Paddle-boarding the Snake: It’s for the Dogs

Published August 1st, 2019 in the The Times

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The first time I spied a stand-up paddle board (SUP) was cruising South on Highway 97 somewhere around Orondo, WA, on the Columbia River. A perplexing and comical sight, it appeared that folks were paddling surf boards and going nowhere for no reason and not getting there any time soon. I later realized these folks were paddling SUPs. The “going nowhere in no hurry” aspect was simply relaxation; a concept poorly grasped by many in our fast-paced society.

I swiftly dismissed the notion of ever owning such a silly contraption subsequent to my first encounter. (I also have a solid history of eating crow.) New gear like a paddle board needs to check several boxes on the hobby list and I simply could not fathom how a SUP would be useful or enjoyable. But as a hopeless fly fisherman and avid upland bird hunter with water-loving Llewellin setters, I am always pondering new tools to address both needs. So, it’s no surprise that several years after vowing I would never own one, my wheels started turning on SUP possibilities.

The Times readership suffers the good fortune of having the Snake River with its myriad public access opportunities in our backyards. And for many of us (myself included), these resources are underutilized. Watercraft can unlock doors to outdoor recreation, but a boat can be untenable or impractical, leaving one to assume there is little to be gained from the big water otherwise. This very logic led me to considering SUP capabilities for local summer fly fishing in lieu of the more expensive and time-consuming boat alternative. Then it hit me. The setters would love it.

A couple evenings of internet research turned up an inflatable model of modest color, capable of supporting 441 pounds; a weight limit providing enough free-board to handle my Neanderthal frame and all of my three setter girls. What’s more, I thought I might be able to coax my lovely wife, Ali, into playing a little more on the weekends.

Having secured our new watercraft, we made the maiden voyage at Little Goose Landing just upstream of Little Goose Dam on Snake’s south shore. Fortunately, there were few campers to be entertained at my expense. While completely stable when seated or kneeling, raising my center of gravity to full height presented an entirely different scenario. The key to stability was to control my rapid-fire muscle reaction to the unsteadiness to avoid worsening the situation.

Getting the hang of it, I decided it was time to onboard my setter, Finn. She eagerly jumped aboard, but her excited jostling doubled the difficulty, bringing me to my knees with alacrity. Eventually we kind of got the hang of it together; at least the paddling on my knees part.  Anyone with bird dog experience knows that they make sweeping casts in the field to cover ground and find birds. Finn bounces from side-to-side in the truck, which apparently transfers to watercraft as well.

With legs splayed, taking careful steps, Finn tottered with each dip of the SUP, then countered with an abrupt push to the other side. It was touch-and-go for a bit on remaining upright, but she finally relaxed a little and decided to take a seat. What she enjoyed most was jumping from the dock and swimming out to be picked up for a boat ride.

Switching off with Ali, we encouraged our little polliwog and youngest setter, Zeta, to give it a shot. Zeta loves swimming far more than bird hunting, so the paddle board was a natural fit. She seemed to enjoy the ride, peering down through the emerald water at the weeds and sunfish, but was most entertained by jumping from the dock onto the SUP, then off into the water once away from the dock. And, in classic Zeta fashion, she always made the attempt to swim to the opposite shore, far away from mom and dad.

Finally, our timid middle pup, Yuba, took a shot at it. She enjoys water the least among the three and was quite skeptical. I sat with her between my legs as we paddled, and I think she actually enjoyed herself a little. She was the most unstable and all but knocked herself off the board a few times. While wading over belly-deep is not high on her priority list, she was quite proud of her puppy life vest. Being a bird dog that wears an orange vest in the field, donning a vest of any kind equates to a good time.

Kicking the pups off, I decided to go for a quick paddle alone to test out the fishing potential. Kneeling, I slipped the SUP into the back of the inlet at the launch, gliding effortlessly into fly casting range of a large carp. My thoughts instantly drifted to a Tenkara rod with minimal gear, tossing small flies for sunfish and bass, or even a San Juan worm for the carp (a story for another time). If I wasn’t before, at this point I was sold on the SUP for fishing. Not to mention the inflatable SUPs weigh about 24 pounds and can be packed up with pump and paddle into a frame pack for remote opportunities.

Windy conditions on the main river channel can be unsafe, but there’s nothing stopping you from hitting the inlets at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers boat launches and recreation areas. These off-channel waters are generally sheltered from wind and typically receive little boat activity aside from launching or taking out.

