The first Columbia River sturgeon retention seasons of the year will open up in the reservoir pools above Bonneville Dam starting Friday. These fisheries take advantage of stable sturgeon populations that have not been decimated by sea lions, as is the case below Bonneville Dam.
There will be fisheries held in the Bonneville Pool, The Dalles Pool, and the John Day pool, with each fishery being allowed to stay open until the quotas have been met. The quotas for keeper sturgeon are 500 for the Bonneville Pool, 135 for The Dalles Pool, and 105 for the John Day Pool
Fishing guide Cameron Black of Gone Catchin’ Guide service, one of the local fishing guides that are part of the “Addicted Fishing NW” group, takes part in the fishery each year. He recently talked about the opportunity and how he gets after the fish.
“It’s pretty much always about the weather,” said Black, “and the weather leading up to that time. Some years you have really cold temperatures through November and December, and that pushes the Columbia River temps down around 38, 39 or 40.”
Temps that cold tend to give the fish lockjaw, he reported.
“You can catch fish at 38 degrees, but not as many,” he added.
This year, warm temps and rain have kept the river running fairly warm.
“It’s really nice to get out there when the temperatures are nice and mild,” said Black.
What he prefers is a Columbia River temp around 42 degrees Fahrenheit or above, which he said is when the fish bite the best. Even with temps as warm as 42 degrees, the larger, over-size sturgeon do not feed much, so anglers can concentrate on the keeper-sized sturgeon.
From the Bonneville Dam to The Dalles Dam anglers may retain sturgeon that fall in a slot limit between a 38-inch minimum and a 54-inch maximum fork length. From The Dalles Dam to McNary Dam anglers may keep sturgeon between a 43 inch minimum and 54 inch maximum. The bag limit is one keeper per day, and two per year.
Above McNary Dam it is catch and release fishing only for sturgeon.
Sturgeon are rugged battlers, often jumping and making line-screeching runs. They are also fine fare on the table. The bottom-feeding fish are often described as dinosaurs, because they have been around unchanged for millions of years, and can live to be 150 years old.
Stocks of sturgeon below Bonneville Dam have been hammered by sea lion predation, and the population has plummeted dramatically. Seasons in the lower river have been cut way back for the most part, which is why the retention seasons in the reservoirs are getting more popular. Not only are there plenty of keepers and oversize fish, there is good recruitment. Anglers will find plenty of “shakers” or smaller sturgeon that will fuel fisheries in the years to come.
Black fishes with what can be called typical sturgeon gears, including heavy lines and short Dacron leaders. Barbless hooks are required for all sturgeon angling in the Columbia River.
He tips the hooks with what he calls “the big three” of sturgeon baits: herring, squid, or sand shrimp.
Since sturgeon are bottom feeders that is where your baits need to be. Black said he often sees anglers trying to fish with insufficient lead.
“Make sure your bait is on the bottom and not moving around,” he said. “Always use a little more lead than you think you need, because if you’re not on the bottom you are not fishing.”
However, anglers do not need the heavy 20-ounce weights often used in the lower river, where tidal currents can be strong. Six to 12 ounces of lead is usually going to be all you need.
Black looks for deep water flats with hardpan or sand bottoms. Although many anglers near the dam get sturgeon while fishing over rocks, he said he seldom does well by fishing that kind of bottom. Generally, he will fish in 50 to 100 feet of water.
The fish will be hanging out along the bottom in the cold water, and will not move far to find food. For that reason, if Black is not getting bit quickly, he will move to another spot. Sometimes the fish may be as little as 50 to 100 yards away, so long hauls are often not necessary. Also, if you are getting bit on one side of the boat, try shifting over in that direction to see if you can bites on all your rods.
While the fishery sometimes extends for six weeks before the quota is reached, with the warm water currently in the river, Black warns that the quota could get used up quickly.
He is also quick to point to safety as being a big concern. Newcomers to the fishery may not be familiar with the weather in the Columbia River Gorge. The notorious Gorge winds can come up quickly, sometimes pushing waves to six or seven feet or more, and when the wind rises anglers need to be ready to get off the water quickly. It is also important to fish from a boat that can handle the conditions.
“You have to have a boat that can get you back to the ramp if the weather changes,” warned Black.
Sturgeon fishing is lots of fun, and usually affords plenty of action. However, keep an eye to the weather, and fish safely.