“Incredible,” Charles says over the misty white roar as we idle my 16-foot skiff below Willamette Falls at Oregon City, Oregon. Just south of Portland, 26 miles above its confluence with the Columbia River, the Willamette thunders over mossy basalt and crumbling concrete.
It’s America’s second largest waterfall and once the region’s center for hydropower and industry, but only one revived paper mill still turns. What remains are ghostly buildings and a rusty steampunk circus of pipes, steel beams and acid tanks. Also remaining are major runs of chinook and coho salmon, and the breeding grounds for thousands of lamprey, shad and white sturgeon. Twenty feet from our boat, the gray fuselage of a sturgeon — easily 5 feet long — rockets out of the water. “Amazing,” Charles says. “How do we do this?”
Charles Rangeley-Wilson is visiting from Norfolk, England. He’s a renowned fly angler and author, and all week we’ve been drifting streams chasing trout and a few unwilling salmon. But today things get heavy. Downriver a half-mile, we find a 100-foot trench and drop a 30-pound rocker anchor, cleating the line and securing it to a big red buoy. We also run the trolling engine in reverse to get a steady, straight hold. “You don’t want your baits swinging around for sturgeon,” I explain to Charles.
“Really?” he questions, as another leviathan arches its armor-studded back out of the water. “They seem quite frisky for bottom feeders.”
A bit too excited for our own good, we rig up with 80-pound braid, 6-ounce sinkers and 6/0 barbless hooks. Charles loves casting dry flies to rising trout on chalk streams, but today he drives the big hook through a bloody pound of cut shad and plumbs the murky wash.
With the baits resting on the bottom and the rods in their holders, we wait and talk. It’s a mild, early-October day. Steller sea lions bark from the docks, and trucks rumble over the Highway 43 bridge. Charles has fished all over the world for dozens of species, but he’s never pursued sturgeon. “They’re quite rare in Britain these days,” he laments.
Battling River Dinosaurs
The Atlantic sturgeon, once listed as a royal fish in the United Kingdom, was commercially harvested to the brink of extinction during the caviar craze of the 1800s. Decadent desire for this salted roe damaged sturgeon populations around the world. By 1900, American stocks of Atlantic sturgeon, Midwest lake sturgeon and Pacific coast white sturgeon had also crashed. A few isolated populations, such as the white sturgeon of the Northwest, survived. When commercial fishing fell off, sturgeon made a comeback.
A rod-tip flutters. “Easy,” I advise Charles. Sturgeon feel and taste the bait with their barbels and extendable mouths before sucking it in. I’ve scared off fish with my eagerness.
“Why don’t we hold the rods?” he asks.
“You can,” I say. “But I find I catch more when I just leave them alone.”
Charles does everything right, but the fish is gone. A moment later the other rod twitches. Despite their size and power, sturgeon bites can be subtle. Charles lifts the rod gently, reels in a bit of slack and sets the hook into a solid, throbbing plunge. The fish makes several deep runs, slowly comes up, then dives again. After a few minutes, its dusky, sharkish form appears in the green water.
Like sharks, sturgeon haven’t changed much from those ancestors appearing in fossil records about 175 million years ago. This little dinosaur is 4 feet long and weighs about 35 pounds, the perfect size to harvest, but most of the recreational sturgeon fishing on the Columbia and Willamette rivers is catch-and-release. With a gloved hand, I grab the tail wrist (peduncle), avoiding the sharp scutes — bony plates running in bright rows down its sleek body — and lift the fish into the light. Charles pats its sandpapery skin, then slips the hook from the rubbery white ring of its toothless mouth.
In the next hour, we catch another three fish, from 20 to 60 pounds. A much bigger fish we hook makes an electrifying run, tailwalks like a marlin and gets away. The action slows for an hour until we switch to shrimp baits and immediately land a couple more. Another fisherman motors up as we release a 4-footer.
“Sure wish we could keep one,” he says. “They’re delicious.” I nod in agreement.
I’ve harvested sturgeon during legal seasons in the past, and their dense flesh is perfect for grilling and smoking. White sturgeon recovered in the 20th century, despite industrial pollution and the construction of dams, which interrupt their anadromous migrations to salt water, but new threats intensified in the 1990s with the collapse of the Caspian Sea sturgeon stocks. A tremendous demand for caviar, especially in Russia, created poaching and smuggling rings from California to Alaska. Sturgeon steaks are valuable, about $22 a pound, but caviar can retail for up to $250 an ounce, and a large female sturgeon may carry a hundred pounds of black roe.
I like caviar — a popping, sweet, briny sensation that melts into creamy waves. It’s perfect with chilled vodka. These days, however, sturgeon caviar is best procured from farmed fish. White sturgeon grow slowly in the wild, becoming sexually mature at 17 to 25 years, so killing brood stock is deadly to the population. In the last 15 years, law enforcement officers conducting night patrols and undercover sting operations in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and California busted several poaching and black-market operations. With poaching, dams, climate change and the sharp rise in sea lion populations, sturgeon again are in danger.
