The Bonneville Pool's sturgeon are one of the most overlooked opportunities in the Northwest. Every spring, the Pool becomes a destination where anglers have a solid chance at hooking dozens of fish per outing. (June 2006)
Eli Rico, operator of Hot Shot Guide Service, turned to the left before he made his first cast. Then looked to the right. Finally, he twisted his head, peeked over his left shoulder and heaved his bait 20 yards in front of the boat.
Guide Eli Rico has some tricks up his sleeve for getting past the vast numbers of short sturgeon and into the keepers. Photo by Chris Shaffer.
"Man, it's a busy day on the river," he said. "We'd better get our lines in the water."
Rico was kidding. There wasn't another boat in sight. Anchored in the middle of the Columbia River, we could see plenty of cars speeding along the highway, but no boats.
"The main reason is because it's underfished," Rico says. "There's not a lot of pressure. Most people target the areas they are informed about, which is from Bonneville down to the mouth."
They're missing out! The section of the Columbia River between Bonneville and The Dalles can produce non-stop action on sturgeon during spring. And anglers don't have to deal with crowds. While many local anglers know how productive it can be, Bonneville Pool's sturgeon fishery is one of the most overlooked waters in the Northwest. Yet it's a destination where anglers in the know have a legitimate chance at hooking dozens of sturgeon per outing.
"On a good day, per rod, you can expect to average about five hits per hour," Rico said. "You'll get a lot of hits. You won't necessarily hook that many fish, but you'll get a lot of bites. A lot of times, the smaller fish will sit there and nibble on your baits for a long time and won't actually take it. Sometimes you really have to pay attention to the rod to know when to set the hook."
In spring, sturgeon in this stretch of the Columbia are on the feed. When positioned properly from a boat, anglers can expect to hook up with lots of sturgeon, many of which will be undersized.
The tough part about this fishery is that it's overwhelmed with undersized fish, and there's just no way to deter them from biting. To tap into some larger legal or oversized fish, you'll simply have to sift through the small ones and release dozens of smaller sturgeon. It's just part of the game, which could be part of the reason why many anglers avoid fishing here. On the other hand, if you're looking for lots of action, you couldn't pick a better place.
"They haven't had much of a food source from the winter to the early spring, so they are hungry," Rico explained. "Once the smelt come up and spawn and die, that's when they're looking to gorge themselves. They're very competitive when it comes to food. As soon as something gets down there, they are all over it. It usually never takes long to get bit."
This is good, because you get a ton of action. But bad, because — again — many of the fish are undersized. In fact, most of the bites that you'll get will be younger sturgeon. So many nibbles can get annoying, but patience pays off. Plenty of fish fit the legal slot limit, with oversized fish available, too.
"In a day you may hook the same fish three or four times and you can tell it's the same fish by the fresh sores on its lips," Rico added. "The smaller ones are faster than the bigger ones. They are the first ones to the bait. You catch-and-release them, and they'll go back to the same place and hit it again. They can just get to the bait faster than the big ones. It takes time for the big fish to move up in the hole when they smell the bait, whereas the smaller fish get there right away."
The entire stretch of the pool harbors sturgeon. More than 50 miles of water is suitable for prime action during the spring and much of it goes untouched. Finding a spot all to yourself isn't going to be an issue.
"It's a lot of water that doesn't get touched," Rico said. "There's no pressure. We never see other boats. It's underfished. Every time I go out there, it's a learning experience because I always find more depressions and then I have another spot to fish. There's plenty of fish in the area throughout the year."
Sturgeon come here to eat. From March to July they follow the food, namely smelt. As the run of smelt moves upriver, the sturgeon come with it and feed heavily, says Rico.
That makes smelt the choice bait for most anglers. It's not imperative that you use smelt, since there are other effective baits, but smelt is the most abundant food source in the system.
"Smelt is the No. 1 bait that's used," said Rico. "That's what they are targeting because that's their natural food source, but that's not what I use. I've got other stuff that works just as good, if not better. By the time June comes around, most of the fish have fed on smelt in the system. So I give them something that they haven't been seeing and that has a lot of scent."
"I do have smelt with me, and when I use smelt, I'll run two versions of it. I'll run a natural smelt and another form of it where I inject it with the Pautzke Liquid Krill," Rico confided. "The Liquid Krill creates a stronger scent trail. I inject the krill into the cavity of the smelt and I freeze it that way. Then when I put the bait on, the krill is semi-frozen so when I put it in the water, it thaws and holds the scent better and longer."
Like all fish, sturgeon can be finicky. But if you give them enough food choices, chances are that you'll come up with a winner. Other effective baits are pickled squid and fresh sand shrimp. Some anglers choose to invest in more baits, but these are the main three.
The sand shrimp is like candy to them, but so are night crawlers. I'm not sure why night crawlers work, but they sure love to suck them down," Rico said. "Every day when I go out, I typically will throw three kinds of bait out, because what they want to eat can change every day. Let the fish determine what they want. Sometimes they want a combination, but you have to experiment to find out what they want."
Before you can obtain success, you'll need to find prime areas where sturgeon can be found. This is easier said than done. With dozens of miles of water to cover, there are countless holes that could hold fish. To maximize success, a quality depthfinder is imperative for viewing the bottom's contour. For the most part, you are seeking deep holes, depressions and other abnormalities in the river bottom.
"I've learned those areas from years of guiding the system, targeting walleye. That's how I've found the deeper depressions where water goes from 20 feet to 50 feet to 100 feet," Rico said. "I'm looking for a depression that can be from 50 to 100 feet deep. That's pretty much all you need."
