In last week’s column I described the first of two days’ worth of fishing my wife and I partook in during our visit to Oregon to see a multitude of waterfalls and, in so doing, cross an item off my wife’s bucket list.
That first trip, taken with professional fishing guide Jeremy Eubank of Stotts’ Fishing, targeted walleye and smallmouth bass in the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington.
Our second and final day of fishing, also guided by Eubank, was altogether different. Instead of high numbers of smaller gamefish, we set out in pursuit of North America’s largest freshwater gamefish, the white sturgeon.
Our 8-hour trip began at 6:45 a.m. As with the walleye and smallmouth fishing, we fished a segment of river between the upstream McNary Dam and the downstream John Day Dam, with our efforts concentrated on the stretch of water within a mile downstream of the McNary Dam in 30 to 60 feet of water.
After a lengthy closure from May to the end of August to allow the sturgeon to spawn, the season reopened on Sept. 1.
Sturgeon are a bottom-dwelling species which scavenge the river’s floor for whatever is edible. Since the Columbia River is host to a number of migratory species which live in saltwater but spawn in freshwater, and since fish ladders allow for these species’ passage around the various dams, the sturgeon have many dietary options to choose from over the course of an annual cycle.
American shad, steelhead trout, king salmon and lamprey eels are all abundant migrants which provide food for the sturgeon, thus, Eubank was prepared to offer cutbaits made from these various species.
Additionally, he brought along another favorite sturgeon bait — pickled squid.
As with any manner of fishing for any species, we had to first locate fish. This is where Eubank’s years of experience came in. We focused on bottom topography which reduced the force of the current which was much stronger in this area than in the areas we fished further downstream the day before.
Like catfish, sturgeon locate their prey primarily by scent using organs built into their nose and into barbels located near their underslung, tube-like mouth.
We were limited by regulations to fishing one rod per angler, so after anchoring with a heavy, stout, stainless steel anchor and chain, we set out three rods with a mix of baits.
About eight ounces of weight were required to hold the baits on bottom and prevent an excessive bow from developing in the lines.
Once the baits, impaled on 7/0 hooks attached to 30-inch monofilament leaders, were down, the rods were set in rod holders and the wait began.
Our first strike came quickly. We all closely and continuously watched for the braided line and rod tips to telegraph the bites we received, so we all sprang into action once the first fish struck.
Although not required, Eubank uses barbless circle hooks to eliminate collateral damage caused by barbs and J-style hooks.
It was ladies first after Eubank set the hook with a long, sideways sweep of the rod. He handed the stiff, thick rod, which looked more like something you might see used in the pursuit of saltwater species, off to my wife.
It was all she could do to hold onto the rod with both hands as the fish resisted capture by digging toward bottom. Every once in a while, the fish would relent and allow her to take a few turns on the reel’s handle. This went on for several minutes, during which time we placed a fighting belt on her, secured with a hook-and-loop fastener behind her back and around her waist.
Due to my wife’s small frame, the fighting belt moved the rod and reel too far forward for it to be ergonomically well-positioned, so we quickly reverted back to a full stand-up fight with no accessories.
After several minutes, the fish drew near the surface allowing Eubank to grab the leader and control the sturgeon.
This first fish was just under 4 feet in length and, after her tussle with that fish, Rebecca was spent.
We wondered what tangling with an even larger fish might be like.
We moved anytime we went without action for about 20 minutes. Through the 10 o’clock hour I landed three more smaller sturgeon as well as two blue catfish in the 5- to 6-pound range.
Around 10:30 a.m., things really began to develop quickly. Another boat anchored about 100 yards to our north hooked a fish which was about 4½ feet long. Within minutes of that occurrence, the rod and reel on the port side of our boat got a strike. I took the rod in hand and was waiting for another tap before I set the hook when the outfit in the starboard rod holder, a Penn Squall 40LD bolted to an Edge HLR71050-1, 7-foot-10-inch conventional rod, was hit hard.
Since I still had another rod in my hand, Eubank set the hook on the starboard rod and connected. I put the rod I was holding back into the rod holder and grabbed the rod with the hooked fish. It was a very large fish.
In the meantime, the other boat near us hooked a second fish, and our second and third rods both got hit. With our plate already full, Eubank opted to reel in the other two lines and focus on the hooked fish.
I struggled to control the fish, partly because of the sheer power of the fish, and partly because I really did not have a lot of previous experience with such heavy tackle. The fight was extraordinary. It reminded me of being offshore out of Mustang Island down in South Texas and being hooked up on a large yellowfin tuna.
With my left arm gripping the rod’s padded upper grip, all I could do was hold on. I realized my right arm was not really “in the fight” as it was primary turning the reel’s handle on the rare occasion when the fish changed angles and gave a few inches of line.
I tried putting both hands on the foregrip, raising the rod slowly to gain line, then quickly moving my right hand back to the reel’s handle to reel until the rod tip was once again low to the water, and I then repeated this process and began to slowly make progress.
With barbless hooks, it is essential to maintain constant pressure on the line, so when I reeled I had to avoid dropping the rod tip suddenly. To do so would risk allowing the circle hook to dislodge, and would also allow the fish to take on a nose-down attitude and allow the current to help it go back toward bottom.
This give-and-take went on for what seemed like an eternity until, finally, beneath the surface of the clear, green water I could see the lighter coloration of the fish’s nose and the lead edges of its pectoral fins. The leader was nearly close enough for Eubank to grab.
As the fight’s final seconds ticked by, I shuffled toward the bow of the boat from the portside position I had been in for most of the fight. Eubank was able to grasp the leader and then immediately rolled the fish on its left side and grabbed the sturgeon by the mouth. He then inverted the fish, at which time it became completely docile, allowing me to grasp the fish by the mouth.
We left the circle hook in place while we worked to take quick, quality photos of the fish without ever removing it from the water so as to ensure its healthy release.
We measured the fish, which Eubank estimated at 100 pounds, from the tip of its nose to the fork in the tail. The fish measured 64 inches. This was the second largest fish I had ever landed in a lifetime of fishing, and the largest fish I had ever taken in freshwater.
The circle hook slipped out of the leathery mouth easily and then I began to rotate the fish to a belly-down position. Instantly the fish sprang to life and, with a single, mighty tail stroke, sounded toward the bottom as its gray figure disappeared into the green depths. Incredible!
As the adrenaline began to subside, I realized I was a sweaty mess. My polarized glasses were fogged up, I was dripping with sweat, my hands were reddened, my forearms were tight and I had a sore spot between my waistband and my left thigh where I had planted the butt of the rod for the majority of the fight.
We had caught what we had come for, a giant Columbia River white sturgeon. The next 90 minutes were unremarkable. It was like someone turned off a switch after that crazy 15-minute spike of activity.
Between Rebecca’s condition, my satisfaction with such a large catch and the slowing bite, we decided to take a lunch break and then put in our final two hours on the Columbia back in pursuit of walleye and smallmouth bass.
Each year I commit to getting away from my comfort zone of working Central Texas reservoirs for white bass and hybrid striper in order to experience other fisheries with other guides. It is my self-imposed form of continuing education.
Some of the things I was exposed to anew during this trip included reading current, anchoring considerations, the use of a bottom-bumper rig and dozens of little tackle and boating observations and tips which will find their way back into my own operations and make me and my clients more efficient and successful in the years to come, Lord willing.