Did you know that Oregon is home to dinosaurs? It’s true and these dinosaurs reach 10, 11 or even 12 feet in length and weigh up to several hundred pounds.
Steve Williams says his "dinosaur" fishing doesn’t slow despite what the calendar shows.
He and fishing partner, Rick Hargrave, are hearty anglers who don’t mind winter’s bone chilling cold as long as there’s promise of a fishing hole all their own.
“I had some friends who invited me out,” said Williams as he guided his 22-foot boat down the river from popular Willamette River put-in, Cedaroak Boat Ramp, near West Linn.
“I got pretty excited about it after the first trip ten years ago because it offered a simple approach and it's right here in our backyard. Plus, you can catch a big fish and I like that opportunity.”
Despite winter morning air that hovered near freezing, I joined Williams and Hargrave to cast into the Willamette River and catch the dinosaur of Oregon’s fish species called “sturgeon.”
I’ve enjoyed sturgeon fishing action before, but usually in summer’s warm glow and nearly a hundred miles away in the Columbia River estuary near Astoria.
Williams said sturgeon fishing "caught on" for more anglers about 15 years ago.
“We had several down years for salmon and that really got people to look at sturgeon as a substitute. It’s the low-tech nature of it and ease of catching sturgeon throughout the year that makes them popular.”
Williams and Hargrave swear by “smelt” for bait (they stretch their investment by cutting each of the small fish in half) and then spear them each on a 5-0 barbless hook followed by a series of half hitches to secure each piece.
“I use heavy gear too,” added Williams. “After all, you can get into 7 or 8 foot long fish, so you want to be able to handle them.”
Each of the anglers employed four ounces of lead that slid up and down the line – just above the leader.
“Sturgeon can be fairly sensitive to feeling anything along the bottom, so he should be able to pick up the bait, move off and not feel that weight,” said Williams.
Here’s a tip: add a scent to your bait – Williams swears by garlic scent bait products for sturgeon, but be careful how much you use.
“You don’t want to do is spill it in your boat though,” he said with a chuckle. “Otherwise it’ll be with you for the whole season.”
Williams knows these fish first hand! Not just by fishing for them on his days off, but as the ODFW Fish Division’s Administrative Assistant.
He said that anyone is able to go eyeball to eyeball with Oregon’s dinosaur fish anytime at Bonneville Fish Hatchery in the Columbia River Gorge.
Hargrave is ODFW’S Public Information Director and said that the Oregon Wildlife Heritage Foundation partnered with the state to build an intriguing sturgeon exhibit at the hatchery.
In fact, an exhibit area sports an acre-sized pond that has massive plate glass windows positioned below water level so to allow visitors a way to peer into the sturgeon’s underwater world.
“It’s a place to see sturgeon in their environment, ask questions and gain new information about an amazing fish,” said Hargrave.
Back on the Willamette River – as wintertime boaters motored past our anchored position, I was reminded of a new marine tool that will enhance Oregon boater’s experiences in 2012.
The Oregon State Marine Board offers a new Interactive Boating Access Map that is downloadable and details over 1,000 Oregon boat launches, ramps and marinas.
Trey Carskadon is the former chairman of the OSMB and said that the new site and mobile app answers any question an Oregon mariner might have about boating in the state:
“Is there a fee associated with the launch site? What’s the launch construction: gravel, concrete, asphalt? Are there restroom facilities? Is there fuel nearby? Food supplies, picnic areas, campground? It’s a tremendous amount of information and you can get it anytime, anywhere. I don’t know of too many states that have this kind of tool available to boaters.”
Carskadon also pointed out another piece of advice that is critical in winter: should the worst happen and you end up in the frigid river, time is critical:
“Most water bodies are 41 degrees or lower at this time of year and that means you have about a minute and a half before hypothermia sets in,” said Carskadon. “You will cramp up and more than likely you will drown if you do not wear a PFD; a life jacket. That is the single most important message: year in and year out, decade after decade: wear your PFD, wear your life vest.”
Back on William’s boat, Hargrave’s rod tip bobbed slightly up and down and he quickly picked up the rod from its holder, reared back and set the hook.
He stuck the rod and reel in my chest, gave me no choice when he said, “It’s all yours!”
The fish felt heavy and pulled back hard against the stiff rod tip as I wondered aloud, “So, the secret on this is what, hold on for dear life?”
I suddenly felt helpless as the 80-pound test line quickly and easily sped out of the large reel.
“This is the fun part, Grant,” shouted Williams. “Try to smile!”
He was right – I needed to relax a bit. After all, it’s the part of the adventure that everyone is supposed to enjoy the most. There simply aren’t many places you can go in Oregon to catch fish that can reach gigantic proportions.
“That’s a big fish right there,” noted Hargrave.
That much was certain as the line played out from a sturgeon that seemed to have one thing on its mind – get back to the ocean – and fast!
I held my ground for twenty minutes as the fish scooted away from the boat several times on successive runs that reached forty, thirty and then twenty yards – each time I slowly worked the sturgeon back toward the boat.
Williams said, “Right here in the Willamette and Columbia River Basins are the largest populations of white sturgeon on the planet. Biologists figure that the population is about one million fish below Bonneville Dam.”
It was a huge fish too – easily four feet long – perhaps much longer – and reached fifty or sixty pounds.
No net would be used for this fish – Hargrave gently reached out and pulled in the mainline as the fish reached the surface.
The Willamette River is largely a catch and release sturgeon fishery (there is a short catch and keep Willamette River sturgeon fishery season each February) so there was no need to stress the fish further by hauling it aboard the boat.
“Good fish!” noted Williams. “ It’s remarkable to see and consider a species that’s been swimming across the planet for 200 million years. This fish is about 50 inches long and could be 20 years old.”
Williams pointed to the underside of the sturgeon’s head and the spaghetti-like “barbels" that extended from the underside of the fish’s snout. “These are the fish’s sense of smell here, as they swim along the bottom,” added Williams. “Glance down the fish’s side and check out the diamond-like patches. Those are called “scuts” and are made of cartilage. They are considered the sturgeon’s armor plating and a real indication of the fish’s prehistoric biology.”
And with that, Williams unhooked the big fish and we watched it slide back down into the river’s dark depths. Williams said that he preferred to leave the sturgeon in the water; there’s less damage to the fish that way and a bit of respect due an ancient species.
“They are a very long lived species, a very productive species and an amazing critter. The Willamette River provides a close to home opportunity for a catch and release sturgeon fishery that folks can enjoy anytime.”
Have questions about tactics and techniques for sturgeon, salmon or steelhead fishing? Try ODFW's Weekly Recreation Report for the latest fishing, hunting and wildlife viewing. Also - be sure to try Dave Johnson - the ASK OREGON Fishing Ambassador. You can reach him on Twitter or Facebook.