Depressions are bound to harbor sturgeon, but try not to overlook creek and river mouths. The mouths of the Hood, White Salmon and Klickitat rivers are prime feeding grounds for sturgeon. The late fall and winter runs of anadromous fish from these and other tributaries pump food into the system that sturgeon eat. For the most part, these waters have late-fall salmon runs and winter steelhead runs. As the fish spawn and die, their carcasses are flushed into the Columbia and wind up at the mouths of these rivers. The sturgeon position themselves there to capitalize on the incoming food.
"There's not that much food being flushed in, but there is some. The sturgeon know that if they are in that area, there will be food," Rico added. "They'll be in the mouth of the river shoveling through the sand looking for clams and other food."
WATCH THE WEATHER
Before heading out on the Columbia, pay close attention to the weather. Wind can be a major issue this time of year. Oftentimes, the wind can keep anglers off the water or can make your experience rough if white caps are out. The weather can also play a major role in the bite.
"I'd say that the weather dramatically effects fishing," Rico said. "Those fish are very sensitive to light."
Changing weather patterns normally result in spotty fishing. For the most part, overcast weather seems to be best for keeper fish, and sunny days and stable weather brings about a productive, steady bite. Consistent weather is a good indication that the bite should be good.
"When you have a change in light, the sturgeon don't always bite. If the sun comes out, the bite will stop like someone flicked a switch — and I mean within seconds," Rico said. "If it's a clear day and it's been sunny all day, they'll bite. But once clouds move overhead, the bite will shut down."
Weather fronts affect sturgeon basically the same way they do other species. You'll want to stay away from incoming cold fronts or drastically changing weather conditions. But don't take this observation the wrong way: You can catch sturgeon in any weather.
You don't need to be on the water at first light to find success chasing sturgeon. The bite tends to be on and off all day, so there's no right time to be on the water. In fact, Rico says the best fishing is usually at midday.
THE RIGHT STUFF
Employing the right gear is another sure way to find success. From a boat, anglers can typically downsize their gear because they have the ability to move with the fish. Rico, and many other guides, use salmon rods for sturgeon fishing. This lets anglers enjoy and play the fish, instead of simply horsing it in as they would do with heavier gear.
Rico fishes with rods anywhere from 7 feet, 6 inches up to 9 feet, 6 inches, and matches them with a midsized levelwind reel equipped with strong drag and 50-pound-test braided line. It's ideal to use a 20-inch leader of 65-pound-test attached to 50-pound class barrel swivels. On a main line, use a sliding sinker setup. Your weight will be 2 to 10 ounces, depending on depths and current, so you'll have to adjust accordingly. Keep in mind that all hooks must be barbless; 2/0 to 4/0 hooks are standard.
When fishing from the bank, heavier gear is recommended.
Having the proper gear is only half the battle. Due to varying currents, wind and other natural variations, keeping your bait still and in the strike zone can be a chore at times. Conquering this is what separates highly successful anglers from those with marginal success.
"Sturgeon like their bait lying down that time of year," said Rico. "The water is still cold, and they are lethargic. You don't want your rod tip moving."
This can be challenging. Stabilizing your boat with wind or drift socks to keep it from moving is imperative. If your boat is swinging from side to side or bouncing around too much, that can limit your success. There are, things you can do to combat these conditions, however.
"When the boat is rocking, or if the rod tip is moving more than six inches up and down, we hold the rod in our hand and adjust. Hold it lightly in your hand to adjust to the rocking of the boat," Rico said. "If you move the rod up and down lightly with the rocking, it will minimize the amount of movement your bait receives."
"The gorge in the springtime gets a lot of heavy winds in it," Rico added. "You need to have an anchor system that will hold you in windy weather."
The best action historically comes to boaters, but shore anglers can get in on the action too. According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the top shore-fishing locations on the Oregon side are Cascade Locks Marina, Trotter Point, Shell Rock Mountain Area, Starvation Creek, Sturgeon Rock, Koberg Beach State Park, 18 Mile Island, the new and old port areas of The Dalles, The Dalles Marina, and behind the Shilo Inn just off the Highway 197 Bridge.
On the Washington side, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recommends anglers shore-fish from Home Valley Park, Lone Pine at Highway Mile 55, the area near the mouth of the Little White Salmon River, the Spring Creek Hatchery area, and the old ferry landing on the Washington side of the river by The Dalles.
"They do fairly well from the bank, but certainly not as well as the boat anglers do," says Dennis Gilliland of the WDFW. "Boaters certainly do better than bank anglers most of the time."
It's important to remember the limits. There's a slot limit of 42 to 60 inches. All undersized and oversized fish must be released. Anglers are permitted to keep one fish per day within that range. But after you've attained your one-fish limit, it's legal to practice catch-and-release.
Sturgeon seasons are set by mutual agreements between fishery managers in Oregon and Washington, based upon the estimated sport harvest each year. Once that quota has been met, the season is closed. Anglers are advised to contact the WDFW or ODFW for specifics.
"The seasons are based on a quota," said Gilliland. "It depends on how fast the catch goes. Last year, our quota was 700 sportfish caught, but that's being negotiated with the tribes and Oregon right now. We know there's a pretty fair supply of small ones in the system — a lot of undersized fish. Production seems to be good there. There must be a good food supply there, or they wouldn't be doing well."
Recently, WDFW officials have done several surveys to learn more about the sturgeon of Bonneville and their growth rates, and are trying to discover why there are so many undersized fish in the system.