Species: White Sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus)
Location: Columbia River, Cascade Locks, OR
Date: February 22, 2015
If Hell froze over, it would still be warmer than the Columbia River is mid-winter during high winds. The type of bone-chilling cold that the Gorge can experience is excruciating for those dressed in anything less warm than a recently disemboweled TaunTaun.
Unfortunately, this Luke had forgotten his lightsaber and was left shivering in the frigid canyonland, praying desperately for a hit.
I was there targeting sturgeon, something I’d always wanted to do in the Gorge, and hoped to bring home a fish in the narrow January – March keeper season on that stretch of the river.
At the time, it was a slot limit fishery that rarely exceeded quotas before the season expired, and the slot was 40-50″ fork length, so you could theoretically walk away with a decent fish.
That is, if your frozen corpse didn’t topple overboard when winds changed from 30 to 40 miles per hour and the whitecaps started clipping your boat with extra fervor.
I was fishing with Northwest Sturgeon Adventures, and they were a solid outfit. They seemed to know what they were doing, and in lieu of the miserable cold, the boat had a zippered cover with a space heater inside. It wasn’t enough, but it was a nice touch that kept me from shivering away all of the calories I’d eaten that week.
The wind made bite monitoring very difficult, so the guy who drew the straw for the first bite failed a dozen or so times before finally giving up, retreating back to the warmth of the pseudo-tent and the welcomed heat of burning propane.
I was fourth in line out of four, but second and third were so cold, they deferred to me.
Living up to my namesake, I rebelled against my better judgement and accepted their invitation.
I was the only one brave (or dumb) enough to stand in the cold and wait for a bite.
It paid off.
At least, it would have if I had been able the difference between a subtle bite and wave action with hands numb to virtually all sensation.
I closed my eyes, braced my stomach against the rod holder and tried to “feel” the Force of the bite.
Following the instruction of the guides, I let three bites go undetected and didn’t even grab the rod out of the holder. On the fourth, I grabbed the rod, set the hook, and just missed.
Moments later, it was back, and this hookset connected.
The gear was very heavy, and the fish wasn’t huge, but I was ecstatic when the armor-plated monster broke the surface tension with its shark-like tail.
It was at least three feet long, and I was excited to see if it would a keeper or not.
We put the fish in a large net and took a tare weight so as not to stress the fish. The scale registered it around 15 pounds, and it taped to 40 inches.
I was stoked! It was a keeper!
Then the “fork length” nonsense came to mind, and I realized it was a few inches shy at the fork of the 40-inch slot length minimum.
Refusing to give in to the Dark Side, I prepared to let it go.
Dejected, I vowed to at least grab a picture. Expecting that it would be worth holding like a trout or the larger, more weathered sturgeon I’d caught at Willamette Falls, I grabbed it at the base of the tail and supported its weight with my other hand.
My hands were numb, so I didn’t realize the young dinosaur’s plates were slicing open my hand as I held it. After the photos and release, I realized my hand was soaked with blood.
In seconds, I’d learned to never hold young sturgeon that way again because their plates, called scutes, start out very sharp and only dull over time.
Since I wasn’t able to try a sturgeon I’d captured myself, I opted to go to a seafood restaurant in Portland that served sturgeon. The one I found, Jake’s Seafood, was okay. It wasn’t phenomenal, and I felt it was certainly overrated, but the sturgeon was pretty good even if the rest of the experience wasn’t top-notch. It reminded me of a drier, stringier halibut but was still delicious.
I’ve yet to catch a keeper since fishing a primarily catch-and-release fishery in the Willamette and mid-Columbia that is productive because of the “let ’em go to let ’em grow” policy enforced there.
Sturgeon have become one of my favorite targets, and nothing fights like a massive sturgeon — at least not in this galaxy.