September 29, 2010
You too can catch big Columbia River sturgeon from a little boat. It's not for the faint-of-heart, but if you want in on the near-shore action, check out the advice of this longtime bottom-fishing expert. (June 2007)
Writer Harry Morse has small-boat flats fishing in the Columbia nearly down to a science.
Photo courtesy of Harry Morse.
We had a first-class fishery to ourselves, and the fishing was red-hot from my 16-foot jet boat on flats at the mouth of the Columbia River.
Action like this is more common than you might think for small boats fishing on shallow tidal flats. Plenty of elbowroom, lots of fish, and you can use light tackle to catch big fish. Or at least chase them.
A mile away, 40 or 50 boats -- from 18-foot pleasure crafts to 60-foot charters -- were anchored up, fishing the deep holes below the Megler Astoria Bridge. Anglers there use heavy tackle because of the swift outgoing current in the big holes. They need 14 to 16 ounces to get their 40-pound-test line down to feeding sturgeon. Most used rods thick as broomsticks to pull 20- to 40-pound fish to the boat against the current.
Big fish in the 60- to 200-pound class break lines or spool reels before anchors can be freed, released or pulled to follow the streaking fish.
On the flats, I fish light- to medium-weight tackle and still have a good chance to land a big fish.
We anchored on the edge of the flats as the tide started to change. The bite usually picks up as the tide changes. Feeding fish move off the flat along the contours as the tide goes out. We cast 6-ounce weights with a slip-sinker and 20-pound-test line, plunking down anchovies on single size 6 hooks with 3-foot braided leaders.
Erin was fishing 6- to 8-foot water on the flats, and I was casting into a side channel about 12 feet deep.
Using light tackle is the real appeal of fishing the flats, where the big fish cannot go to the bottom of the hole, sulk, and sit tight. Once they take the bait in shallow water, they take off. Many jump. Seeing a 100-pound sturgeon clear the water stuns most anglers.
Few anglers appreciate the jumping and running ability of a big sturgeon hooked on light line on the flats. Six-footers will spool you if you don't pull up the anchor and follow them.
Anglers can't rely on 40- to 90-pound-test line and brute strength. They have to play the fish, and boat drivers have to keep up with moving fish.
Erin once caught a 200-pound sturgeon on 20-pound-test line and a medium-action salmon rod. We chased the 7 1/2-foot fish over two miles as she fought it. The fight lasted an hour and a half before she brought it to the boat. All of us were stunned at the size of the fish.
WHEN, WHERE TO FISH
Last year's season ran through July. It can be extended or shortened depending on when catch quotas are met.
Fish can be boated, measured and returned to the water if too long or too short. The length limit is strictly enforced. Check on new regulations at dfw.state.or.us.
After the keeper-season ends, there is some excellent catch-and-release fishing. I caught and released sturgeon last September during the salmon season, when salmon fishing slowed. It was some of the fastest action I have ever encountered fishing sturgeon.
Many sturgeons are released due to size restrictions. A single barbless hook is required and it makes release easier. Most of the fish are hooked in the mouth and easily released. If the fish is deeply hooked, it's recommended that the leader be cut as close to the hook as possible without harming the fish.
Use gloves when handling sturgeon. They have lines of small hook-shaped barbs called scuts along several parts of their bodies. Especially on younger fish, these can be sharp and can cut your hands.
The trick to releasing sturgeon is to turn them over on their back in the water. This disorients the fish, and they become amazingly docile. Putting a 65-inch, 80-pound sturgeon into the boat for careful measurement can lead to disaster. When a big fish comes to life, it whips its tail, thrashing through tackle boxes, chairs and anglers' legs. Some anglers have put measurement marks along the side of the boat, or on the gunwales. This can save a lot of hassle.
Fishing the flats has some real advantages. There are plenty of productive flats to fish on both sides of the river and they are lightly fished, while the big holes below the bridge get hammered by charter and pleasure boaters.
Challenges include selecting a boat launch near the flat you want to fish, studying a navigational chart of the area, scouting the flats on high tide and planning your fishing trip. Safety is of the essence here. (Continued)
At first, the sheer size of the estuary can be overwhelming. The mouth of the Columbia River is wide and long. The three-mile long Megler Astoria Bridge crosses the Columbia from Astoria, Ore., to Point Ellice, Wash.
On the Oregon side, the bridge is high enough and river channel deep enough for giant ocean-going freighters to pass under it.
