Oregon anglers are blessed with opportunities to catch varieties of fish — salmon, trout and warm water species like bass and walleye.
But when it comes to size, degree of difficulty and eating quality, nothing beats sturgeon. And one place to look for them is in the Columbia River near Astoria.
We met our guide, Nick Fernandez, at the Warrenton Boat Ramp at 4:30 in the morning. We boated upstream, under the Astoria-Megler Bridge and into the sunrise. We passed lines of freighters waiting to unload in the Port of Portland.
We anchored in six feet of water and threw our baits into slightly deeper channels where we expected sturgeon to concentrate on the outgoing tide.
“We are fishing sand shrimp. Fishing bait on the bottom. Pyramid lead. 2-to 3-feet of leader to a 5 aught, 6 aught single barbless hook. We are just laying it down there,” said Fernandez, a guide with Lance Fisher Fishing.
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“You want your bait right on the bottom because those fish are just smelling along. They don’t have great sight. They just go by scent and smell. They suck it up in their little vacuum mouth.”
Sturgeon fishing is highly regulated to prevent overharvesting of the slow-growing fish that live longer than people.
The slot limit, in which it is legal to keep a sturgeon, is 44 to 50 inches during the few days each year harvest is permitted. All others under or over that size must be released.
“From the fork of their tail — they have a little “V” tail — from the fork to the nose. From 44- to 50-inches we can keep them,” Fernandez said.
Before you can measure a sturgeon to determine if it’s a keeper, you have to catch one. And that’s a big part of the fun and challenge of catching fish that first appeared in the fossil record during the Cretaceous Period more than 200 million years ago.
“Now we are going to get some lunkers,” said Gary Bracelin, our host on this trip.
Prior to today, Great Outdoors videographer Matt Pugerude caught one fish in his life, a six-inch yellow perch. Today, he’s hooked up to an oversize sturgeon that weighs as much as a side of beef.
“Walk up there. Follow the fish,” the guide told Pugerude. “Round and round we go.”
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The fish took Pugerude around the boat three times during a 15-minute battle before Fernandez was able to scoop it into the net.
“We are fishing shallow. They can’t go down. They just run out. They cartwheel and jump. They might burn off 250 feet of line in 40 seconds. Eventually they’ll give up,” Fernandez said.
“You’ve just got to play them out. It’s pretty awesome in the shallow water when you watch a 6-footer jump completely out of the water and do a cartwheel. They pull hard, especially down here in the saltwater. It seems like they’ve got a different gear here than they do upriver.”
Accurately measuring the sturgeon is critical because somebody’s going to check any sturgeon fish brought back to the boat ramp.
“They don’t mess around down here. They might give you and 1/8th of an inch but that’s about it. So, on 49.5- to 50-inches, I’ll measure them multiple times, take pictures, take videos. It’s not that big of a slot. If you are off by that much, gosh, throw ‘em back,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez described the lower Columbia River estuary as a world class fishery in June and July.
“You are going to go until you can’t catch fish anymore. Doubles. Triples. There’s a lot of fish around then. Start getting anchovies coming in from the ocean. All those ocean fish coming in and all those fish coming downriver so you have those fish down here to feed. It is a lot of fun.”
If you are lucky enough to catch a sturgeon between 44 and 50 inches, then comes the eating of what many consider a delicacy.
“Broil with some bouillabaisse sauce, they are just so good. Just a treat to eat,” Bracelin said.
The sturgeon retention season is in May and June. Thereafter it’s all catch and release.
Check the regulations before fishing for sturgeon at https://myodfw.com/articles/alert-new-look-regulation-updates