COOK, Wash. — It was part slush part snow on the ramp as guide Paul Ambrose's trailer slid more than backed the boat into the water.
The east wind of the Columbia Gorge was a steady 10 to 12 miles per hour blowing the pelting rain sideways as much as down. At least it wasn't freezing — the thermometer read 34 degrees.
"It gets like this up here in January,'' said Ambrose of La Center, owner of Great Northwest Rivers Guide Service. "Usually it's only a handful of days like this, but this year has been worse than normal.''
He should know. It was his 17th day this month of guiding on the Bonneville pool of the Columbia River in pursuit of sturgeon. Five customers were waiting at the Drano Lake ramp ready to tolerate frigid conditions in a 23-foot open boat to experience the "best" sturgeon angling in the Northwest.
While the sturgeon population downstream of Bonneville Dam has been on a downward trend since 2007, sturgeon in the 45 miles of the Columbia between Bonneville and The Dalles dams have increased substantially in the past decade.
Data is collected every third year in the Bonneville pool. The reservoir has an abundant population of sturgeon, numbering about 50,000 legal-size (38 to 54 inches) fish. That compares to an estimated 65,000 legals in the Columbia downstream of Bonneville.
"We've made good headway,'' said John North, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "The population has gone from about 50,000 (in 1994) to 300,000. The legal-size abundance has increased and is projected to increase for some time.''
Ambrose has been fishing in the Bonneville pool for 20 years and guiding there for the past four. The plentifulness of keeper sturgeon in Bonneville pool has made it a regular portion of his guiding year.
"This is the best keeper fishing we have now, hands down,'' Ambrose said. "I don't want to see the same thing happen as has happened in the lower river.''
The Bonneville pool annual sport catch guideline has increase from 700 in 2009, to 1,400 in 2010, and 2,000 in 2011.
Despite the increased catch guideline, the allocation was filled by Feb. 21 in 2010 and Feb. 19 in 2011.
Ambrose isn't the only angler to figure out sturgeon fishing can be good despite the sometimes-brutal weather of winter in the Gorge. Winter angler trips in the Bonneville pool have jumped from 20 per day average in 2009 to more than 80 per day in 2011.
Through Sunday, the state fish agencies estimate 737 sturgeon had been taken since retention opened Jan. 1.
Ambrose said he got keepers for 94 percent of his clients in 2011, but fishing has been tougher so far in 2012.
"If we handle 40 to 50 fish, we're getting two to six keepers,'' he said. "Typically, about one-third are keepers.''
Even with a lot of legal-size sturgeon, it can take some work to find the fish, Ambrose said.
"It's a huge body of water and a lot of it looks like good sturgeon water, but there are some really good spots and a lot of spots that don't hold a lot of fish,'' he said. "If you aren't getting fish to the boat in double digits, you aren't in one of those right spots.''
The west end of the Bonneville pool gets the bulk of the fishing action in January and February. Ambrose normally launches at Drano Lake or Wind River.
Usually, he fishes one to three locations a day. He has fished as many as seven spots in a day.
Often he fishes in water 100 feet deep, but sturgeon aren't found just in the deep holes.
"There's a good flat below the mouth of the Wind that's 30 to 50 feet deep,'' he said. "Below the Wind about a mile there's a big rock on the other (Oregon) side with a good hole about 60 feet deep.''
Ambrose uses smelt and squid for bait, sometimes separately, sometimes together.
"With smelt, I'll even cut the top off and put the squid over it,'' he said. "I'll try all sorts of crazy stuff.''
Ambrose said scents "make a humongus difference in the number of bites you'll get.''
His favorites are Pro-Cure's Sturgeon Frenzy, Squid, Sand Shrimp, Sardine and Anise.
"I inject everything with scents, either straight or mixed,'' he added.
Wind is a critical factor in fishing Bonneville pool.
"If the west wind is more than 8 to 10 miles per hour you can say goodbye. It gets too choppy,'' Ambrose said. "From zero to 15 miles per hour, if it's an east wind, it's fishable.''
It is hard to overemphasize the need for good clothing in the winter sturgeon season.
"I tell them to dress super crazy warm and have lots of layers,'' he said.
Ambrose said he has a love-hate relationship with the Bonneville pool sturgeon fishery.
"I love it when the weather is right and the fish are biting. There's way less pressure up here, it's awesome. But when you get the nasty winds, then I hate it.''
Ambrose said he supports tight harvest limits.
"This is all we've got left, frankly.''