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125 POUNDS OF CAVIAR by Fred Goetz — FROM THE STS VAULT (1967)

Bert Taylor, well-known Coos Bay anglers' guide, displays one of many lunker sturgeon hooked in South Umpqua near Gardiner.

 

In Devonian-period waters, perhaps 250 million years ago, there dwelt a gargantuan finster that still survives, a living creature of the neolithic age—­the sturgeon. 

Of this species, two prevail as fishermen's targets in the northwest—the white and green sturgeon. Of the two, the white sturgeon is, by far, most worthy of the angler's attention—in point of numbers and table fare. 

Besting the ravages of time through various ice ages and subterranean up­heavals that changed the earth's fea­tures, the sturgeon has held its own. Less than a half-century ago, it was comparatively common in several northwest sea-run rivers, but pollution, dams and unrestricted harvests have exacted their usual toll. The green sturgeon has already been eliminated in the Columbia above Bonneville, although liberal numbers once prevailed in the Snake. Still holding forth in the Snake are remnant schools of white sturgeon that dwell in the deep dark waters of dam-impoundment areas and in remote areas not ordinarily fished by the masses. 

Whether they continue to hold their own in the distant future seems doubt­ful, for biologists contend that in ad­dition to their deep-water refuges, they also require shallow, current-kissed waters where they can spawn. Such waters, unfortunately, do not exist when an entire dam-plagued river is converted to a reservoir. 

My first encounter with this giant among fish—not only is it the largest freshwater fish in the northwest, it is the largest in North America—was in the Columbia, off the rocky, Wash­ington-side bank of the river below Bonneville dam. I hooked and lost that day but the memory lingers on.

In consideration of the then existing law I could not have kept it, as it appeared to be considerably over the maximum length limit of 72 inches and it was not, as fish should be, hooked in the mouth, rather, inadvert­ently, in the body while bottom-bouncing a plum-sized spinner on the retrieve about 50 yards offshore. After "set­ting the hook," the sturgeon elected to head bank-ward, breaking the stream's surface near shore, body-twisting up­ward in a most unsturgeon-like fashion. The great bulk and power of the fish awed me. It panicked in sight of the bank and moving shadows; then it turned tail and moved progressively onward, gathering speed like a runaway freight, taking a full spool of 12-lb. test line with it. 

 

VETERAN STURGEON FISHERMAN, Pete Didtel of Portland, eases near-seven foot sturgeon on the rocky banks of the Columbia.

 

Veteran Portland sturgeon fisherman, Mort Clavey—while coaxing me from the sidelines—tabbed it a good eight ­footer. Upstream a dozen yards or so, another sturgeon-fishing vet, Pete Didtel, also of Portland, waved a con­solatory wave and minutes later was into a good fish himself. He landed it - and another - before pulling up his rod-holder that day. 

The next run-in with a sturgeon was experienced by Mrs. Goetz on the lower Umpqua in a tidewater-stretch of the river, less than a mile from Gardiner. Jean and I, in company with Bert Tay­lor of Coos Bay, were anchored in a wide sweep of the river known as the Big Bend, on a chilly overcast morn­ing in early March. Employing heavy gear—nine-foot salmon-trolling rods, large-capacity spin reels, topped off with 30-lb. test lines and smelt-baited wire mooching leaders—we fished the bottom. 

First "fish on" yell exploded from a drift boat about 150 yards abeam of us. It took Mrs. C. A. Martin of Elkton 20 minutes to land a 45-inch sturgeon, aided by Mr. Martin and gaff. 

 

Author and wife Jean pose beside large sturgeon she landed in South Umpqua first time out.

 

While in the process of taking a few pictures of Mrs. Martin's catch, another shout of ''fish on" knifed the air, this time by John Conser of Junc­tion City. He subsequently eased to the boat a 47-inch specimen. He told me he had lost one an hour previously, one well over the 72-inch maximum limit; he said it broke off at boatside with a line-snapping rifle sound. John recalled the tail of the fish and said that it measured ''two feet, broad­side." 

Looking forward of Conser's boat, I counted seven others in the area. The spot from which we pulled an­chor was about 175 yards off our prow. As Bert headed back, I wondered why we didn't drop anchor in the immedi­ate area, particularly in view of an­other "fish on" by a lone angler less than 20 feet off the stern of Conser's boat. Bert may have anticipated doubts for he began lauding the spot we had vacated, recalled that he had hauled three lunkers from there the previous week, largest of which was a 64-inch specimen, smallest a hair over 60 inches. "It's a good hole," he as­sured us, "bout 60 feet deep, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if a few big ones have moved in while we were away." 

