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Sturgeon fishing is too good

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HOOD RIVER — Anchored atop a deep Columbia River hole upstream of Bonneville Dam, guide Bill Monroe Jr. puts together a sturgeon cocktail.

A 7-year-old smelt fresh from his freezer is thawed, threaded with a single-point barbless hook held in place by a series of half-hitch knots of the 130-pound leader along the smelt’s body. Monroe stomps the bait beneath his boot to “get the juice flowing,” then casts it into the 150-foot hole.

“You’re going to see a little wiggle of the rod tip,” Monroe says. “You feed it to him, then set the hook as hard as you can. Really get after it.”

Not a minute passes before the rod top wiggles, and after a two-handed rod set that looks as violent as throwing an ax, a 45-inch sturgeon is pulling madly in a tug-o-war that is repeated daily on the Columbia.

The winter white sturgeon season is open on the Columbia, where fishing has been too good for its own good. The “keeper” season opened Jan. 1, and the 500-fish quota in the pool from Bonneville Dam to The Dalles was supposed to keep anglers busy through February.

But an explosion of anglers fleeing the cooped-up COVID-19 world, good weather and a plethora of legal-sized sturgeon meant the quota lasted just a week, leaving anglers to a catch-and-release fishery that’s still bending down rods and turning up smiles despite rainy weather.

“I think everything combined to make this happen this year, but the weather really dictates that fishery,” says John North, the Columbia River fisheries manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It kind of caught us off guard. It started fast and just kept going.”

The catch rates were so high that an estimated 655 keeper-sized fish were caught and kept in the Bonneville Pool in the first week of January, North says.

“The fish have to be there to catch them, so that’s a good sign,” North says.

Anglers fishing for sturgeon in the Columbia essentially are playing with the teenager subset of a fascinating fish that dates back to the prehistoric eras.

With fish documented up to 20 feet long, white sturgeon are the largest freshwater fish in North America. A little-understood anadromous fish that is born in salt water, they can travel great distances on the ocean between sturgeon havens like the Columbia, Umpqua and Sacramento rivers.

Fossil data show they are largely unchanged over several millennia and DNA data show white sturgeon here have a close relative in China that shared a similar ancestor 45.8 million years ago.

They can easily reach 100 years old in the wild, but the key number on white sturgeon is 6 feet. That’s when they begin to breed, laying up to 300,000 eggs when spawning every 2 to 5 years.

Biologists have long known about the 6-foot delineation, and fish that large have been off-limits to Oregon anglers to keep since 1950.

A 6-footer is usually around 29 years old.

In the Bonneville Pool, the keeper slot limit is between 38 inches and 54 inches, meaning sturgeon roughly 11 years old to 19 years old.

This year’s quick scuttling of the quota is due in large part to good recruitment of younger fish into the size and age levels to fill the slot limit. After that, it’s strictly catch-and-release fishing, which can be fantastic at times.

These fish have vacuum-like mouths on the bottom of their face so they can Hoover up food like sandshrimp off the muddy river bottom. Hooked with just a single barbless hook, pressure has to be constant to keep the sturgeon in play as it gets conjured up from the bottom.

That first sturgeon hooked on Monroe’s boat continues to wiggle and pull as it comes up from the depths, and though it remains a full 100 feet below the surface, Monroe senses it’s within that keeper slot limit.

It comes to the boat measuring a solid 40 inches. A 15-year-old sturgeon by most estimates.

“It would have been a keeper yesterday, but not today,” Monroe says. “Still, it’s a good-looking fish. Let’s let him become 16.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

210114 OO White Sturgeon on the ColumbiaThumbnail
Guide Bill Monroe Jr. releases a white sturgeon caught on the Columbia River near Hood River.