Crossing the bridge at low tide, you can see miles and miles of exposed flats and mini-channels up and down the river. On a high tide, many of these flats provide excellent foraging grounds for hungry sturgeon seeking clams, sand shrimp, crabs and eels.
SECRETS OF THE FLATS
For more than a decade, I seemed to have the flats to myself for fishing sturgeon. A handful of guides and locals knew about the flats and kept the secret of their excellent fishing. I learned about them while working on a research boat for Washington Department of Fish and Game that was doing a sturgeon study.
To tag, weigh, measure and monitor sturgeon numbers in the Columbia River estuary, biologists hired commercial gill-netters experienced at catching sturgeon. These professionals knew the river, the tides and most productive locations to net and release sturgeon unharmed.
To my amazement, the best catches came off various flats spread out over a five-mile area above and below the bridge. On one pull of a floating gillnet, we untangled and tagged more than 100 sturgeon between 2 and 5 feet long.
Over a two-day period, we tagged over 300 sturgeon. It was amazing!
On my next day off, I was back on the flats with my daughters, fishing. We launched our 13-foot Gregor aluminum boat with a 15-horsepower Evinrude in the Chinook Boat Basin on the Washington side and motored out through the marked channel.
We fished the flats in front of Chinook Boat Basin just off the pilings. It was close to shore, out of the main current and shallow. I anchored up in 6 feet of water. Soon my two young daughters were hooked up. Kelly had on a big fish, while Erin had a small one. Kelly's line went slack as the fish raced directly at our boat, jumped and threw the hook! The leaping sturgeon splashed so close to the boat that the spray almost hit us.
Sturgeon often jump when they're hooked up in shallow water. But the sight of a 7-foot sturgeon leaping is totally unexpected. It's not the acrobatic leap of a tarpon, but a spectacular, powerful straightforward lunge.
Erin's sturgeon jumped three different times, giving us a mind's-eye snapshot never to forget.
We lost both fish, but we'd become hooked on fishing sturgeon on flats. We had lots to learn about tides, tackle, baits to use at different times of the year and safe boat launches. We caught and released lots of fish after that, but kept our mouths shut about fishing the flats.
But secrets slip out. Guided clients come back with their own boats, and writers write about great places to fish. Today, clusters of small boats dot the flats from April through July.
Launching out of Oregon and Washington, anglers fish the flats on both sides of the river. Flats extend miles above the bridge on both sides of the river, providing plenty of fishing area. The area in front and west of Chinook Boat Basin still produces fish on the incoming and outgoing tides. Fishing can be good from Deep River miles above the bridge on the Washington side to five miles downstream to the Church Hole area, well below the bridge on the Washington side.
I know several guides who fish the Oregon side exclusively above Astoria, launching out of John Day Boat Launch. They fish the flats and edge of the shipping channel above the bridge. Their clients consistently limit out and get plenty of catch-and-release action. They seldom see many other boats fishing for sturgeon.
Personally, I prefer fishing the flats above the bridge on the Washington side in Blind Channel. Study a navigational chart of the area and you'll see miles of flats spreading northwest of the main channel above the bridge.
A false channel runs up onto the flats, hence its name: Blind Channel. Numerous small channels crisscross the flats and feed into the main channel and the blind channel.
On outgoing tides, sturgeon pull up in front of the side channels and catch bait being swept off the flats.
Occasionally you find a 40-foot charter boat carefully following its GPS and depthfinder along Blind Channel and the side channels out on the flats. However, this is mostly small-boat territory. The big boats stay out of this area.
Flats fishing can be dangerous if boaters do not pay attention to tides, weather, equipment limits and launch sites. More and more boaters do have GPS and navigational equipment, but there's no substitute for common sense and learning the area you are going to fish.
Never get out and try to wade the flats. Shifting silt, sand and current can be deadly. Here are some other variables to learn about and watch carefully.
Water on the flats flows with the tides. Get a tide book and navigational chart. Tides can vary from 1 to 8 feet. The flat you boated over at high tide to get to the fishing spot can be out of the water an hour later, cutting you off from your return route.
On clear calm days, you can pick your way back. But if winds or fog blow in, you could be in danger. You may run low on gas if the easy ride out becomes a gas-guzzling fight against the current, and you'll need a cell phone to call for help.
Tides effect your launching also. Several of the smaller launch ramps are hard to get in and out of at low tide. Many boaters time their launches based on tide tables. Do you have 4X4, and are you willing to back your vehicle into brackish water over its hubs to get your boat out at high tide -- or over rocks at low tide?
