The Columbia River below Bonneville Dam is home to more than a million sturgeon, and June through October is prime time to catch them. Here's where to look.
By Dave Kilhefner
"Don't touch the rod, just let the sturgeon eat the bait," said guide David Johnson as my rod tip bounced. Believe me, this is easier said than done.
I'd already blown one good bite this morning! My initial reaction is to grab the rod out of the holder and set the hook, but the prehistoric fish below, a sturgeon with a marble-sized brain, felt me picking the rod up and had dropped the bait. Taking the guide's advice this time, I watched the rod tip keep bouncing and chewed my fingernails while the sturgeon chewed the bait.
Soon enough, the rod buried and it was time to remove the rod from the holder and smoothly set the hook. Feeling the hook, the sturgeon thrashed to the surface, then dove and ran, putting up a stubborn battle. I'd gain some line, then the sturgeon would peel it back off again. This continued for several minutes until a 50-inch sturgeon was in the boat. It was a perfect-sized keeper!
According to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife statistics, the Columbia River below Bonneville Dam is home to an estimated 1 million sturgeon. Sturgeon come in three basic sizes: shakers, keepers and oversized.
Shakers are less than 42 inches long and comprise about 70 percent of the sturgeon population. They can be very abundant at times, often a nuisance.
Not bad for a day's work! Four keeper sturgeon (the legal slot is 48-52 inches) from below Bonneville Dam. Photo by Dave Kilhefner
Keepers are 42 inches to 60 inches long and as their name implies, are legal to keep. About 300,000 of the river's sturgeon population will stretch a measuring tape beyond the 42-inch mark.
While shakers and keepers are measured in inches, oversized sturgeon are measured in feet. An average oversized sturgeon is 6 to 10 feet long and weighs between 110 and 540 pounds. Specimens over 900 pounds have been landed. Oversized sturgeon are also known as "peelers." You'll know where the name "peeler" comes from when you hook one and line starts "peeling" off your reel!
No matter what their size, all sturgeon bite the same, and it's this bite that is such a big part of the mystique of sturgeon fishing. You never really know what's on the other end of your line!
In this article, we'll look at the timing, locations and techniques needed to pursue the world's largest freshwater fish on the lower Columbia River.
TIMING While sturgeon are available throughout the year, there are definite peak periods for their activity here. Sturgeon feed by either scavenging dead fish off the bottom or using their shovel-like noses to dig clams, shrimp and other crustaceans out of the sandy bottom.
In the lower Columbia, the most abundant food source is dead baitfish, and the February smelt run traditionally kicks off the annual sturgeon fishing season. After the smelt, it seems that there is always something present for sturgeon to eat, including anchovies, lamprey eels, shad, ocean-bound smolts and dead adult salmon.
While abundant food is available beginning in February, game department statistics show June through October as the top months for angler success. Sturgeon require both abundant food and warmer water temperatures for peak feeding activity. June through October most often have these conditions, and therefore, consistently produce the best fishing.
KEEPER STURGEON CENTRAL >Located where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean is the oldest American settlement west of the Rocky Mountains: Astoria, Ore. Over 4 miles wide at this point, the Columbia River contains a volume that can only be mastered by the force of the Pacific Ocean. Effected by the by the ebb and flood of the ocean tides, this area is also known as the Columbia Estuary.
The estuary is a very rich feeding ground. Many migratory fish stage here before moving upstream, making the transition from ocean salt water to fresh water. During the transition many die, creating a feeding opportunity for the world's best scavenger, the sturgeon.
Two popular launching areas are the East Mooring Basin in Astoria and Hammond, where scenes from the movie "Free Willy" were filmed. The East Mooring Basin is about 2 miles east of the Astoria Bridge just off Highway 30. Hammond is located 6 river miles and 11 road miles west of Astoria.
Between Hammond and Tongue Point, the main shipping channel runs close to the southern shore for about 12 miles. The edge of this channel and the adjacent flats are a major migration route for feeding sturgeon. In the estuary, the river is over 4 miles wide and is big water. Finding sturgeon is the key to success.
Sturgeon are most abundant in the lower Columbia River below Bonneville Dam, but excellent angling opportunities exist in the Columbia, Snake and Willamette rivers in Oregon, Washington, Canada and Idaho.
Below Bonneville Dam, angling for oversize sturgeon is justifiably famous. The season usually opens July 15, and the top bait is whole shad. It's a highly specialized fishery requiring a sizeable boat, the proper anchor system, specialized heavy tackle and above all, experience. For this reason, a guide is highly recommended.
