Hold, please, I've got a monster on the line .....
Thursday, June 4, 2009
(06-04) 04:00 PDT WILLAMETTE RIVER, Ore. --
On my first cast, I hooked a 7-foot 10-inch, 250-pound sturgeon. When I pulled back on the rod, the fish yanked back so hard that it jerked the rod tip into the water and nearly hauled me overboard.
"One of the small ones," said guide Charlie Foster on his boat, the Sturgeon General.
At dawn Friday, we anchored below Oregon City Falls. In the first five minutes, we saw several big sturgeon jump and roll on the surface, and I felt the glow of anticipation. The Willamette River is the Jurassic Park of fishing, where you hunt and release the dinosaurs of fish.
"My goal is for every person to catch the biggest fish of their life," Foster said.
This is the lowest-cost world-class fishing trip in America, $150 a seat in a 22-foot aluminum sportfisher, $80 for nearby hotel room. At one point, we added up our score: We caught and released sturgeon weighing 275, 250, 190, 175 and 150 pounds (weights estimated according to a formula based on length and girth), along with 11 sturgeon under the 38-inch size limit, out of 26 bites.
"There's bigger ones out there," Foster said. "Maybe you'll hook one." His life-best is a 13-footer estimated at 1,100 pounds.
So we cast out again, hoping for such a fish.
The Willamette River starts as a trickle from snowmelt in the Cascade Mountain Range in central Oregon and then builds in size and power as it flows through Eugene, north to Portland and on to its merge with the Columbia River. In Oregon City, a suburb south of Portland, the landmark spot is Oregon City Falls, a 40-foot cascade that spans hundreds of yards wide in a half circle. Below the falls, the river is now filled with 2- to 4-pound shad, along with eel, and that has drawn in hungry sturgeon for miles from the Columbia River system.
After we boarded, Foster guided the Sturgeon General upstream under a highway bridge and past pulp mills to the base of the falls. I was joined by photographer and world-record holder John Beath (51-pound salmon on 6-pound line). A large osprey sailed overhead, gazed down, and then nabbed a juvenile salmon with its talons. "See that?" said Beath, who shot the scene with his camera. "Everybody's catching something."
With his depth-finder, Foster located an extended 90-foot deep hole in the river channel, and then, as we motored slowly upstream, watched the bottom rise to 30 feet, and then anchored. From this spot, he explained, we'd be casting downstream into the edge of the deep water, where the big fish work their way up the ledge to feed. For bait, we used whole 20-inch 4-pound shad, yellowtail bellies and squid. As anglers do in San Francisco Bay, we tied on a sliding-sinker style terminal rigging, a few feet of leader to a 9/0 hook, with 12 ounces of weight on a dropper.
But unlike San Francisco Bay, the water here is full of sturgeon. There are two key reasons: In Oregon, no illegal poaching and commercial sales of sturgeon exist, as is rampant in the bay and delta, which decimates populations of the huge, slow-growing fish with prehistoric roots. In addition, the maximum size limit has been enforced here since the early 1950s, which allows the big fish to live 70, 80 years. Released sturgeon have almost zero mortality, according to studies here, and start feeding again almost immediately. In the San Francisco Bay and delta, the maximum size limit was not enacted until 1990, after thousands of sturgeon over six feet long and 25 to 40 years old had already been legally caught and killed in the 1970s and '80s.
Rules here allow anglers to keep five sturgeon per year that measure between 38 and 54 inches (measured from nose to fork of tail), verified with a punch card. That guarantees a steady production of young fish and protects the old dinosaurs, the largest freshwater fish in America. One out of three sturgeon here is 6 feet or longer, according to Foster, and this week, anglers on his boat have caught one that size nearly every two hours. In the Bay Area, you could fish a lifetime and not catch one in that class.
The big sturgeon are legendary for their jumps, power runs and bulldog dives. It's kind of like hooking an 18-wheeler that is running downhill. The fights often go 45 minutes and longer, cover a mile of river, and can break anglers who give out before the fish do.
We were "complaining" how beat up we were from the fights, with sore arms, backs and legs, with Beath even describing a painful elbow (yes, the legendary "Fishing Elbow'). That was when my rod tip darted an inch and I pounced. I braced myself in strike position, in the red zone for sensory overload, and seconds later, felt the magic tug-tug of a big sturgeon nibbling a large bait. For two agonizing seconds, I let him eat, and then at the exact right moment, when I sensed the bait in his mouth, rammed the hook home. The set was good and the fight was on.
I leaned back, legs bent for leverage, and felt the full immense weight, more Brontosaurus than T-Rex. It immediately powered off, down into the deep water, and then kept ripping downstream. I pulled back with full strength, the rod bent, and watched the line disappear off the reel, and then just held on for the ride. There was nothing I could do. The fish made the 65-pound braided fishing line seem like sewing thread.
"How much line is on the reel?" I shouted.
"Three hundred yards," Foster answered.
"That may not be enough."
Suddenly, the line rose in the water, and as it neared horizontal, we both knew what that meant: The fish is going to jump. A second later, the sturgeon rocketed out of the water - its giant size shocked us - and then landed as if somebody had dropped a Volkswagen from a helicopter.
"He's huge," Foster said. "Biggest of the year."