So, what are you waiting for? A SUP is something the entire family can get behind, and the inflatables are constructed of a durable polyvinylchloride shell like a whitewater raft, so they are tough. They are even big enough to serve as a floating couch, and if you are into fitness, standing and paddling is a full-body workout. Just remember to check Coast Guard and state regulations about personal watercraft before taking to the water. At minimum, a SUP requires a life jacket and whistle, which should be worn at all times.

If you think a SUP might be something you and your family would enjoy, check out the Stand Up Paddle Boarding Basics blog series from REI to get started (read here). Your dog (and maybe your significant other) will thank you!

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.

Bluegill Beginnings

Picture a portly, toe-headed boy standing along the muddy shoreline of a farm pond as the sinking summer sun casts a warm amber glow across the water. He wore pastel yellow jogging shorts and a Mr. T “I pity the fool” shirt, white socks with two red bands pulled up just below the knee, and navy Chuck Taylors. Wielding a seafoam green fiberglass fishing rod sporting a prototype Zebco 33 reel, he cast a bobber and small hook baited with nightcrawlers he dug from his grandpa’s back yard. As the bobber sinks, the boy swiftly pops the rod tip, and reeling madly, lands his dozenth bluegill sunfish of the night.

That portly little boy was me over 30 years ago. Grandpa, bluegill sunfish, and that old cow pasture pond were significant influences on my life as an outdoorsman and biologist. Bluegill may not be all that exciting to anglers who have graduated to bigger and more challenging species, but to a child eager to cast a line, bluegill are among the most common starting points.

Native to the Mississippi River system and eastern U.S., bluegill were historically found in rivers and natural lakes. But a man named Homer Swingle is largely responsible for the farm pond fisheries of today. In the 1930s, Swingle began experimenting with predator/prey population cycles in ponds near Alabama’s Auburn University.

Swingle’s experiments suggested that an ordinary cattle watering puddle could be stocked with bluegill and largemouth bass and left to its own natural, self-sustaining regulation of species abundance and proper size and age classes. His findings led to landowners stocking farm ponds across the nation with bass and bluegill, invigorating sportfishing in the process.

Bluegill, among many other prized sportfish, eventually made their way across America to the Columbia River Basin where they now thrive. Bluegill, as well as other sunfish species, are common in the backwaters and boat basins of the Snake River and numerous ponds and lakes across the Pacific Northwest. While they may be invasive, they present an exceptional opportunity to introduce children to fishing, potentially hooking them for life, now being the perfect time.

When water temperature reaches approximately 57 degrees in spring, spawning activity kicks in for many warmwater fishes. This means sunfish move into the shallows, digging nests in soft substrates with their tails. Eggs are laid and fertilized and the males stand guard. With a “take on all comers” attitude, their aggressive behavior makes them easily tempted into taking small jigs and flies that threaten the eggs.

Otherwise, bluegill can be found all summer by tossing a nightcrawler or meal worm along brush piles, aquatic vegetation edges, and under docks. Hand-sized specimens fry up nicely with a delicate and flakey white filet. Recipes as simple as flour or cornmeal, salt and pepper, and a little oil are perfectly suited for any fish fry. For a little more spice in your dish, a quick Google search will turn up myriad recipes including fish tacos, fajitas, chowder and more. 

Reaching the unfortunate milestone of adulthood means the prospects of bluegill angling may not appear interesting on the surface, but bass are a common “bycatch” in bluegill territory. Another member of the sunfish family, bass behave similarly to and prey on bluegill. And, while anglers think big when talking bass baits, my personal best largemouth, a seven-pounder, slurped a tiny F4 Rapala crankbait while casting for bluegill over spring spawning beds.

Feisty and confident, bluegill handle themselves quite well, forcing a sweet bend in any light action spinning or fly rod. But the best part is the year-round season with no gear restrictions and no size or harvest limits. All that’s needed is a fishing license and a desire to get outdoors.

A dark shape materializing from the depths or bolting through the shallows to slurp a fly, or the sudden sideways glide of a bobber dangling a worm sends a bolt of anticipation through anglers young and old. To admire the modest orange breast and namesake blue gill, dark olive dorsal, and deep vertical barring on the more fashionable specimens is a privilege. They take me back to the farm pond where I stand wearing some form of 1980’s basketball star fashion and toting my nightcrawler box. Grandpa stands in his Dickies and flannel on an eroding earthen dam, a steely eye scanning the weed beds beneath a faded, green Redman ball cap, and casting a bass streamer on a hand-built fly rod.

While the Snake River is nearby, virtually endless options exist in Washington for a family fishing outing for bluegill. Visit the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website below for more information.

Bluegill | Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife