The Intrepid Angler on Tour
The Hells Canyon Sturgeon Enlightenment
For the better part of my life, the mere mention of sturgeon would evoke memories of my fatherís tales of behemoth monster shadows under his rowboat on a Wisconsin lake or the newspaper articles that have appeared in the Baltimore Sun every few years since I was a child detailing how some unknowing fisherman in the Chesapeake Bay landed one of the prehistoric beasts. So when the proposal to travel across the country to spend four days devoted to sturgeon fishing was pitched to me, I dismissed it without even thinking about a second thought. I told my brother, who had conjured up the borderline moronic idea, that I was better off hunting elk in my suburban Maryland backyard. Iíd have a better chance of actually getting something, or so I thought.
Lucky for me, my brother (the oldest) was not to be deterred in his quest.
He had lived a few hours from Hells Canyon for almost 30 years, and stories of five- and six-foot white sturgeon of the Snake River had taken hold of his imagination. With a complete lack of subtlety, he lobbied for the trip at every opportunity, bombarding me with emails, instant messages and phone calls. Finally, his begging and pleading wore me down. I accepted my fate of spending four days in a desert canyon staring at the water. I assumed it would be a mission of mercy. The long nights in the woods of northern Idaho had finally gotten to him, I thought; a little human interaction and brotherly bonding might just do him some good.
The white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) is the largest and longest living freshwater fish species in North America, reaching up to 18 feet in length and having a typical life span of over 100 years. Once abundant in the Columbia River basin of the Northwest, degradation of their natural habitat has greatly reduced their numbers in most areas. Dams are usually listed as the main culprit (although no one can confidently speculate on the exact cause of decline), because the slow-moving bottom dwellers cannot use fish ladders designed for their more common and acrobatic neighbors, the salmon. Somehow, the population in the Hells Canyon portion of the Snake River remains strong and apparently viable.
By the time we departed for our adventure, two other unwitting fools had boosted the number in our group to four. Another brother (from Florida) and one of my Idaho brotherís neighbors had been suckered in by the unrelenting tales of monster fish. We spent the better part of the morning rounding up supplies; food, last minute camping gear, beer, and every piece of heavy-duty fishing gear we could round up. Six hours and twenty-three stops after our early departure, we finally arrived at Pittsburgh Landing on the northern end of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.
I had brought my nine-foot medium heavy fast action Tica surf casting rod and Okuma Epixor EFS50 reel, which I had strung with 50 pound braided line at Camp, Cabin and Home in downtown Lewiston, Idaho. The other member of the party used the heaviest spinning gear they had, and it was a good thing. We went upriver early the next morning with an energetic guide from Kilgore Adventures who immediately began spinning the requisite tales of large fish and tight lines. Always the skeptic, I took every word he said with a grain of salt.
After an hour of running upriver in a 29-foot solid aluminum jet boat, we anchored in the eddy below a class II rapid and each heaved a line into the deep murky pool. That was when the fun started.
Not more than 20 minutes after we had our lines in the water, my brotherís rod doubled over violently as the first of many giant sturgeon took his bait and headed downstream. Never in my life have I seen a fish fight with such vehemence within 15 feet of land. Nearly half an hour later, a six-foot sturgeon was next to the boat, nearly as tired as my brother, who almost collapsed after the fish was safely released. Over the course of the next three days, 15 sturgeon were landed by the four of us, with the largest around seven feet long.
The best part of the trip was that we had arranged to be dropped off on a wide sandbar just below Sheep Creek for two nights of camping. At night we would catch sturgeon from camp, in the 200-foot wide pool below Sheep Creek Rapids. During the day, a short hike to a deep cliff-faced pool downstream produced beautiful fish.
I, of course, couldnít manage to land a fish over 24 inches long. But small sturgeon are good news. They mean that a viable reproducing population exists, which is crucial if the fishery is to remain for others to enjoy in the future. With so much emphasis placed on salmon fisheries in the West, it is refreshing to be able to enjoy firsthand the bounty of one of the more or less unknown sport fishing opportunities available.
By the time one of the Kilgore Adventures tour boats came to carry us downstream, I had grown accustomed to canyon life punctuated at regular intervals by the semi-hysteria of a giant fish being hooked. My bedraggled fishing mates and I entertained the tour passengers with tales of large fish and adventures (like trying to use a three-person water balloon launcher to propel our rigging into the middle of the river), and reveled in the glory of a productive adventure of epic proportion.
Targeted Species: White Sturgeon
Location: Snake River, in Hells Canyon between Idaho and Oregon
When: Late spring is best, to beat the heat and heavy boat traffic
The Intrepid Angler Recommends:
Bring a stout rod, heavy duty braided line (youíll need to have at least 300 yards on your spool to land one of these babies), six or eight ounce weights, and plenty of hooks.
Ask around for bait recommendations. I canít say what we used as I was sworn to secrecy. For good advice and all the gear youíll need try Camp, Cabin & Home in Lewiston, Idaho http://www.campcabinhome.com/index.html
Check out Kilgore Adventures http://www.killgoreadventures.com as an outfitter. They know how to catch fish and will work with you to tailor the experience to your liking.
Bring sunscreen and a wide range of clothing (especially if you are camping), and expect to get wet on the boat going through rapids.
If you fish from shore, watch out for rattlesnakes, they are almost as plentiful as the sturgeon.
Bring plenty of water and/or a purifier. The arid climate will dry you out like a raisin.
On the Idaho side of the canyon, fishing is strictly catch and release. In Oregon, there is a one fish per day limit, although I canít imagine why any true sport fisherman would want to keep one.
Bring a high quality waterproof camera or no one will believe you caught a huge prehistoric beast that looks like a deep sea dweller in a desert canyon.
The Intrepid Angler Archives
The Intrepid Angler on Tour - The Hells Canyon Sturgeon Enlightenment
The Pursuit of the Poor Manís Tarpon
Flat Fish on the Fly
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