
As for baits, whole shad are preferred for monster sturgeon. Ponciano likes an 11/0-13/0 hook for whole shad. The larger the bait, the larger the hook, the goal being to have ample hook exposed. When rigging large baits, a series of half-hitches will be thrown around the shad, ensuring the bait remains secure when it's bounced along the bottom or when a fish starts inhaling it.
For keeper-sized fish, shrimp, herring, anchovies, smelt and other such baits are all good. When selecting baits, the fresher they are the more effective they will be. If it's more than a day old, try finding fresher bait.
If fishing water where both keeper and oversized sturgeon may be caught, opt for the heavier gear setup. This will ensure a quicker landing on the big fish, which is less taxing on their bodies and leads to a quick and safe recovery.
"Determining where to back-bounce for sturgeon means reading the water," offers Ponciano. "It's just like reading steelhead water. Look for the seams, current lines and main flows to help figure out where to fish. In the spring months, when sturgeon are migrating to the spawning grounds, the main currents are good places to concentrate. The females are stimulated by currents to spawn, making this power water ideal for back-bouncing."
Simulating the natural movement of dead bait rolling along the river bottom is wherein the art of back-bouncing for sturgeon lies. Wherever there is a current flow, back-bouncing can be productive. Mind you, it's not a fail-safe approach, rather an opportunity for anglers to search for fish when they aren't responding to the usual bottom-fishing strategies in traditional holding water.
Back-bouncing gives anglers an offensive advantage, putting them on the move to seek out fish, versus waiting for them to show up. As with any new fishing approach, time and practice are required to master it.
If you're an experienced back-bouncer, adapting this style to fit keeper-size sturgeon will be an easy transition. As for mammoth-size scute-backs, the switch-over may not be as smooth. It's an aggressive, physically demanding approach requiring diligence, dedication and attentiveness. If done properly, it can be surprisingly rewarding — if not, it can be very frustrating.
THE INS & OUTS
"If there's one thing I've recently learned from my years of sturgeon fishing the Columbia, it's how spread out the fish really are," shares Ponciano when asked about some of the river's best hotspots. "Sanctuary closures have forced me to fish waters I've never fished before, and we're having great success on both keepers and oversized sturgeon.
The Columbia River offers ample access for boaters on both the Washington and Oregon sides. On the Oregon side, one of the most popular launches sits right below Bonneville Dam, at exit 35 on I-84. It's called The Fishery, and this private launch gets you into prime water for both keeper and oversized fish.
Closer to Portland, still on I-84, is Rooster Rock State Park, which has a good boat launch site. The Gleason boat ramp and the 42nd Street ramp, between I-5 and I-205, are growing more popular as anglers discover fish in historically less-pressured waters.
On the Washington side, a ramp is in place right below Bonneville Dam, where Tanner Creek dumps into the Columbia. Downstream from that, Beacon Rock is a popular launch site. This area has been restructured following the 1996 flood and features a nice park, picnic areas and plenty of paved parking area.
Farther downstream is the Camas boat launch, off Hwy. 14, and below that, Marine Park, in the industrial area just above the I-5 bridge. Marine Park offers plenty of lanes to launch and pull-out.
Closer to the mouth, between Astoria, Ore., and Ilwaco, Wash., the water gets hit hard by anglers. This is where Ponciano has had good success back-bouncing rather than sitting idle, on anchor.
The Hammond and the Warrenton Boat Basin launches, along with the East Basin ramp, are the most popular on the Oregon side. A bit upstream, the John Day boat launch is also a good one.
On the Washington side near the mouth, Ilwaco is one of the most popular and easy to reach launches and offers ample parking. The Chinook Launch is another good site, as is the little launch in Skamokawa, which leads to lots of unpressured water.
To take full advantage of the sturgeon fishing on this great river, don't restrict yourself to catching and killing, as some of the best fishing occurs during the release times. These times will find you with less competitive pressure, thus more water to fish.
The key to mastering the art of back-bouncing for sturgeon lies in being patient and receptive to change. New fishing methods take time to develop, and this one is no exception.
Once dialed-in to back-bouncing for sturgeon, the rewards can exceed all expectations, as it can get you into fish when all else fails. The first time you back-bounce a whole shad into the mouth of one of these colossal giants, the rewards will soon be realized, and the addiction just beginning.
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About The Author: Scott Haugen is a full-time author and TV host. He's written more than a dozen books, all of which can be found at www.scotthaugen.com.