Imagine a fishery where you can catch fish up to five feet long all day. Imagine also a fishery that is not shut down on a regular basis, or has short seasons, or is shortened because of the chance of catching protected fish.
Oh, and you’ll be virtually by yourself.
It is happening right now on the Columbia River, and it is the catch-and-release sturgeon fishery. While not a popular fishery with local fishermen, it is favored by out-of-state anglers.
Dan Ponciano of Dan Ponciano Guide service, gets excited about this opportunity, and he often wonders why it is not more popular.
“Nobody fishes it,” said Ponciano. “you might see five or six boat trailers in the parking lot.”
When he does get a booking for this fishery, he really enjoys watching his clients do battle with big sturgeon, a true quality game fish that combines powerful, sustained runs with high-flying leaps, and will wear your arms out trying to land them.
And, the river is full of these fish right now. Ponciano said you can expect to catch 20 to 40 fish a day. The only caveat is that you can’t keep them.
However, he has long been a proponent of making all sturgeon fishing catch-and-release.
Ponciano explains that while the river is absolutely full of sturgeon, most are in the five-foot range.
Bob Rees of Oregon Fishing Guide service is also a big fan of the catch-and-release fishery, and like Ponciano, he reports that the sturgeon population has changed in the last couple decades.
“We used to catch 30 to 40 fish a day in the late 90s — 80 percent were shakers, about 10 percent were oversized, and about 10 percent were keepers,” Rees said. “Now about 80 percent are oversize, 10 percent are keepers, and 10 percent are shakers.”
Shakers are juvenile sturgeon, keepers run in the 45 to 50-inch range, and oversize sturgeon are those over 50 inches. Sturgeon can live for 150 years, and reach lengths of over 10 feet.
“We’ve lost production on the fish because the stellar sea lions have killed many of the broodstock,” said Rees. “A bigger factor is that (stellar sea lions) have caused the sturgeon broodstock to change their patterns. Now they mostly spawn in the Willamette River where there is a fraction of the flow, a fraction of the water quality, and a fraction of the habitat. There are no sturgeon spawning in the Columbia anymore.”
The Willamette just does not produce enough young sturgeon, and that will mean problems in the future for these ancient fish.
That is why both guides really like the catch-and-release fishery, and it is banging along right now.
“There are fish all over that estuary right now,” Ponciano said. “They are up in the shallows and out on the sands. There is a lot of fish down there.”
“There’s sturgeon everywhere through the estuary right now,” he said. “They are in some areas more than others, but basically from the Astoria-Megler Bridge up to Miller and Rice islands: that’s all good water.”
The estuary is a maze of islands, sand flats, shallow ditches, and deep channels. Where you fish in all this area depends on the tides. As the tides flood in the estuary, sturgeon will move up onto the sand flats and feed in shallow water. As the tide drops, they begin to move back into the ditches, and eventually into the deep channels.
“One of the best times is the first part of the incoming tide, or the first part of the outgoing tide,” said Rees.
However, it has been so good lately that Ponciano thinks it’s hard not to catch them.
“As long as the waters moving your catching fish,” he said. “It’s so good recently we’re even catching them in slack tides.”
Ponciano reports he has had excellent results lately fishing right outside the wall of the Astoria East Mooring Basin boat launch, in 20 feet of water. He also points to the sawdust pile out of the Hammond Marina as producing good catches recently.
Rees reports that he has found success near Seal and Marsh Islands.
While sand shrimp is a popular bait, especially in the shallows, anchovies have been the best bet in deeper water.
Both guides said the fishing will hold up well into August, but that warmer water does make the fish less aggressive. And, after August 14 the attention will shift to Buoy Ten salmon.
But, until that fishery begins, savvy anglers like Rees and Ponciano will be out in the estuary, wearing out the arms of their clients on big, powerful sturgeon. And, having a great time doing it.
Anglers are reminded that you must use barbless hooks for sturgeon in the Columbia. Always check the regulations before fishing.