The Northwest's Hottest New Fishery?
A 12-foot Sturgeon
12-foot Sturgeon caught and photographed by Cascade Fishing Charters

There's more than a little irony in the fact that sturgeon fishing is one of what you might call the newest, hottest sport fisheries in the Pacific Northwest. Sturgeon have been here all along— millions of years, in fact— but their popularity among anglers has soared since the mid-1980s.

The decline of salmon fishing in many areas, and the desire of anglers to find something else to fill the void, has no doubt played a part in the growth of the sturgeon's popularity, but there's more to it than that. Sturgeon fishing actually has a heck of a lot going for it.

Take, for example, the size of the fish itself. White sturgeon, the more common of the two species a Washington angler is likely to hook, grows to monstrous proportions. Fish measuring six feet long and weighing 100 pounds are fairly common, and there's always the possibility of hooking a really big one, something in the seven-, eight-, even nine-foot class. Fishing just downstream of McNary Dam a couple of years ago, I thought I was pretty hot when I managed to subdue and release an eight-and-a-half footer that would have tipped the scales at well over 300 pounds. Before that day was over, however, other members of our group released sturgeon measuring nine-and-a-half, 10, and 13 1/2 feet, reducing my catch to runt-of-the-litter status. If you like the possibility of hooking a freshwater fish that's even bigger than you are, sturgeon fishing is your best bet, and the fish's huge size alone qualifies it for any list of Washington's 10 top sport fish, as far as I'm concerned.

Although the sturgeon is a bottom-feeder that spends most of its time searching the rocks, sand, and mud for an easy meal, it can be a surprisingly spectacular fighter. When hooked, many of these piscatorial vacuum cleaners will take to the air, coming straight out of the water like a Polaris missile, twisting to one side and crashing back into the river with a resounding splash.

Not every hooked sturgeon will do one of these tarpon-on-steroids impersonations, but it happens often enough to keep it interesting, and it's most likely to happen with a larger fish of six feet or more. On a rainy May morning in 1993, while fishing with Columbia River guide Herb Fenwick, I had the good fortune of watching a white sturgeon over eight feet long jump more than a half-dozen times before it was brought to the boat, unhooked, and released to fight again. Three of those jumps brought the big fish almost completely out of the water, and one of those was so close to the boat that we all got wet from the huge splash.

Another time, fishing immediately below Hells Canyon on the Snake River, several of us took turns playing a sturgeon of maybe eight feet. I wanted photos of jumping sturgeon, but as luck would have it, the only time the fish jumped was when I was manning the rod. Needless to say, some members of the group got their jumping-sturgeon shots, but I didn't.

Besides being big and tough, the sturgeon is one of the Northwest's best-eating fish, which certainly hasn't hurt its popularity. Cleaned properly, it's a gourmet's delight, whether you bake, barbecue, broil, or smoke it, and a legal-sized sturgeon provides plenty of fresh fish to go around.

Speaking of legal size, there has long been what anglers call a slot limit in effect on sturgeon here in the Evergreen State. That means it's okay to keep fish between 42 inches and 66 inches long, but those under 42 and over 66 have to be released (except for the upper Columbia River, where the minimum size is 48 rather than 42 inches). Fish under the minimum size are considered babies, while those over 66 inches tend to be mature adults needed for spawning.

The Columbia River is the Northwest's top sturgeon producer. Where, when, and how you fish the big river is likely to determine whether you'll catch a lot of sub-legal fish, fewer fish but most of them keepers, or even fewer fish but many of them whoppers over the 66-inch maximum legal size.

"It's really a cyclical thing," says guide Herb Fenwick, who spends several months of the year targeting the big bottomfish."There are, for example, lots of keepers in the lower river from February through April, when the smelt are in the river and smelt are the preferred bait."

When the smelt disappear in the late-spring, however, smaller sturgeon tend to move into the Columbia estuary, where they forage on shrimp, anchovies, and other sources of food. About that same time, though, the vast Columbia River shad runs begin, and that's prime time for hook-and-release fishing on lunker-sized sturgeon of six feet and larger.

