ASTORIA — What fights like a salmon, looks like a shark and has the dense meat of a chicken?
White sturgeon, apparently.
The fishery opened June 5 and for the first time in three years fishermen could keep what they caught. Anglers turned out in droves. But catch and effort — the number of fishermen out on the Columbia River trying to land sturgeon — was so high last Saturday and Monday that fishery managers are now considering closing the fishery early.
They can't risk going over the number of sturgeon that fishermen in Oregon and Washington are allowed to catch, said Ron Roler, Columbia River fishery manager with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The retention fishery was already set to be extremely conservative this year, he said. Of the almost 165,600 legal-size fish in the river, only 3,000 were up for grabs.
Fishermen in both states landed an estimated 400 sturgeon on opening day June 5 — about 100 fish more than the agencies had thought would be caught that day, but within what they had hoped for, Roler said.
In a flight over the fishery last Wednesday, state employees counted 722 private boats, including smaller guide boats, and 10 charter boats on the Columbia River. This count didn't include the fishermen who fished from the East Mooring Basin's breakwater or off the shore. On Saturday, the number of boats on the water was even higher.
The states knew there was a lot of pent-up demand for the fish, said Tucker Jones, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's ocean salmon and Columbia River program manager. So the fishery managers chose to ease into it. They opened the fishery in June, traditionally a month when sturgeon landings have not been high, and opened the fishery for only a limited time.
Fishermen were limited to one sturgeon per day, two total for the year, and given only six days of fishing over a two-week period. They could fish for keeps from the early morning hours until 2 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.
"What we are doing here is a purposely conservative approach to reopening the sturgeon fishery," Jones said in May.
"It's been very well-received," said Jones Monday. It's been popular." The number of fishermen out on the water attempting to catch fish — the "effort" in state management terms — was much higher than expected, he said.
Three long years
It has been three years since fishermen were allowed to keep sturgeon.
In 2014, Oregon and Washington state fishery managers closed the Columbia River to any sturgeon retention over concerns about the population status of the large, prehistoric-looking fish. Then, after surveys showed more and more legal-sized fish below Bonneville Dam each year since 2014, the states announced the opening of a retention fishery this spring on the Columbia River, from the Wauna power lines to Buoy 10, nearly 40 miles downstream.
Fishermen joke that they'd almost forgotten what it was like to land one. Seasiders Pat Hull and Caleb Fackerell, who fished out of Astoria's East Mooring Basin last Wednesday, were convinced they had caught sturgeon well above the legal size limit.
"These are way too big," Fackerell thought.
Then they measured the fish. The sturgeon weren't over the limit — the fishermen had just forgotten how big they could get. They'd gotten used to catch-and-release.
Hull hoisted up one of the fish when they got back to land. The tip of its shovel-like snout hit him just below the shoulders, the long body stretched down and the tips of the sturgeon's forked tail brushed the toes of his boots. A 50- to 60-pound fish, Fackerell guessed.
Port of Astoria staff set up the parking lots at the East Mooring Basin like they do in August for the popular Buoy 10 recreational salmon fishery, which can bring in several dozen to several hundred fishermen each day of the month. They blocked off the entrance into the paved lot at the base of 36th Street that ends in the basin's sea lion-plagued docks and directed trucks hauling boat trailers toward a gravel lot at the base of 37th Street. Both lots were packed each day sturgeon-retention fishing was open.
Oregon Fish and Wildlife employee Brooks Vandevelder was down at the East Mooring Basin all last week, tracking what had been caught and released and collecting pit tags. The retention fishery is one easy way fishery managers can collect an array of data on the sturgeon population, Roler said.
Vandevelder said this sturgeon-retention fishery is very different from ones he has worked in the past. There weren't the time constraints, for one, he said. Now, fishermen are rushing to get their catch back in before 2 p.m. On Monday, half a dozen boats bobbed in a line at the East Mooring Basin boat ramp at noon, waiting their turn to get pulled out of the water.
"A lot of people go elk hunting, but your chances of getting an elk are not great," Roler said. "But people still go. I wanted to have fishery where the chances of getting a fish is not great, but there's a chance."
"They're a fighting fish," said Dave Astle, a fisherman who went out with Oregon guide Brad Hadfield of Guide Service Northwest last week. "They have lots of power."
They'll start out with feather-light bites at bait, Astle said, and then: "Hang on to your pole!" Sturgeon will leap out of the water when they're hooked, a kind of dragon or dinosaur caught between water and sky.
Fishermen first learned that the fishery was opening on May 31, giving guides like Hadfield just a few days to schedule outings with clients. Normally Hadfield would take six fishermen out at a time, but, because of the short notice, he had only four clients last Monday and Wednesday. By the middle of last week, however, he was fully booked for this week.
As Hadfield smoothly sliced away at the 40-pound sturgeon on the table at the East Mooring Basin's fish cleaning station last Wednesday, he described the meat as dense, almost like chicken.
"A lot of people that don't like fish will eat sturgeon," he said.
His clients hit their limits early last week, but stayed out to indulge in some catch-and-release fishing.
Hadfield said the number of sturgeon in the river appears to be typical for June, and fishing has been slow and scattered overall. In recent years the catch-and-release fishing that occurs later in the season has been "phenomenal," Hadfield said. But, of course, his clients didn't get to eat those fish.