The sturgeon powered off on another long, sustained run, surging from the surface all the way back down to the bottom, and then blasted far down the river. Foster darted to the front of the boat and tossed the anchor line (tied to a float for later retrieval), which allowed the boat to drift downstream. He started the motor to control the drift of the boat.
After 20 minutes, I finally started gaining line. I'd pull back with the rod, then reel down to gain a few feet. But each time I gained 30 or 40 feet, the fish would simply whip his tail once or twice and take it right back. We knew only the giant ones can do that so easily.
At 30 minutes, the fish had taken us a half mile down river and suddenly changed tactics. It bulldogged straight down to the bottom under the boat, now 135 feet deep. When I tried to pull up on the rod, it felt like I was trying to lift a Brinks truck. For now, the truck was winning. It remained a standoff, where over the course of five minutes, I'd gain 20 yards, and then in a crushing run, the fish would take it all back, and several times, keep going for more.
I heard a distant shout and looked up. About 75 feet above the river, along a metal railing atop a cement wall, and also along a bridge, people were lined up and watching the fight, cheering. They hooted and waved. Fishermen in several other boats followed us, hoping to get a glimpse of the fish, and several shouted, "How big is it?"
A moment later, they found out. The line suddenly rushed toward the surface. I reeled as fast as possible to keep up, and then, for the second time, the big sturgeon surged out of the water in a full jump. From above the river, the crowd along the railing wailed when they saw it: The fish looked like it might be 400 pounds.
We were a mile from where it first had been hooked. About 45 minutes had passed. The big sturgeon then dived directly below the boat, only this time, we had drifted to 30 feet of water. I gained some resemblance of leverage, and the fish came up again, this time jumping right in front of us, less than 10 feet away. When it landed, the splash drenched me with water.
"He's barely hooked," shouted Foster. "Be careful, man, be careful."
In the next five minutes, it was give and take. I didn't dare try to horse in such a monster and have the hook pop, but instead tried to persuade it to swim to the boat. At any second, we knew the hook could pull out. Then, after another five minutes, without warning, the sturgeon came up alongside and Foster grabbed the line. It was ours.
We measured the fish: It was an even 9 feet long with a 48-inch girth, and based on past weights of verified large sturgeon, 400 pounds.
"Look at that," Foster said, pointing at the hook. It was held in place by only a 1/16-inch piece of skin. "I can't believe it held."
Foster easily unhooked the beast. Then, as he held its massive head and I the torso, we pushed it to force water through its mouth and jump-start its revival. The fish kicked once to free itself from us, and with a steady sweep of the tail, swam off. "He'll be fine," Foster said.
I watched the giant sturgeon disappear into the murky Willamette River and felt an upwelling of emotion. I'd battled the fish of a lifetime, yet knew it would have the chance to grow and fight for years to come.
If you want to go
COST: Full day: $150 per person for up to four, $75 for fifth person, kids 14 and under half price. Half day: $90 per person, $50 for fifth.
LICENSE: $12 non-resident state fishing license required.
GEAR: All gear provided by guide. Equipment used to catch 9-foot, 400-pound sturgeon: Seeker LB870 (7-foot glass, fast-action tip), Penn Senator 112, 65-pound test Power Pro line, 9/0 Mustad Baitholder hook.
GUARANTEE: "Catch a sturgeon or next trip is free." In last 200 trips, those with guide Foster had fish on 195 of them.
LOCATION: Willamette River, Oregon City, near Portland. Roughly 11- to 12-hour drive from San Francisco.
LODGING: $80 per room; Best Western Rivershore Hotel is a two-minute walk from the dock, where guide picks you up in his boat. (503) 655-7141, rivershorehotel.com.
BEST SEASON: Largest fish of year arrive in June on the Willamette River and in August/September on the Columbia River below Bonneville Dam.
CONTACT: Charlie Foster's NW Sturgeon Adventures (503) 820-1189; nwsturgeonadventures.com.
Range: Found in every major estuary in western North America. The species is anadromous: It lives in both fresh and salt water, though it swims upriver to spawn. A sturgeon tagged in San Pablo Bay was later found in the Columbia River.
Diet: Sturgeon are primarily filter-feeders, subsisting on small shellfish and mollusks (shrimp, crabs, clams, mussels)
Age: Can live as long as 100 years, but the species has been around the better part of 200 million years.
Spawning: Female sturgeon spawn about every fourth year, starting around age 15. A 6-footer (roughly 25 years old) releases approximately 400,000 eggs, which are fertilized by a male (every other year) and seven days later: Voila! (or, more accurately, larva!)
Appearance: In a word - ugly. Five rows of bony plates run the length of its body, but that's all that's bony, because sturgeon are cartilaginous, like sharks, and have sharky-looking tails. Its taste buds are on feelers beneath its round mouth, which extends a few inches below its head as if on a short hose.
Sources: Chronicle archives, Pacific Coast Marine Fisheries Commission, montereybayaquarium.org, Wikipedia
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Tom Stienstra's Outdoors Report can be heard Saturdays on KCBS (740 and 106.9) at 7:35 a.m., 9:35 a.m. and 12:35 p.m. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page D - 9 of the San Francisco Chronicle