I fished with Fenwick during one of those June lunker-fests a few years ago and enjoyed a morning on the river I won't soon forget. Starting about 6:15 in the morning, we hooked five fish in the seven- to eight-foot range, losing one after a short fight and releasing the other four after lengthy battles—and we were done fishing at noon. Whole shad were used for bait, so we didn't have any problems with "little guys" getting in the way.

Sometimes, though, especially when you're looking to catch a legal-size keeper or two, it's best to fish small baits for these hefty fish. Former sturgeon guide Gary Waxbaum of Umatilla, Oregon, once demonstrated that point to me in graphic detail. As we rigged our sturgeon rods for a morning of fishing below McNary Dam, Waxbaum handed me one of his favorite sturgeon rigs, encouraging me to tie it to the end of my line. At first I thought he might be kidding, but his expression was one of absolute seriousness. The rig consisted of a large, brightly colored steelhead bobber on the line above a big single hook, and on the hook was threaded a small strip of belly meat from a salmon he had caught earlier in the summer. The triangular salmon strip was only about two inches long, and the entire bobber-and-bait combination was well under three inches.

With their fantastic ability to sniff out a meal, sturgeon don't have any problem finding something this small, and I think the bright color of the bobber helps them see it as well," Waxbaum explained. "And, because the whole thing is so small, they can take it right in and you hook them almost every time."

Later that morning, as we released our fourth sturgeon of the morning on four bites, I was convinced.

While monster-sized sturgeon make for great photos, carrying around a wallet-sized snapshot of a lunker sturgeon to show your fishing buddies can get you into trouble in the Pacific Northwest these days. Not only is it illegal to possess a Columbia River sturgeon over six feet long, but it's also illegal to drag one of the oversized bottom-dwellers into the boat, shoot a few pictures to document the feat, and release the fish. Enforcement personnel with Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife have publicly announced on more than one occasion that they will show little leniency in dealing with anglers who make big sturgeon say "cheese" before letting the fish go. Dragging oversize sturgeon onto the beach or into a boat for a short photo session can result in serious injury or even death to the fish, and that's what fisheries officials want to avoid. Sturgeon have no skeletal structure, and when removed from the water, all the fish's weight lies on its internal organs. Since the regulation calling for the release of all big sturgeon is aimed at protecting the large, mature fish needed for spawning, it's necessary that the big ones be released alive and uninjured. Boating or beaching a seven or eight-footer weighing several hundred pounds could well mean the loss of millions of eggs needed to produce future generations, according to Fish and Wildlife biologists. The older a sturgeon gets, the greater its reproductive potential.

While we've talked only about the sturgeon fishery on the Columbia and Snake rivers, other big Northwest river systems also have fishable numbers of these prehistoric lunkers. The Chehalis River comes immediately to mind and is probably the best sturgeon fishery outside the Columbia system.

Sturgeon also show up from time to time in other Northwest waterways, sometimes causing great surprise among local residents who at first think they may have a sea monster on their hands. Such a situation arose a few years ago in Seattle, when an 11-foot creature floated up from the depths of Lake Washington, shocking a few boaters and sending young swimmers scurrying for the beach. The monster, of course, was eventually identified as a white sturgeon, one that weighed an estimated 600 pounds and may have lived in the lake for upwards of 100 years.

As if to prove the big fish can live almost anywhere, fish and wildlife officials treating eastern Washington's Sprague Lake with rotenone to eliminate carp several years ago were surprised to see not one but two big sturgeon come floating to the surface a few hours after the chemical was applied. Since there's no direct link between the lake and any body of water with a known sturgeon population, biologists theorized that the fish were "transplanted" by humans, probably anglers who had been fishing the Columbia River, two hours away via Interstate 90.

And there are lots more sturgeon legends circulating through the Northwest. I could tell you the one about the guy who hitched his plow horse to a big sturgeon in hopes of yarding it onto the banks of the Columbia, but instead the monster fish dragged the horse into the river, never to be seen again. But if I tell you that one, you might not want to go sturgeon fishing, so forget I even mentioned it.

Where to Go for Sturgeon

Columbia River mouth, Columbia River below Bonneville Dam, Columbia River below McNary Dam, Snake River, lower Chehalis River.

Washington Fishing is available from

© Article copyright Foghorn Press. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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