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Sniffing out sturgeon takes skill

PORTLAND — Bill Monroe is meticulous in how he "tunes" an anchovy in a manner that makes it perfect bait for white sturgeon, this city's ultimate urban denizen.

Monroe threads a nylon leader through the anchovy's body, ties a few half-hitches to fasten the leader to the tail and then unceremoniously drops it to the boat deck for a stiff stomp under his rubber boot.

"It's juices have been released," Monroe declares. "Now it's tuned."

Juicier is better when it comes to choosing baits that will conjure sturgeon from the depths of the Willamette River — home to thousands of small sturgeon — which snakes through Portland's skyline.

A passel of squished sandshrimp, a glob of night crawlers, a gooey sardine or slimy smelt will do the trick, so long as they leave their smelly calling-cards in the current for nosy sturgeon to discover.

When you're trying to out-wit a fish that hasn't evolved in hundreds of millions of years, stench out-performs looks.

"Sturgeon don't actually look at this stuff," says Monroe, of Oregon City. "They use their sense of smell and work the river bottom like vacuums, sucking up what they can."

Angling for white sturgeon while sharing shipping channels with tugs and barges presents a unique opportunity to vacuum up good numbers of these prehistoric fish within the Columbia and Willamette rivers.

The spring and summer sturgeon fishery combines catch-and-release fishing with catch-and-keep fishing. The rivers boast good numbers of young, undersized fish that can keep anglers busy. The tough part is finding keepers, the ones that fit within the slot limit of no smaller than 38 inches and no larger than 54 inches.

Along with California's Sacramento River and Canada's Fraser River, the lower Columbia and its main tributary, the Willamette, represent the best opportunities to catch and keep white sturgeon.

"It's the healthiest population of white sturgeon in the world, by far," says Tucker Jones, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist who studies Columbia Basin sturgeon.

ODFW estimates place 131,700 legal-sized sturgeon in the tidal-influenced waters of the lower Columbia and the Willamette, where anglers can now keep one legal-sized sturgeon a day Thursdays through Saturdays. The rest of the week is catch-and-release fishing.

Anglers work the out-going tide for these armored-plated animals with round, underslung mouths meant for slurping everything from crustaceans and shrimp to crushed anchovies cast from boats or the bank.

Sturgeon have their own groupies, who consider these unique bottom-dwellers unmatched in freshwater.

"They're a million years old," Jones says. "Historically, they used to grow up to 20 feet long. They're big, they're strong, they live to be 100 years old and after they're about 2 years old, no fish can really prey on them.

"I think they're just about the coolest fish swimming in the water," he says.

Playing it cool is the way to catch them, as well.

Monroe anchors in or near the shipping channel, focusing on large flats or deep holes. Weights as heavy as 8 ounces hold the slimy anchovy on the bottom in heavy current.

"They sniff their way up the scent trail," Monroe says. "It takes them a little while to find the bait."

It also takes anglers a while to find the sturgeon.

Catch rates vary through the fishery, which has declined somewhat in recent years for unexplained reasons, Jones says.

In 2004, anglers targeting sturgeon averaged more than 1.5 fish per trip, ODFW records show. Last year, anglers logged more than 130,000 days on the lower Columbia and Willamette, but averaged two trips to catch just one sturgeon.

Estuary anglers netted just one sturgeon of legal keeper size for every five trips, instead catching smaller immature sturgeon, Jones says.

Small schools of sturgeon can hang out in deep pools, where anglers can spend an afternoon yarding in plenty of younger fish in the 20- to 25-inch range.

"They're great for kids,' Monroe says. "There's so much going on, especially when you get into a bunch of undersized sturgeon."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

Bill Monroe holds an undersized sturgeon caught on a well-tuned anchovy. - Mark Freeman