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Author: Scott Haugen
Battling 10-foot long, 550 pound dinosaurs of the deep is the ultimate freshwater thrill. Then again, latching into dozens of smaller keepers during a day can provide nonstop action; with the benefit of taking home some of the best eating meat a river can produce.
Having pursued both oversized and keeper slot sturgeon on the mighty Columbia River, I've come to the conclusion that both have a great deal to offer. Battling 10-foot long, 550 pound dinosaurs of the deep is the ultimate freshwater thrill. Then again, latching into dozens of potential keepers during a day can provide nonstop action; with the benefit of taking home some of the best eating meat a river can produce.
While filming a show for Cabela's, Brent Curtice and I fished with veteran Columbia River sturgeon guru Dan Ponciano. In a day and a half we hooked 13 oversized fish, landing 11 of them. Of these, the smallest was just over six feet, with three exceeding nine feet, and one monster 10 footer. My best day with Ponciano when fishing for keepers saw us boat more than 80 fish, and each angler on board went home with fresh fillets.
The Sturgeon Craze
With strong numbers of big sturgeon running throughout the Columbia, pursuing these monsters has never been better. The past dozen years have witnessed a resurgence in the popularity of trophy sturgeon fishing, a sport that's as addicting as any form of fishing out there.
"One of the main reasons people didn't go for big sturgeon was because few knew how," shares Ponciano. "No one really thought of putting a whole shad on the hook and tossing it out there. But once people learned that it worked, the sport forever changed."
If a three or four pound shad bait sounds like an overkill, you'll be interested to know that when Ponciano was cleaning a 61 pound, 59 inch keeper, he discovered 10 whole shad in its stomach. Imagine what a 12 foot sturgeon is capable of consuming.
The white sturgeon is North America's largest freshwater fish. One of the oldest living fish on Earth, the white sturgeon ranges from Alaska to Southcentral California. Reports of sturgeon taken in the 1800s tell of three fish weighing over 1,500 pounds, with several others exceeding the half-ton range. One sturgeon, reportedly succumbing to a gill net in the Columbia River near Vancouver, weighed an astounding 1,285 pounds.
It's the potential of landing tremendously colossal sturgeon that attracts so many anglers. Each year sturgeon reportedly stretching the tape to 13 feet are taken from the Columbia, with bigger ones being hooked, but rarely landed.
If magnum fish are your primary target, my best advice is to hire a guide. In addition to knowing this immense river and the holes where big sturgeon reside, guides have the proper gear to handle giant fish. They are also adept at maneuvering a boat to expedite the battle between man and fish.
If intent on pursuing giant sturgeon on your own, invest in the proper gear. If fishing from a boat, a stout, six to seven foot rod is best. Rods rated for at least 60-pound test, such as the Loomis Hybrid model are ideal. A large capacity saltwater levelwind reel full of 80-pound test line is good for this style of fishing, dacron-type line being preferred. A 9/0 hook tied to a 200-pound braided nylon leader is also a good combination.
Cannon ball sinkers are preferred, as they are more forgiving than other sinker styles when fishing amid the rocks. Depending on water conditions, weights will range from 12 to 64 ounces. The typical terminal gear setup consists of a sinker clipped on mainline slider. A heavy swivel connects the mainline to the leader. Leaders run anywhere from two to six feet in length.
Bank anglers opt for rods in the 10 to 15 foot range, due to the need to cast considerable distances and the fact mobility is restricted once a fish is hooked. One-piece rods with plenty of backbone equipped with large-capacity, open-face reels are an ideal combination.
When it comes to targeting keeper size sturgeon, you can go with a lighter gear setup, like what you'd use when ocean fishing for king salmon. But if fishing in waters where latching into an oversized sturgeon is a possibility, it suits you best to stick with the hefty tackle. Not only will this allow you to land a magnum sturgeon, but will ensure several yards of line aren't broken off and potentially swallowed by the fish.
For decades the standard sturgeon fishing approach has been to drop anchor and fish weighted bait directly on the bottom. In this approach, anglers let the current carry the scent of the bait downstream, whereby a sturgeon picks it up, following it to the bait. It's a waiting game, but a very effective way of consistently nailing sturgeon, keeper and oversized.
Recently Ponciano has taken sturgeon fishing to a higher level by applying a salmon fishing technique. Backbouncing for sturgeon is a new concept on the Columbia, a river most sturgeon fans dismissed as being too vast to pull off this style of bait presentation.
"I've been using my TR1 autopilot on the motor to free myself up in the boat, without having to be on anchor," notes Ponciano. "We've been covering much more water this way and getting on to greater numbers of fish. Backbouncing a whole shad really seems to get the fish fired up."
Backbouncing is a technique whereby anglers use just enough weight to tick the bottom. Motors are set to idle at a rate that allows the boat to move downstream about one-half to three-quarters the speed of the river flow. By continually lifting the rod, the bait elevates and lands in a different spot each time the rod is let back down.
This technique not only disperses scent into the river more rapidly, it also allows anglers to cover much more water. In addition to being productive on giant sturgeon, backbouncing has also proven itself effective on keeper slot fish. Here, backbouncing lighter weights with smaller baits such as sand shrimp or smelt, anglers achieve the same goal of covering more water, and making the bite happen, rather than waiting for it to occur.
When it comes to baits, fresh is best. If it's more than a day old, try looking harder for fresher stuff. Whole shad and whole eels are great for the big fish, while shrimp and/or smelt are super for keeper sturgeon.
Historically, the best months for catching oversized sturgeon are from May through July, when fish move to and from spawning beds and search for migratory food such as shad and eels. Big sturgeon, however, are caught well into October, and can actually be had year-round.
February through the end of April is the prime time for catching sturgeon in the 42" to 60" keeper slot range. Regulations are ever changing, both in seasons and sometimes size ranges, so be sure to check on these when arranging a trip.
One of the best times to go after keeper sturgeon is when the spring chinook enter the Columbia. At this time, many guides and recreational anglers switch their focus to salmon, alleviating much of the pressure on sturgeon. This is when sturgeon anglers can get into the best holes.
The right baits and the right presentation combined with the right time of year, equals unprecedented sturgeon action. Try it for yourself, I'll bet you become addicted to keeper size sturgeon.