Angling for Archaic Sturgeon

Published in the East Oregonian, June 20, 2020.

Once a teenager with wild dreams of becoming a fish biologist, I set my graduate school sights on studying the prehistoric and long-lived sturgeon that swim among the barges, gators, and salmon in our nation’s largest river systems. And, as all best laid plans, sturgeon were far from the focus of my master’s thesis. But upon winding my way to the Pacific Northwest, my study in sturgeon evolved to angling. I did learn a few things about these fascinating beasts in the process.

The author with a 7-foot Snake River sturgeon caught on pickled herring.

Native to the Columbia River Basin, white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) in their present form have occupied the planet for approximately 175 million years and can be seen etched into native American petroglyphs. Sturgeon are incredibly unique benthic dinosaurs characterized by armored scales called scutes, barbels (“whiskers”, like a catfish) that smell food and an inferior (on the bottom) protruding mouth that sucks in food like a vacuum cleaner. One of the largest white sturgeon on record was measured over twelve feet long.

Mother Nature has a way of throwing curveballs at species, setting them back and wiping them out, but the adaptive, and sometimes most primitive persist, at least until humans discover them. In the early 1900s, white sturgeon were overfished for their roe to be sold as highly prized caviar. While fishing regulations are now highly restrictive, dams present obstacles to adult sturgeon migration and genetic diversity. Like salmon, white sturgeon migrate to the ocean as juveniles where they mature and return to spawn as adults. Populations downstream of Bonneville Dam are the strongest in the Columbia Basin, yet upstream populations without ocean access are struggling.

White sturgeon can live to about 100 years old. Their maturation is slow and only about one percent of the population is among the spawning cohort over twenty-five years old. It’s difficult to draw many accurate conclusions on their long-term population trajectory. Conservation programs are underway to propagate sturgeon and promote genetic diversity to the degree possible.

Angling is an effective means for capturing adult sturgeon and I was invited afield to collect brood stock for the Yakima Nation hatchery program for my first sturgeon fishing adventure. It was about this time in June when I finally laid hands on an adult sturgeon after years of dreaming. For the first time in my life, I experienced what it truly meant for my arms to be tired from fighting fish.

About an 8-foot Columbia River sturgeon making a brief appearance at the stern.

We’ve all heard wisdom of using big bait to catch big fish, but I was educated by our technique. Rigging up whole American shad on a rope leader and hook large enough to slip around a soda can required three pounds of lead to sink it into the current below the dam spillway. Miraculously, we managed four rigs without a single snafu.

With lines down, the crew bantered on fishing in general, recalling the past steelhead season. My friend and colleague, Chas, was mid-way through his harrowing tale of landing a winter steelhead on the Hoh River when the back-right rod bounced hard against the gunnel.

Leaping into action, Chas grabbed the rod, flipped the bail open and waited for the fish to commit to the bait. The rod continued to bounce as line fed out beneath the light pressure of Chas’s thumb. Slamming the bail shut and laying six feet of stout ocean rod into the fish was of little consequence to the speed and course of the massive sturgeon.

The high-test, braided line screamed through the water as if attached to a steel-gray bullet train as the sturgeon angled across the tailrace. At once, the sturgeon spun a U-turn, rocketing directly back to the boat, breaching at the stern and nearly flopping aboard. I will never forget that moment as a snow-capped Mt. Hood stood picturesque in the background. We quickly guessed it to be a nine-footer and popped the anchor to follow the fish.

Forty-five minutes passed, as did the rod among those with fresh arms, before we were able to secure the beast. I served as second rod hand. Trying to winch a speeding school bus from the river bed is the only description that paints a remotely appropriate picture of the fight, our twenty-four-foot jet boat in tow like a barge behind a tug.  

Hanging on for the ride!

With the fish tied off, we floated down river to pass it off to the Yakima Nation for data collection, then motored back upstream for round two. By the end of the day we landed five additional mature fish between six and nine feet with one successful double. It was truly epic. The three-hour drive home was excruciating.

Sturgeon fishing is highly restricted in Oregon and Washington to protect these treasured fish. Some Columbia River tributaries are closed entirely to sturgeon fishing, while most other waters are catch-and-release only. A 2020 harvest fishery in the lower Columbia River imposes a slot limit of 44-50 inches (fork length) and is projected to allow 5,720 harvestable fish. If you plan to angle for sturgeon, be sure to check the regulations, and always handle these primordial giants with respect and care. How we treat them today may affect the spawning population and our privilege to fish for them tomorrow.