Winds typically pick up on tide changes and in the afternoon on the estuary. How much of a beating are you willing to take, bouncing your way back against the waves? And how safe is it? The key is knowing what to expect if you have to run against the wind and waves. Does your boat have high sides? Can you take a wave over the bow? No fish is worth drowning for.
Last spring, I booked Clancy Holt, one of the top sturgeon-fishing guides on the Columbia. At 6 a.m., halfway out to the flats, he cancelled the trip when the wind suddenly shifted and picked up. Later that morning, waves grew to nearly 6 feet on the estuary.
We fished another day.
Fog can roll in quickly. Below the Megler-Astoria Bridge, it can sock in within an hour. Keeping track of GPS locations and tide conditions is challenging. Unless you navigate by GPS or radar and are an accomplished pilot, forget fishing in the fog.
Sure, it may be hard to sit on shore listening to charter boaters talking about how many fish they caught in the fog. But it's still a lot better than running aground or getting lost.
Picking a boat launch that matches your abilities and boat size is another important safety aspect. Do you want to get beat up by the wind, or go with it? If you launch at Chinook Boat Basin and run above the bridge to fish, then coming back, you'll have to fight the afternoon wind.
But if you launch out of Deep River, you can fish the same area and have the wind at your back coming in. Launching out of Hammond on the Oregon side and fishing upriver, once again you'll fight the wind and waves returning in the afternoon.
Waves can administer a real pounding, and fog can stymie veteran boaters. Returning to John Day or Astoria under the same weather conditions can be much easier.
The key is having a plan if sudden winds blow in or fog rolls in. If the weather changes, where you launch is extremely important for small boats.
Again, look at navigational charts of the estuary. Before fishing, mark the launches and visit each one. Get a feel for the route you'll have to take in if bad weather comes up.
WHY FISHING'S SO GOOD
The Columbia River up to Bonneville Dam supports one of the healthiest sturgeon fisheries in the world. Charters, party boats, guides and private boat anglers all fish sturgeon living in the estuary, ones moving up and down the river and significant numbers of mature fish re
turning from the Pacific Ocean.
Mature fish longer than 6 feet are returning to spawn during late winter and early spring. Smaller sturgeon move in and out of the estuary as food sources change.
The action peaks in late May and lasts through early July. That's when large schools of sturgeon search the flats for clams and eels and ambush anchovies. Earlier in the year, huge breeding sturgeon -- up to 12 feet long -- return from the Pacific Ocean to seek out the river's muddy waters and migrate upstream to spawn, as generations have done for more than a million years. Once they finish spawning, they return to the ocean -- and feed on their way down.
Schools of mixed-sized fish sweep the flats for food. Stomach-contents studies by WDFG revealed that they fish were active, opportunistic feeders, following abundant food sources, from smelt to anchovies.
Early in the season, smelt are the hot bait. Huge schools of smelt pulse up the river on their annual spawning run, and sturgeon gorge on them.
May and June are great months for anchovies. Most anglers switch over to anchovies in May.
June and July are good months to fish sand shrimp. When anglers can get fish fresh eels, catch rates go up.
Charter-boat operators and guides agree that fresh bait is the best. Fresh-killed anchovies are one of the top baits most months. Keeping fresh anchovies on hooks in tidal flows takes some ingenuity.
Some anglers use thin 8-inch steel hook-threaders to pull leaders through an anchovy. Several double half-hitches of the braided leader around the tail secures the bait. They hold the bait so the hook won't pull out as the tide pushes against it.
Baiting up this way takes time. Most guides and charter operators rig up before leaving the dock. If three or four anglers will be fishing, baiting up a dozen rigs before leaving the dock gets you fishing quickly and keeps you ahead of the bite.
Sliding-sinker rigs attached above the swivel with pyramid-style sinkers are used almost exclusively. Braided leaders in 2- to 3-foot lengths are used because of the abrasion caused by the scuts. With light-to-medium tackle, you can see and feel the bites. I wait until there's a steady pull-down before setting the hook.
With circle hooks, all you need to do is lift up with constant pressure and reel in. The hook sets itself.
Guides, more than charter operators, can be invaluable in learning to fish the flats and catch sturgeon on light tackle. It is an investment in education about fishing flats, safety, techniques, tackle and knowledge. You also catch a lot of sturgeon on a typical day's trip.