Big Fish and Serious Water

By Gary Lewis

Gary Lewis Books and DVDs

A light wind whipped wavelets on the surface of the river and tugged at the canopy, flapping it like a seagull over the water.

Chuck dropped anchor and paid out line, letting the current pull the boat into one of his favorite slots. With the rope taut, he dropped the drag bags over the sides and we turned our attentions to the bait.

On one rod Chuck rigged a whole eel and lobbed it out, letting the current bounce the weight and the bait downstream. My hook was baited with smelt. With mixed baits, and two scent trails working, we had fish interested in less than 20 minutes.

While the morning sun pushed back the clouds, we let the fish work the baits, building their enthusiasm for an easy meal. Then I put the steel to one of them. At the hookset, the first fish stripped line off the reel and came to the surface, before I was able to turn it with the backbone of the rod. By the end of the afternoon, we had caught and released close to 30 of the big fish.

Bonneville Dam

From the mountains to the ocean, the mighty Columbia River drops 2,654 feet in 1,200 miles. Its descent makes it one of the steepest of all the waterways in the country. With the speed and drop of all that falling water, the Columbia has become the largest source of electrical power on the continent. 14 hydropower dams now span the river, serving parts of Canada and many western states.

But all of that control hasn't tamed the river. Changing flows, commercial river traffic, floating debris, other boaters and wind and rain provide enough variables to make the Columbia a challenge to the most seasoned river jet operator.

One of the major hydropower projects on the Columbia is Bonneville Dam, located in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area, 40 miles east of Vancouver, Washington and Portland, Oregon. The dam was finished in 1938. Since that time, the name Bonneville has been linked with the Northwest's white sturgeon. The ten miles of river below the spillway are the prime feeding grounds for the big fish for much of the year.

To Tangle with a Dinosaur

As if the river itself wasn't enough of a challenge, consider boating one of its oldest and biggest inhabitants.

White sturgeon travel far upriver following food sources and the urge to spawn. Sturgeon can live for more than 100 years and may reach lengths exceeding 15 feet. One fish, taken by gill net, tipped the scales at 1285 pounds. A Fraser River sturgeon weighed 1800 pounds. As with many other species of fish, the largest ones are females. These large females are valued spawners and, when hooked, should be played and released quickly. One large female that was caught and killed was said to have carried 250 pounds of eggs!

They reach sexual maturity at 14 years (about 50 inches long) and females will spawn every three to five years. There may be a million sturgeon between Bonneville Dam and the ocean, but only a small percentage, approximately 10,000, make up the spawning population.

It is difficult to estimate with certainty how old a fish is based on its size. Instead, biologists take a slice of a fish's fin to determine its age, in the same manner trees are aged by counting annual rings. Still, an angler can make an educated guess about a sturgeon's age by using a tape measure.

A 30-inch "shaker" is seven years old. At 42 inches, a sturgeon is probably in its 11th year. A 60-inch fish is approximately 18 years of age. A six-footer is a 24 year-old. The eight-foot sturgeon that takes over an hour to come to the boat, has probably just passed the 45-year mark. Should you be fortunate enough to tangle with a nine-footer, play her gentle and release her quickly, that grandmother is nearly 80 years old!

Sturgeon are opportunistic bottom feeders that follow the feed, rooting with their snouts and detecting morsels with their sensitive barbels. Freshwater clams, decaying flesh, lamprey larva, eggs, worms, crayfish, snails, and anything else that lives, grows, and dies on the bottom can be food for sturgeon. Columbia River fish travel up and down the river to find the best concentrations of food. Find the feed and you will find the fish.

Big Water Gear

Fishing the tailrace is tricky. Currents and flows change by the hour, making for hazardous conditions for the uninitiated. When you anchor, you'll need plenty of line, at least seven times the depth of the water in which you intend to anchor. Your anchor will hold best as the line reaches nearly horizontal. Your anchor line should be attached to your bow only to keep the bow pointing upstream. A four- to five-foot length of chain should connect your anchor to your rope. Most big river boats use a quick-release anchor puller rig similar to that provided by EZ Marine Products. A floating anchor ball attaches to the rope with a locking device that allows the rope to pass through in one direction until you manually release it. Positioned 25 feet ahead of the boat, it buffers the downward pull of the anchor rope if the water suddenly rises. It also saves labor. Retrieve the anchor by driving the boat upstream around the ball until the anchor pops to the top and hangs directly under the float. Keep a sharp knife in a sheath on the bow in case you need to cut the line. Floating logs and other boats present potential hazards that can sink your sled in a heartbeat. Keep an eye on other boaters and debris floating down the river.

Shallow water is another hazard. Running your boat up on a sandbar can be costly and it can hurt. To prevent embarrassment and expense, install a depth finder. Some people call them fish finders, and they do help you locate fish, but their true value comes from the ability to see how much cushion you have between your boat and a rocky bottom.

Putting Your Tackle to the Test

A seven-foot rod is a good length for the boat. For light tackle situations, use a seven-foot rod rated for 20- to 50-pound test line. The rod should have a firm backbone, but a soft tip. For the reel, try a Penn 310 GTI reel (or equivalent) with 50- to 65-pound Tuf Plus line.

Use a medium-action rod rated for 50-pound line. 65-pound mainline spun on a Penn 320 GTI (or equivalent) is a good match.

When pursuing bigger fish, use a heavier rod rated 30 to 80 pounds. You need a large reel to handle heavier line and a good drag setup to stand up to long runs. The Daiwa 400H and Newell 447 (and equivalents) are good choices, loaded with 80-pound Tuf Plus.

When setting up your boat with the gear to chase sturgeon for the first time, consider booking a trip with a guide first. Some guides will ride on your boat, to show you how to use your new equipment the right way.

Chuck Polityka, owner of Outdoors Northwest (503-621-3682), recommends fishing squid, smelt, and shad in the summer. "Fish a short leader," he recommends, "and test drive your baits. You want to give the fish an easy meal. I make sure my baits don't spin. I want them close to the bottom, gently swaying back and forth."

Depressions in the river bottom concentrate the food as the current sweeps it downstream. A depth finder helps the fisherman find these hidden sturgeon kitchens. Look for places where the depth changes, little depressions ten to twenty feet deeper than the surrounding bottom. The exception is when sturgeon feed on clams, which are usually found in flat beds.

Food also collects at the edges of drop-offs. Don't ignore these spots when you locate them with your fish finder. Food gathers in eddies near jetties, islands, tributaries, yacht clubs, and grain elevators.

When your depth finder locates the kitchen, look for the fish, then set up upstream to run your lines back to them. Often the fish finder will show other fish higher in the water column. Because of their smaller air bladders, sturgeon are harder to spot. Look for blips along the bottom. Use the "Zoom" on your depth finder to magnify the bottom.

A good sturgeon fisherman is flexible. Try different bait on as many rods as possible to find the most irresistible combination. If four fishermen are fishing side by side, they should fish different baits to find which will produce the most action.

Though sturgeon can be found below Bonneville at all times of the year, June, July, August and September are the peak months to find the big fish on the lower Columbia.

For Your Information

To get to Bonneville Dam, take Interstate 84 to exit 40 or Washington State Highway 14 to milepost 40. The Bridge of the Gods, located about two miles upstream of the dam, links Oregon and Washington.

Sturgeon fishing regulations are in a constant state of evolution as scientists, fisheries managers, and lawmakers learn more about these great fish. The catch and keep quota will be reached by the end of July this year. Effective August 1, all sturgeon angling in this section of the river will be catch and release. Take the time to read the current and posted regulations before you head out on the water.

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