Bonneville Dam also offers an excellent sturgeon viewing area at the fish hatchery. Sturgeon over 6 feet long can be viewed here. A popular bank fishery exists at Bonneville Dam. Bank anglers use heavy casting rods up to 15 feet in length coupled with Diawa 50H cast reels spooled with 40-pound monofilament line. These outfits are capable of casts up to 125 yards.
If you want to see some really long casts, the Bradford Island fishing area attracts catapult fishermen. Catapults, which look like giant slingshots, launch baits up to 500 feet out into the c
urrent. Roll mop herring or crappie fillet lashed to a 7/0 bait holder hook with elastic thread are favorite baits.
While sturgeon move around a great deal in search of food, they rarely migrate over the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. Between each dam exists a resident sturgeon population, each supporting its own local fishery. In general, the largest sturgeon will be located below the dams due to the high concentration of available food.
The Snake River supports an excellent sturgeon fishery in the Hells Canyon area and farther upstream. A photograph from 1900 shows a 1,500-pound, 20-foot specimen on the bank near Twin Falls. -- Dave Kilhefner
FINDING STURGEON It's a commonly accepted myth sturgeon prefer the deepest water they can find.
Through long experience, many guides have discovered the best areas for sturgeon are the "flats" adjacent to the main shipping channel. These flats are usually 12 to 20 feet deep, and they are easy to locate with a depth finder. Use the depth finder to locate the edge of the channel, work your way up onto the flats in 12 to 20 feet of water, and begin a fish-and-move cycle, moving 50 to 100 yards or so every 20 or 30 minutes until you start getting bit.
Resist the urge to make long runs all over the river. This eats up valuable time that your bait could be in the water. When your bait is not wet, you can't catch fish!
You need to move to be successful, but you need to keep your bait in the water too. It's about being efficient, so short hops are best.
Fortunately, sturgeon have a habit of rolling on the surface, so keep your eyes and ears open for rolling sturgeon. Use binoculars to find other boats that are having success. Finally, if you have some friends on the water, keep your cell phone turned on.
Anchoring in the Columbia River can be easy or challenging depending on the river flow, tides and weather. If you're serious about catching sturgeon, moving from one location to the next is a must. You could be pulling your anchor up to 10 times a day, so a quality anchor system that's easy to deal with is important.
I use the same anchor, puller and buoy for both the flats and deep water. The anchor is an EZ Stow Folding anchor designed for the Columbia River by EZ Marine.
However, I have two different anchor line sets. For the shallow flats, a 50-foot length of 5/8-inch rope and short floating tag line made from water ski rope does the job. In deep water situations, it is easy to attach the anchor and puller to 200 feet of 3/8-inch rope with a 25-foot floating tag line.
The Columbia River is a means of commercial water travel. Just like a train needs a track, large vessels require a 40-foot deep shipping lane for travel. It's best not to anchor in the shipping lane. If you must anchor there, be prepared to move quickly. Shipping traffic usually increases at high tide.
TACKLE FOR KEEPERS Keeper-sized sturgeon put up an excellent battle on chinook salmon tackle. Rods such as a two-piece 8.5-foot rod rated for 15- to 50-pound lines are a good choice. There are many similar rods on the market by various manufactures, and they all work great.
The rod is matched to a workhorse casting reel. I suggest something like a Shimano Triton 100G or Ambassadeur 6000. The reel is spooled with 65-pound Power Pro super braid line. If you don't like super braid lines, 40-pound monofilament works well too. To the end of the braided line, splice 4 to 6 feet of 40- or 50-pound monofilament, thread on a plastic weight slider, an 8 millimeter plastic bead or two and a 1/4-inch length of plastic tubing to protect the knot, then using a cinch knot tie on a big swivel. To the other end of the swivel, tie on 3 feet of 100-pound-test Dacron leader and complete the rigging by tying on a 5/0 Octopus-style bait hook. Don't snell the hook; the snelled line will cause damage to the bait. Just tie it on using the cinch knot or something similar. Pinch down the hook's barb (required by regulation.) Recommended sinkers range from 4- to 5-ounce pyramids for the flats and 16- to 32-ounce cannonballs for deep water.
It's a good place to note splicing on a length of monofilament does a few good things. It is clear, easier to tie knots with, and will not groove your plastic slider the way super braid lines will. Finally, if you snag bottom or have a giant sturgeon get out of control and need to break off, the monofilament is your weak link, so you don't break off all your super braid line.
