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Jun 20 , 2016

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Sturgeon Fishing on the Snake River

by Frank Ross
Sturgeon Fishing on the Snake River

Looking up from Class-IV rapids at the towering peaks and rugged terrain surrounding the Snake River, it seems only fitting that Hells Canyon should be home to the largest and most powerful freshwater game fish – the primitive-looking white sturgeon. Once hooked, it is also readily apparent that they don't like to be messed with.

 

Against the backdrop of the deepest gorge in the U.S., a mighty river snakes its way so admirably, twisting and slithering over massive rocks, that it is named just that - the Snake River. The Snake makes up a portion of the border of Washington, Oregon and Idaho, before it makes a westward bend and heads toward the Pacific between towering peaks up to 8,500 feet.

 

While experiencing Hells Canyon pristine, stark beauty, abundant wildlife and cruising Class IV rapids is a thrill all its own, I was waiting to board a 28-foot, twin-engine jet boat powered by two 260-cu.in. V8 motors, with other ambitions in mind. Beneath the Snake's crystal clear torrent prowls the largest and most powerful of freshwater game fish -the primitive looking white sturgeon.

 

Waiting for Snake River Adventures' boats to arrive at our prescribed rendezvous at Pittsburgh Landing in southwestern Idaho, I passed the time glassing the hillside for mule deer. After spotting a massive buck in the early stages of velvet, I surmised that it was going to be a good day. The big buck worked his way up the steep canyon wall, accompanied by a younger buck as distant rumble filled the air. I lost interest and refocused my eyes on the distant bend of the river as a convoy of boats appeared in a shroud of spray. After making the bend, they banged their way through rapids and headed toward the landing where our group awaited their arrival, with rods and stacks of gear at the ready.

 

Once the boats were tied off, the crew quickly parsed out the eager anglers and we were off and running. I was paired with fellow editor Mike Schoby and a group of five plumbers on an annual company outing. Our captain and guide for the day, Mike Luther, manned the helm as Bob Ware, our deckhand for the day, laid out the game plan and safety rules for the day's outing.

 

The plan is simple in concept, but execution is largely left up to the bottom sniffing sturgeon, since they have the option to take the bait – or not. We would run upriver about an hour's distance and start fishing in deep holes. Luther and Ware would set out the two sturgeon rods and man them while all aboard had the option to fan out along the shoreline to fish for trout and smallmouth.

 

We were adequately warned that this would probably not be a good day because all of the best spots had been worked over heavily the previous day. "Remember that we're going fishing, not catching," was the admonition as Luther explained that once caught, the sturgeon will not bite for several days. After half an hour at the first honey hole it became readily apparent that Luther was accurate in his prediction about the bite. Trout and smallmouth were very eager to bite, but the sturgeon weren't in the mood, at the moment.

 

Luther and Ware sat intently, staring at their rod tips, while the entourage of anglers climbed out of the boat and scrambled over rocks, looking for the ideal vantage point to cast into the surging river. Several trout and a few smallmouth had been landed by the time Ware sat up quickly, tightened down on his rod and wailed back to set the hook. He shouted out "Who wants it," and an angler quickly took the fighting chair. Unfortunately, after a few minutes the result was a large channel catfish. As the excitement settled down, we moved down river to the next deep hole.

 

Three successive dry holes later, anticipation of the big bite was fading as everyone was having a great time catching trout and smallies. Throughout the morning there had been numerous nibbles, but still no takers on the large chunks of cut trout that was being used for sturgeon bait. To combat the current, 12- to 16-ounce weights are used, and an 18-inch leader of 150-pound monofilament line makes up the leader to a 9/0 hook. With 10-foot-long rods, you can get some serious distance on a cast using that kind of weight.

 

In essence, sturgeon fishing has a lot in common with professional baseball; long periods of marginal activity punctuated by moments of sheer panic when a batter hits a bases-loaded triple against the outfield wall.

 

Only myself and two other anglers were on board when a serious bump dipped the rod in Ware's hand. He rose, waited for another bump, then after a mighty hookset he said, "It's a small fish, who wants it?" The others hesitated, apparently not wanting to waste their turn at the rod with a small fish, so I stepped up and took the rod. Once I was set in the chair it was clear to me that this was no small fish, however, sturgeon standards are different.

 

The reel's drag was giving up line at a rapid pace as the fish rose sharply, broaching the water with a dramatic leap in the middle of the river. After that brief exciting moment, it was all work, pumping and cranking on the Diawa 600H reel trying to regain in feet the losses that were being taken in yards.

