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May 14, 2012

Oregon’s Surprising Sturgeon

Discover the hard-fighting, high-jumping sturgeon that prowl shallows of the Columbia River mouth 


1,800-Pound Sturgeon

This fishery is really about one species of sturgeon, the white (Acipenser transmontanus). And if you suspect talk of 300-plus-pound fish measuring 8 feet long is hyperbole, you’re wrong. In fact, that’s a mere pup.

The IGFA all-tackle world record weighed in at 468 pounds. That fish was taken in San Pablo Bay (northern reaches of San Francisco Bay) in 1983. Are there white sturgeon in the bay more than 500 pounds? Probably, but the all-tackle record remains safe. In 1983, no maximum-size limit precluded weighing such behemoths; these days, they’re strictly released boat-side. (California’s slot limit is only slightly larger than Oregon’s, at 46 to 66 inches.)

But then 500 pounds isn’t all that big, really ­— not when compared with some taken commercially in the 1800s that were at least 1,500 and might have been as much as 1,800 pounds.

Whites range from central California north into British Columbia. Anadromous, they spend much of their lives nearshore in the Pacific, but enter larger estuaries to ascend far up rivers to spawn. (Those above Bonneville Dam on the Columbia are trapped there; they thrive but grow more slowly in the less-productive fresh water.)

Although the growing demand for caviar led to the demise of white sturgeon populations in the late 19th century, hydroelectric dams later provided a double whammy. Careful management in the past 50 or so years has strengthened populations.

The other species of sturgeon that frequents many of the same waters as whites is the smaller green sturgeon (A. medirostris). Greens are neither as tasty as whites, which are generally considered delicious, nor as likely to be caught. Although Rees isn’t sure why that is, he speculates that greens (a more saltwater-oriented fish) don’t feed as heavily in the lower river, though their abundance is evidenced by large numbers that turn up in gill nets at times.

Current Events
When it comes to tackle selection for sturgeon, you probably won’t see spinning gear except among some die-hards from distant areas. Levelwinds are pretty universal, offering great sensitivity and near-zero reaction time. Rees favored Penn Fathom star-drag reels on our outing. He has stuck with J hooks, explaining that even though we missed a number of fish, typically his hookup rates are good and rarely are ­sturgeon deeply hooked.
On the other hand, sturgeon guide Kevin Newell (Total Fisherman Guide Service), prefers circles. An oversize circle hook works best. He prefers to go larger than one would typically expect: The larger gap seems to dig in better, and a heavier size is less likely to straighten under the strain of a 200-plus pounder.

While summer days might be warmer and dryer than most of the year, wind can still be a real nuisance. Often, it will be calm and foggy early, but by afternoon, a stiff ­northwestern breeze springs up over the river.

Getting a break from the wind is a big help, but there’s also current to consider. Rees says sturgeon bite best on an incoming tide. But whatever the direction, he says, tidal movement is important. Except during slack tides, the default situation on the Columbia is current, and lots of it. Sturgeon boats anchor, sometimes using two hooks, to allow baits to remain relatively stationary on the bottom.

That’s important on shallow midriver banks, over which currents sweep as water rushes in and out of the river mouth at up to 3 knots. We fished some popular sturgeon banks, including one known as Taylor Sands, north of the Megler-Astoria Bridge, and Desdemona Sands, south of the Bridge.

We caught fish and had action both days we fished. The second day gave us a taste of Columbia River mouth sturgeon fishing when it’s on, allowing us to put a couple of fish in the boat, and releasing (and losing) quite a few more in the course of a morning.

The one word that kept coming to my mind on that last calm, misty morning was “surprising.” So many things about this quintessentially Pacific Northwest fish would surprise most anglers — sturgeon that can leap like tarpon and run like permit, often feed in water just waist deep, and offer fantastic catch-and-release sport, where the Columbia meets the Pacific.


TRIP PLANNER

Contacts
Capt. Bob Rees — www.northwest​guides.com, 503-812-9036.
There are a number of guides who fish sturgeon based both in northern Oregon and southern Washington, as well as larger charters (in fact, small open-party head boats) based in Astoria, Oregon, and Ilwaco, Washington.

Beach House Vacation Rentals in Seaside — www.beachhouse1.com, 800-995-2796. We enjoyed Seaside, a short drive south of the river, and prefer staying in a house like those managed by Beachhouse Vacation Rentals. You’ll find no shortage of hotels, condos and B&Bs from Seaside to Astoria.

Oregon Coast Visitors Association — visit www.t​heoregoncoast.com.
To get more info on any/all aspects of visiting the area, visit this site.

Options
Spring and summer are also great times to fish salmon and, later, steelhead. The lower Columbia sees excellent runs of chinook and, in August, coho. At times, the best salmon fishing will be inside the river bar; at other times, it will be out on the ocean. Starting in mid-July, albacore runs might show offshore within range of larger sport-fishing boats.

Suggestions
Bring plenty of warm clothing and good foul-weather gear. Even in midsummer, mornings are often gray, damp and cool. And even when the sun shines, the northwest breeze can make it very chilly on the water. You can always take it off, but you can never put on what you didn’t bring. Rubber deck boots are great, though you can get by without them. A camera is a no-brainer.