TAG-TEAM FISHING: Wrangling with white sturgeon on the Columbia River
ON THE COLUMBIA RIVER, Ore. -- We knew the fish was big by the way line peeled off the reel, but not until it burst from the water in an explosion of spray and fins and power, did we realize just how big.
The collective reaction:
It's the first morning of a two-day fishing trip for white sturgeon on the Columbia River near Portland, Ore., and we're here, five of us, watching a massive fish clear the water surrounded by some of the most beautiful country imaginable.
The Columbia Gorge, an 80-mile canyon through the Cascade Range, is like something out of "Lord of the Rings."
Everything about the Columbia Gorge, it seems, is big, including the rock cliffs that dwarf us and the white sturgeon for which the Columbia River is famous. Larger cousins of the lake sturgeon that inhabit Lake of the Woods and Rainy River, white sturgeon are the largest freshwater fish in North America. They routinely exceed 10 feet and have been known to reach 20 feet.
As freshwater fishing goes, it doesn't get any bigger than this.
That's why we're here.
Joining me on this epic adventure are Peter Howard, 23, of Stockholm, Wis.; Evan Laurie, 24, of Olympia, Wash.; Jon Falch, 29, of Peyton, Colo.; and Rich Thorpe, 36, of Bedford, Mass.
At 50, I'm the elder statesman of the group, and I'll be grateful for the younger arms and stronger backs of my fishing companions before the trip is over.
We're fishing with Oregon sturgeon guide Charlie Foster. Owner of Northwest Sturgeon Adventures, Foster, 45, of Estacada, Ore., has been serving up "Oh My God" white sturgeon encounters since 1995.
Foster says the largest white sturgeon he's ever brought to the boat measured 13½ feet, likely exceeded half a ton, and took three people more than 2½ hours to land.
No wonder, then, that Foster markets himself exclusively as a sturgeon guide. Sure, the Columbia River has big walleyes, salmon and steelhead, but nothing puts a bend in the pole or cramps up the arms like a big white sturgeon.
By law, "oversize" white sturgeon 60 inches and longer can't be kept or even brought into the boat. Catch a big one, and you're going to have to get in the water with the fish if you want a photo.
That's our goal.
"To see 7-, 8-, 9-foot fish like that is pretty cool," Foster said. "It's pretty hard to get excited about anything else. Nine times out of 10, everybody's going to catch the biggest fish they've ever caught."
Big wall, big fish
That quickly becomes apparent when one of the rods bristling off the back of Foster's 22-foot Alumaweld fishing boat begins to twitch. We're anchored in about 85 feet of water near a sheer rock wall, and the shad Foster has rigged with 9/0 hooks and weights ranging from 32 ounces to 48 ounces rest downstream in about 100 feet of water.
It's a place, Foster says, that has produced big fish.
"I got spooled here two years ago," he said. "And that was after chasing it down the river. I was going 10 mph backwards, and I still couldn't keep up with it."
As Foster explains, sturgeon initially mouth the bait with their rubbery lips, and the bite that's now making the rod twitch is barely perceptible, at first. But then the sturgeon finds the shad to its liking, and line peels from the reel.
Laurie, who says he hasn't fished in years -- Howard paid for his trip as a birthday present -- is chosen to go first. At Foster's cue, he closes the bail and sets the hook.
Imagine tying into a freight train going downhill at full speed, and you'll have an idea what happens next. Laurie has all he can do to hold his ground on deck.
He won't be the only one.
"The average person is going to pass off the rod," Foster said.
Foster uses an anchoring system that allows him to unclip the anchor rope, which is held in place by a large float, to follow sturgeon after they're hooked. That eases the battle and reduces the chances of the fish tangling in the anchor rope.
This fish is taking us for a ride.
Playing a big white sturgeon is a combination of spectator sport and tag-team wrestling match, and Howard is the next gladiator to enter the ring. As the morning sun peeks through the clouds of the Columbia Gorge, he leans back and puts all of his strength into keeping the fish under control.
It's about that time the sturgeon rockets out of the water, and we get our first glimpse of the monster at the end of the line.
As he'd say later: "When you get that nice one on ... oh, baby!"
The sturgeon bulldogs for the depths, and there's a moment of panic when the line goes slack. Our collective hearts sink, but Foster's seen this before.