TOP BAITS In the estuary, smelt is the most popular bait, followed by anchovies. Sand shrimp can also be productive, but they are quite fragile. The freshest bait possible is best. Frozen bait is just fine, just make sure it was frozen fresh. Stinky, nasty bait just doesn't work well.
If you find yourself in Astoria needing bait, Tiki Charters, (503) 325-7818, is a good source.
Make sure your hands are clean before handling bait. A quick wash with Lemon Fresh Joy is fine. Surgical gloves are overkill. Sturgeon are scent feeders, so injecting your bait with scent is a good idea - anchovy or shrimp oil are two of the best.
ON THE WATER Anchor up in a likely looking spot and cast about 50 feet away from the boat. When the rod tip starts bouncing, just leave the rod alone and let the sturgeon eat the bait. Eventually, the rod will go down, and you'll want to smoothly pull the rod out of the holder and set the hook in one motion. Most days, this is the best way to hook sturgeon.
Some days, the sturgeon will just sit there and suck on the bait without swimming off with it. The rod tip will bounce but doesn't go down. Eventually, the sturgeon will drop the bait and move on. We call this "biting light," and you'll need to take a more active roll to hook up. Upon getting a bite, slowly remove the rod from the holder and slowly tighten the line. When it feels like Mr. Sturgeon has a good hold on the bait, smoothly set the hook.
TIDES Keep track of the tides. In the estuary, the best bite seems to come just after slack tide when the current is flowing well. On the flats just after slack tide, both the outgoing and incoming tides consistently produce a good bite. The channel generally fishes better on the incoming tide, as this slows the current. On the outgoing tide, the current in the channel can be very strong.
The tide has a strong effect on the bite even 90 miles upstream in Portland. It pays to have a tide book and keep track of correlations between hot biting periods and the tides.
LIMITS TAKE PLANNING When planning a trip to Astoria, the first thing to do is consult a tide book. Look for (1) when the incoming tide begins, and (2) what
time slack tide is.
Preferably, low tide will be in the early morning so the tide will be coming in all morning. An incoming tide slows the current, making for easier anchoring and fishing.
I like to get on the water early, just to have plenty of time to hunt down a good location. Naturally, the first target is the last place I did well. I'll anchor up, throw out a line, drink some coffee and start looking around for signs of sturgeon.
If luck is with me, the bites will come quickly. In reality, Murphy's Law usually kicks in somewhere, so plan for the worst and hope for the best. If you're not getting bites within 20 or 30 minutes, pick up and move. Even a short move can make a big difference.
A hot bite only lasts so long. After you've worked most of the morning to get into position, it only makes sense to take full advantage of the limited time a hot bite will last. Always have an extra bait rigged and ready to go. When you land a sturgeon, don't dawdle. Unclip the leader, put on a fresh one and get the bait back in the water. Then, you'll have plenty of time to admire your catch and snap a couple of on-the-water photos.
On the flats, the time just after slack tide usually produces a good bite. Your goal for the day is to be anchored up in a good spot an hour before slack tide. Get out on the water early, work yourself into a good position then enjoy "prime time." This is a top strategy for limit catches.
If you follow the tips outlined in this article, you'll soon find yourself with a limit. Sturgeon are not the easiest fish to clean. A $5 trip to Sturgeon Paul's Smokehouse in Warrenton, at (503) 861-6070, is money well spent. They are so good at cutting up a sturgeon; it's fun to watch!
FOR YOUR INFORMATION There's plenty of information about Columbia River sturgeon fishing online. Check these links:
Stage agency sites include those for ODFW, www.dfw.state.or.us, click "Fishing" then click "Columbia Zone" then scroll down to "Sturgeon." The WDFW Web site is www.wa.gov/wdfw/, click "Fishing/Shellfishing" or click "Search" and type in "Sturgeon." And the Idaho Department of Fish and Game can be found at www.2.state.id.us/fishgame/.
For fishing reports, check www.davidjohnsonfishing.com, and click "Sturgeon" then click "Current Fishing Reports."
You can always search for "Astoria, Oregon," on any search engine.
For fishing guide services, contact David Johnson's Guided Sportfishing, (503) 201-4292, or email him at email@example.com. The Web site for Fishing the North Coast is www.ifish.net.
For more leisurely reading enjoyment, check out these books on sturgeon: Great White Sturgeon Angling, by Bud Conner - $14.95; or Fishing the Lower Columbia, by Larry Leonard - $8.95. Both books are available from Amato Books, www.amatobooks.com.
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