White Sturgeon: North Americaís Monster Fish
It takes a historical perspective to appreciate what it takes to subdue a white sturgeonís monstrous size and power, especially those that live in the Snake and Columbia River drainage. In the book, Snake River of Hells Canyon, Idaho rancher Alex Warnock described a fight with a sturgeon near Temperance Creek in 1893 before the days of sport tackle. Warnock had previously tried catching sturgeon with a hook made from a hayrake tooth baited with two pounds of beef, a barbed wire leader, and a half-inch rope for a line. But after landing scads of 250-pounders, he wanted a really big one. So, he built a four-pronged spear mounted on a peeled pole handle and secured it with 40 feet of half-inch rope.
by Charlie Powell
Itís a Godís fact there are sturgeon in this river as long as my boat and that is 16 feet... I had a good, strong saddle horse that could pull his weight by the saddle horn. A young man was working here. We had to wait some weeks before the next big one was sighted. I speared him as before. The boy on the horse had the rope end securely snubbed to the horn. Well, I thought that horse could walk up the bank and drag that fish out of the river, but he couldnít. When that fish got into the current and made a lunge, the horseís feet began to slip... darned if I didnít almost lose horse, boy, and all. The boy cut his rope but not before he was so far in he got a bath.
The last really big fish to come out of the Snake was in 1898. As evidenced by a famous sepia tone photograph in the Oregon Historical Society archives, this monster weighed more than 1,500 pounds and required a team of horses to land.
While no 16-footers have come out of the Snake River in modern times, it is not unusual to land fish over 6 feet. In fact, angler surveys conducted by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game show that among sturgeon anglers today, more than 32 percent of their catch is over 6 feet long.
A typical year sees about 50 percent of Idaho sturgeon anglers catching fish. But more than 90 percent of those that pursue old toothless catch less than five fish a year. Fish to 8 feet long are fairly common in the 100 miles of river south of Lewiston, Idaho, too. And each summer, a dedicated few land the big dogs, fish going 9, 10, even 11 feet long. But a closer look at catch statistics shows that the main limiting factor is access to the river and angling prowess. Idahoís best sturgeon angling takes place in Hells Canyon. At over a mile deep, it is the deepest gorge in North America. Roaded access to the river is very limited and most of it is seasonal. River access is the only practical way to fish for trophy sturgeon in Idaho.
River access to the Snake for trophy angling is almost exclusively limited to welded aluminum jetboats, although some rafters catch their share. The worldís production center for these specialized craft is centered in the Lewiston, Idaho/Clarkston, Wash. valley at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater
Rivers. The twin cities are located some 30 river miles from the northern boundary of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. Here manufacturers like Duckworth Boat Company buy high-tech, fighter jet alloys by the ingot, couple their final forms to big marinized V8s, and slap on jet pumps to make some of the shallowest running, most durable craft afloat.
Tough access forebodes an even tougher river. In Hells Canyon, the Snake is known for serious rapids and lots of them. Rafting or boating the canyon is not recommended for the inexperienced or poorly equipped. Only seasoned pilots and a few oarsmen can be counted on to provide a safe trip for trophy Idaho sturgeon. Get in trouble here, and help may be a 100 miles away.
Assuming youíve conquered getting on the river, where are the sturgeon? Long time anglers know the holes. Holes are loosely defined as the best lies for sturgeon, not the deepest parts of the river. The average flow speed in the Snake River in Hells Canyon, figuring in steep drops, rapids, and slicks is about 7 knots. Runoff starting in April and lasting through June can change that dramatically.
Finding sturgeon is a minor problem. It is almost impossible to get to safely know the river in Hells Canyon without getting to know the sturgeon holes. If nothing else, just watch where the few others in the canyon are fishing. And if youíre visiting for a sturgeon fight, a good guide will know the holes already.
Tackle however is a serious matter. Think saltwater. People after sturgeon usually use 40 to 160 lb. gear. Short, graphite fiberglass composite stand-up fighting rods with roller guides are ideal but costly. A longer fiberglass surf style rod with a substantial butt section is also seen on the river because of the lower cost and availability.
Reels are almost exclusively the big level winds made by Penn, Daiwa, and Shimano. No matter which cranker you choose, make sure it can hold 200 to 300 yards of your preferred line, big whites like to run.
Fighting belts are a must unless hip and lower abdominal bruising from the rod butt is something you like.
Terminal tackle is rigged similar to that used for catfish other places. It usually consists of one or two 8/0 or 10/0 Gamikatsu or Mustad barbless hook tied on an 24-inch leader of the same test as the running line. A swivel attaches the leader to the main line. Above the swivel is a dropper swivel or slider where from which the weight dropper is tied. The idea is to let the baited line run freely through the dropper.
A couple of beads between the main line swivel and dropper swivel may be needed to protect the knots.
Standard weighting is at least a pound. Lead cannon balls, teardrop sinkers, even wads of spark plugs, and railroad spikes are commonly used.
Sturgeon bait in Idaho is usually a fresh 12 to 16-inch rainbow trout. With whole or half fish, the hooks are started in the head and tail with the leader slack taken up by half hitches around the body. Whitefish, squawfish, carp, catfish, nightcrawlers, salmon belly fat, shrimp, clams, crayfish, and a homemade fetid concoction or two probably round out all youíll see used in the Gem State.
The technique for placing the bait is simple. In the Snake River, it is usually best to motor over the holes into the current perhaps watching the electronics. The angler is poised on the stern ready to drop the bait when the pilot gives the signal. The straight drop will hopefully have the bait on the bottom before it drifts too far. Alternatively where the river is narrow, the boat can be moored and a short cast made. After the drop, the pilot often makes a right angle turn and moors in a rock-edged eddy or beaches the craft. If all goes right, the line remains taut, drift is held to a minimum, and the sturgeon come running. Sometimes, sturgeon will take the bait as soon as it hits the bottom. At other times, the scent trail must drift downriver to attract a big white. Takes on bait are rarely vicious. A rule of thumb on the river is no takes in 30 to 45 minutes means itís time to move to another hole. Often a hit is a barely detectable tap that moves the rod tip. Thatís the time to pick the rod from the holder, gently take up slack, and get ready to set the hook. Continued light taps are usually the 3 to 7-pound channel cats so plentiful and virtually unfished in the Snake. Bringing up the bait will generally show exposed ribs on whole fish where the cats have taken their share. But when the tap leads to a serious rod-tip-dip and the line starts to move off, it's the signal that whitey has sucked up the bait. With a big upward sweep, lay the steel to him and hang on! In Idaho, all sturgeon fishing is catch and release with barbless hooks. Mandatory permits and catch reports are required. Fish may not be removed from the water and must be released immediately. Best times to fish for sturgeon are from April through mid-October. July 15 to Sept. 15, is no doubt the best.