"Keep reeling," he says, and Howard reels as fast as he can. He catches up with the fish, and the rod soon buckles again.
The sturgeon, apparently, ran into the rock wall and had nowhere to turn but back toward the boat.
Arms burning from the battle, Howard passes the rod after about 10 minutes, and Thorpe and Falch get their turns wrestling the big fish to the side of the boat.
Finally, there it is, and Foster unhooks the sturgeon. He estimates the fish at 7½ feet.
It's the biggest creature any of us have ever seen at the side of a boat -- for now, at least.
We're at least a mile downriver from the anchor buoy.
Like big game hunting, fishing oversize sturgeon isn't a numbers game, and there's time between bites for naps and conversation. Foster, who guides about 275 days a year, fishes the Willamette River, a tributary that flows into the Columbia near Portland, from November through early July, mainly for keeper-size fish.
From the Fourth of July through fall, he fishes the Columbia for the oversize sturgeon that move into the river from the Pacific Ocean to spawn.
We finish the day with one oversize, a fish that would have been a "keeper" -- we release it -- and a "shaker" that's slightly under keeper size. A couple of other fish drop the bait.
The day has left a big impression on us.
"I can't imagine you could fish a different river in the world and have this incredible landscape," Thorpe says.
One fish away ...
Foster opts for new water closer to Portland the second day. It's a stretch of river where he'd guided a crew to five oversize sturgeon two days earlier.
The scenery doesn't rival the Gorge, but other parts of the day will make up for it.
We're six hours into the day, and we've moved several times when Foster drops anchor in front of the boat ramp.
We've caught only a single oversize sturgeon, a 6-footer Thorpe brings to the boat in the first 15 minutes.
There's an adage in fishing that you're only one fish away from a good day, and six hours without a bite are quickly forgotten when a sturgeon hits and begins peeling line from the reel.
Falch is up to bat, and the rod buckles over when he sets the hook. Moments later, the sturgeon is out of the water, and the aerial display tells us this is the biggest fish of the trip.
Foster unclips the anchor line, and we head downriver.
I take the rod next and last maybe 10 minutes when my back cramps up. I could go longer, but decide pain like this should be shared and pass the rod to Laurie.
Once again, he's battling a runaway freight train on a downhill run and making up for all those years he didn't fish.
Agony and ecstasy
Howard mans the rod for the home stretch of the marathon, and he's up to the challenge. Taking Falch's advice, he uses the "sumo squat" technique to play the fish, much as a weightlifter would do when pumping iron.
"Whatever you do, don't start laughing," I tell him, recalling Howard's encounter last summer with a big Red River catfish that just about landed both of us in the drink when I made him laugh.
That fish weighed 34 pounds; just the head of this fish probably weighs that much.
Howard gets the fish to the boat, and the sturgeon seems ready when Foster heads toward a sandy shoreline for our water photo. But there's a snag, literally, when the fish somehow wraps the line around a sunken tree in about 6 feet of water.
Trying to free the sturgeon takes several minutes and several attempts, but Howard keeps his cool, and Foster maneuvers the boat into a position where Falch can reach down with a pike pole to untangle the line.
Then we're there, almost an hour after the bite, in the water with the largest fish any of us have ever touched.
"There was no doubt in my mind," Thorpe said later. "There was no way we were going to lose that fish."
Howard, who fought the fish through the worst of the ordeal, admits he wasn't so sure.
"When it got stuck, I was genuinely worried that fish was going to get off for about 10 minutes," he said. "I was thinking, 'Does somebody need to go in to get this fish?'"
Call it a storybook ending, the fishing equivalent of a game-winning homer in the bottom of the ninth. We estimate the sturgeon at 8-plus feet; Foster figures it goes 225 pounds.
"You can't describe that," Howard said. "How often can you say that a fish is bigger than you in fresh water?"
It's a moment we'll never forget, made even better by the adversity of a sturgeon wrapped in the wood.
"Greatest idea ever," Falch said of the trip. "A man can only make his own happiness. And doing something like that can only make a man happy for a long time."
Until the next time we make the trip, at least.
On the Web:
Northwest Sturgeon Adventures: www.nwsturgeonadventures.com.
Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to email@example.com.