 

If it weren't for a screaming drag and pulsating rod, it would be easy to confuse a sturgeon hookup with a snag on one of the river's barn-sized boulders. The combination of huge tails, and the river's raging flow, makes bringing them to the surface a gladiator's battle. Worse still, is the technique the sturgeon employ to frustrate anglers. When they have the opportunity, sturgeon nose under huge boulders and wedge their bodies tightly against the strain of the line. When that happens the only option is to loose the boat's lines, move to an advantageous position and horse them out.

 

Frank Ross makes the release

After a 30-minute battle, my "little" sturgeon succumbed to the constant pressure I applied to the broomstick-sized Lamiglas 1100 rod. After a quick measurement of 82 inches, I was given the opportunity to handle the release. I was instructed to hold the tail and move its body back and forth in the water to make sure it was revived enough to swim. Holding the massive tail was a thrill. When I had made only a few revival strokes the fish made a violent thrust of its tail that indicated to Luther that it was ready. I know I was ready to turn it loose. My left arm was aching from the battle, but nothing compared to how it would feel two days later.

 

We moved to another spot, picked up another sturgeon of similar size that was landed by Shane Whiting a plumber from Kuna, Idaho in a tag team match with his son, Travis. Travis, who along with his brother, Erin, had bought the trip for their dad's Father's Day present and it made the team landing even more special.

 

One of the other boats in our flotilla, piloted by Luther's son, came alongside to compare notes, or more accurately, rub it in a little. They had landed nine sturgeons, the largest being over nine feet. Then the big fish hit.

Shane Whiting, Bob Ware, and Travis Whiting pose with there big catch.

Our boat was tied up about 150 yards from some of the river's impressive Class IV rapids, and we were fishing a 60-foot deep hole when Ware rose for another hookset. Lane Rich, of Middleton, Idaho took the fighting chair and the battle was on. This fish took off like a rocket, heading downstream toward the rapids. Luther told Lane to keep the pressure on, and not let it get into the rapids, but that advice was hard to implement. This fish basically did what it pleased, paying out line for 75 yards before nosing under a big rock. Luther fired up the boat's throbbing motors and quickly maneuvered downstream to extricate the sturgeon.

 

Now, as we were perilously close to the rapids, the fish broke free and nosed under again, even closer to the rapids. Luther did a masterful job of controlling the boat in the torturous currents, but the fish was too strong to be restrained. After breaking free once again, it took off for the rapids like a shot. Luther shouted over the roar of the rapids, "We're going to have to go after him, get everything put away and hang on."

 

Bob Ware handles the battle through the rapids.

Quickly, everyone grabbed loose gear and stowed it as Luther turned the boat and approached the boiling caldron. Ware grabbed the rod and started cranking furiously as others stood to wave off another boat that was approaching the battle scene from below the rapids. No one wanted to loose this monster at this point, especially Lane Rich. As we plunged into the frothing morass, Ware continued to crank furiously trying to maintain a tight line. Just as we were mid-way through the rapids the stern pitched down and Ware took a wave that crested chest high as Luther fought for boat control.

 

With waves crashing over the bow, stern and windshield, and everyone scrambling to maintain footing, we made it through intact. Rich quickly sat back down in the fighting chair to resume the fray. Suddenly the rod shot upward and the line went slack. A cry of anguish swept over our boat, and that of the sightseeing cruise that had halted to watch. But just as suddenly, the line jerked tight again and the battle was rejoined. Ware speculated that the line had been wrapped around a boulder and came loose creating the slack.

 

Bob Ware prepares to unhook the day's biggest sturgeon.

For what seemed like an eternity, line was paid out and recovered in agonizingly slow pumps until an 8-foot 9-inch behemoth rose to the surface and begrudgingly surrendered. High-fives were exchanged all around as everyone realized that we had just experienced one of the most exciting fish battles on the planet.

 

The mighty sturgeon was revived and released to fight another day while everyone stood around with big grins on their faces. While none of the fish caught that day were anywhere near the true 11 to 12-foot monsters that lurk beneath the Snake's waters we had a day that will be remembered for the rest of our lives, or until we come back to try the Snake again.

 

You can book a sturgeon trip with Snake River Adventures for the very reasonable fee of $160, or sign up for a sightseeing cruise and avoid the sore arm that is sure to follow. For more information, check out their web site at www.snakeriveradventures.com or give them a call at 1-800-262-8874.