“Do you think catch-and-release is OK?” I ask Charles as he opens a can of beer.
“What do you mean?” he asks, cocking his head. “If we want to have fish — fish in the ecosystem, fish to catch. Whether it’s morally defensible or not is another matter.”
“That’s right,” I say, still wondering about the pleasure we take in hooking, playing and releasing fish. It’s certainly not play for the fish. Then again, most anglers are the greatest advocates for the protection of these creatures and their environments. The engagement brings us closer to these animals and their living waters. I care about sturgeon, in part, because I’ve had such intense experiences with them.
A rod bounces, then goes still.
Peter Stevens, the leading sturgeon researcher for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, explains that the “impact of catching and releasing sturgeon is minimal if the fish are brought in quickly with the proper gear and carefully released.” However, Stevens continues, “the stress of a long fight could cause a gravid female to reabsorb her eggs.” Mature sturgeon spawn every three to five years, so that could be a serious loss to the generation.
Stevens believes that “spawning sanctuaries are critically important.” Thanks to sturgeon advocates, areas like the five miles below Willamette Falls are closed during the spring and summer spawning season. Fall and winter are good times to fish for sturgeon.
This Is a Big Fish
Charles steps to the bow to take a leak. I watch the stern. “Hey, your rod,” I sound off.
“Yeah, what about it?” he laughs.
“Seriously, man. You’re getting bit.”
I ease the butt from the holder and feel a quivering pull. When I set the hook and crank, the rod bends to the water, and line peels off the reel. “Charles, Charles, this is what we’ve been waiting for. This is a big fish.”
My friend zips up, leaps to the stern and takes the rod. I race to the bow, untie the anchor line, and toss the tethered buoy overboard. The fish tows us downriver.
Perhaps lacking the glamour of the tuna, marlin or mako, the white sturgeon is still a heavyweight contender. The largest freshwater fish in North America, white sturgeon up to 1,500 pounds have been taken in Northwest water, according to historical records. In 2012, an English angler on the Fraser River in British Columbia sweated out a 90-minute fight with a white sturgeon measuring 12 feet, 4 inches and estimated to weigh 1,100 pounds. It pleases me to think of these monsters hoovering the trashy bottoms of urban rivers, tearing up gill nets, stripping tackle from fishermen, leaping above beautiful wild rivers and surviving. They are big, strong fish, and this one is pulling us toward Portland.
From time to time, I use the engine to lead the fish away from docks, rocks and other anglers. A couple of kayakers stop and watch. Girls wave from the bridge, and a grizzled man on a rusty barge gives us the thumbs up. When the fish seems glued to the bottom, Charles pauses for a sip of beer. “If you’re resting,” the bargeman yells, “that fish is resting.” Charles lifts hard and reels down, and the sturgeon makes another furious run.
After 40 minutes, the fish is tiring. Charles steadily gains on him, and we watch for color. What we see is a huge tangle. “What the hell?”
“There’s no way that’s going through the guides,” my friend says, shaking his head.
Our hearts sink, staring at this mangled mop of line and gear, the fish still deep below. I start picking at the line, but it’s hopelessly snarled with other hooks, leaders and swivels. Then I recognize our own terminal tackle and a different, lighter line running down to the fish. This sturgeon had broken someone’s line — maybe several — and snagged our set.
“We’ll do bypass surgery,” Charles says.
“You think so, doc?” I feel the weight of the fish, but no fight. Could I hold the line for a few moments while we cut and retie? With the patient momentarily sedated, I put one wrap of line around my palm — no more, should it suddenly awake — and Charles scissors through the braid. Rather than attempt a blood knot on lines of different diameters, Charles executes the newly named double sturgeon’s knot, reties the line cut from the rod to its loop, and slowly reels in. Both of us silently watch the knots bump through the guides and onto the reel. We smile.
The Giant Awakes
When you’re resting, that fish is resting. I remember the bargeman’s adage as the revived sturgeon torpedoes under the bridge — knots and line zinging back out the guides. The fish slowly turns, and after another 15 minutes, he’s holding directly under the boat. Bubbles rise as if there were a diver below, and I worry that a sea lion may have joined the party. But the fish is slowly surrendering.
First we see its gray submarine form and bright row of scutes. Then the exhausted creature rolls its pale belly toward us, its enormous pectoral fins arresting our stares. Beholding this spent creature makes me think again about catch-and-release fishing, but when we see more line wrapped around its mouth and head, we’re relieved to perform a rescue. “What a fish,” a kayaker says, paddling up and offering to take some photos.
This white sturgeon is more than 8 feet long, with a girth of 50 inches. Estimated weight: 300 pounds. Age: 50. I look into its tiny eyes, wondering what it sees and feels as we cut away the tangled mess, slip the hook from its mouth, and revive the fish beside the boat. When it swims away, I admit, “Well, he wasn’t our fish anyway.”
“They never are,” Charles says, collapsing on the seat, tired and happy.