The June Hogs of the Columbia Basin

Our jet sled bobbed near the infamous “Buoy 10” in the mouth of the Columbia River. It was a stormy September afternoon with angry Pacific surf bullying its wave action far upriver. Coho were the target, yet no one aboard complained at the prospects of landing anything willing to trounce the cut herring corkscrewing behind the boat as we drifted.

Kicking back, we enjoyed the ride, and experience of fellow fishermen jumping hurriedly for a bent rod, ripped from the complacency of a lull in the action and casual conversation. I had passed a dozen salmon to the three other anglers. They finally insisted the next bite was mine.

Diving for the gunnel as the port side rod doubled hard on the strike, drag began spooling noisily from the reel. The run was fast and strong, unlike the coho hook-ups of the day. Only a Chinook (king) salmon can pack a tuna-like punch into a chrome freshwater torpedo.

Following the initial run, the 26-inch king came in quickly. Not my first king, but certainly the most striking. Dime-bright scales glistened under the overcast sky as if the fish had been dipped in glitter. It’s dorsal was painted in muted teal, and it’s black speckling popped like sequins. It was no “June Hog”, but an unforgettable fish, nevertheless.

A small Columbia River “Buoy 10” King fresh from the salt.

June Hogs, on the other hand, have earned their place in natural and sporting history as king salmon of the Columbia Basin past. Before commercial fisheries and dams made their way to the Columbia River, kings breaching 100 pounds swam over 1,000 miles to their spawning grounds in British Columbia. Genetically speaking, these fish were the same kings that continue to return to the Columbia River year after year, but a population that grew five or more years in the Pacific Ocean before returning to spawn.

Much larger fish than those of lower river populations, historic accounts suggest they reached nearly 50 inches in length and were football-shaped, their bodies rich with fat stores. Their long journey inland led these fish to enter the Columbia River in early summer, earning the moniker June Hog. But the trek to their natal tributaries took time with spawning occurring in late summer or early fall.

Once a Native American subsistence staple, the superior quality and flavor these massive fish quickly became a prized food item for all as the west was developed. The first canaries on the Columbia River opened in the mid-1800s. A grand haul by the Seufert Brothers Cannery in The Dalles, Oregon landed 2.5 million cans of “Royal Chinook” in an Astoria, Oregon warehouse around the turn of the century. The table fare of the June Hogs deserving of the “Royal” marketing crown. At the peak of the run, canneries could pull several tons each day via fish-wheel.

The Seufert Brothers Cannery floor after a decent haul. (Photo Credit: Oregon Historical Society)

With harvest affecting the salmon populations, the average size of the June Hogs began to decline by the early 1900s, decreasing as much as 50 percent by 1922. Thirty pounds was once the bottom end of their weight range, but today, a 30-pound Columbia River Chinook is news-worthy.

Modern fishery management and harvest has resulted in an increased proportion of “jacks”, which are basically trout-sized salmon, that return within a year of migrating to the ocean, and may never have left the Columbia River estuary. But the final blow to the massive June Hogs came long ago in the form of Grand Coulee Dam.

Built without fish passage, the June Hogs racing for British Columbia were stopped cold at Grand Coulee by 1940. The populations spawning downstream in Washington tributaries were able to do so successfully with a more modest size and fat stores, their migration being half as long or difficult.

The June Hogs of historic proportions may never grace the Columbia Basin again, yet, kings in the 20-pound range are still common. Last month, I wound my way through the visitor center halls at Ice Harbor Dam and stood in awe at the fishway viewing window. Kings of all sizes cruised by, shooting nervously through the fish counting slot. According to the counting booth attendee, the kings are returning well thus far in 2021, but the overall projection for the spring run is lower than last year.

At present, myriad challenges are pressuring salmon and steelhead populations through the Pacific Basin. While special interest groups lobby against the lower Snake Rive dams, they fail to present the big picture, meaning dams are but a piece of the complicated salmon life history puzzle. Ecosystem-wide reform of fishery and harvest management, habitat restoration, invasive species management, and other environmental improvements are necessary in concert to achieve genuine population “recovery”.

Nevertheless, salmon are resilient, enduring all we’ve thrown at them for more than a century. With mindful management among stakeholders, and improvements in environmental conditions, the kings of the Columbia Basin will persist.