It was approximately 9:15 a.m. when we approached our vacated spot in the "Big Bend." As I dropped anchor, Bert noted the tide had changed and suggested we add more weight to our setups. Rigging dropper lines with 10-ounce sinkers, we again lowered our smelt to the bottom. Less than a half hour later, Jean, perched in the bow, whispered, "I think there's some­thing on my line." Bert asked, "What's it feel like?" "It feels like it did before when I caught that big bull­head, only less of a pull; maybe it's one of those pesky crabs that you and Fred have been catching," she ribbed. "Well, reef back," yelled Bert, and Jean promptly complied. 

"Oh, oh, oh," Jean uttered in stac­cato, "help me, somebody, help me." She was being pulled forward as the rod's tip section jerked. "Oh, it's gone," she wailed, as the line went limp. "Maybe not," shouted Bert. "Raise your rod tip; take up the slack; check your drag: make sure it isn't too tight, Jean." 

 

This freshwater monster was taken on a set line in the Columbia at The Dalles -it weighed 900 pounds and was estimated to be 82 years old.

 

Swiftly Jean took up the slack, and gaining taut line, it was soon apparent that she was still fast to the fish. 

It was forty minutes after the hook­setting operation when the spent stur­geon was pumped surface-ward and eased boatside, much to the gratified but spent angler. It was an excep­tionally plump fish, grass-green of back with shimmering white under­sides, measuring 66 inches from nose to tail and 31 inches around the middle. Bert tied a heavy line to the bulwark, then lashed it 'round the sturgeon's shark-like tail and secured it boatside. It was then bled. 

Later, at Penny's Tackle Box, stur­geon-fishermen's headquarters in Coos Bay, it checked in at 95 pounds. Com­menting· on Jean's catch and sturgeon fishing in the Umpqua in general, Ron McDivitt, Oregon Game Commission biologist stationed thereabouts, said the fishery was in good shape although fishing pressure had increased considerably since the ban on sturgeon fishing in the lower Umpqua was lifted in 1961. "The sturgeon are in mar­velous condition, most of them plump and firm," he remarked. He commented that anglers are a bit disap­pointed when they must release the lunkers that measure a shade over 72 inches, but most of them do it will­ingly for they realize that the 'big ones' are the brood fish which are necessary to keep this outstanding sport-fishery healthy. In other words, they don't want to kill the goose that lays the "golden egg." 

 

C. A. Martin of Elkton displays a keeper from South Umpqua.

 

The best time of the year to fish the Columbia for sturgeon is in the spring. They usually reside in deep holes in popular areas from Bonne­ville downstream to Tounge Point near the river's mouth.

Probably the most popular of all sturgeon fishing areas in the north­west is that section of the Columbia just below the deadline at Bonneville Dam. Both banks of the river - on the Oregon and Washington side and likewise the banks of Bradford Island, immediately below the day - are fre­quented by avid anglers. Some 'boat fishing for sturgeon is done in waters bordering the channel below Bradford Island on the Oregon side of the river.

Other boat fishing areas include the Washington side of Lady Island off Sun­dial Beach; opposite the bluffs up­stream from Rooster Rock State Park; near the edge of the channel offshore from Horseshoe Falls and below Dod­son on both sides of the stream's chan:.. nel. Some good bank-fishing spots are found below the Rainerson Slough outlet, downstream from Rainier. Good catches are made periodically from the log-booms area above Goble and off the banks of the heavily fished County Line bar which is situated on the Washington side of the river, down­stream from Cathlamet.

Another lucrative boat fishing area at times is in the Willamette where it joins the Columbia and the Colum­bia itself, although in this vicinity, it must be noted, many small school fish are taken and, accordingly, must be released.

The waters off the ship channel at Columbia City oftenimes give up a few lunkers, as well as the river off Mar­tin's bluff across from Deer Island. Cozy up to any one of a dozen veteran sturgeon anglers who reside in the Goble area and they'll tell you where you can sink your hook into a lunker and, chances are, it won't be too far from their kitchen door.

 

George Moore and son Jim of Coos Bay haul sturgeon up bank; fish was eased from "Big Bend" below Gar­diner.

 

A noted Columbia River Sturgeon spot is the popular Bugby hole below Wauna. Many a finny brute has been caught here that measured over 72 inches and, accordingly, had to be re­leased. On the Washington side of the river, just downstream from Stella, you'll find an exceptionally good stur­geon hole, as well as off the Oregon side of the ship • channel, downstream from Jones Beach.

Way down river, good catches have been made at Jim Crow eddy and Three­Tree Point, which are located on the Washington side below Skamokawa; al­so the outlet of Grays Bay near Frank­fort and the deep eddy off Tongue Point.

In years past some large fish have come out of the Snake River. One monster was caught in fairly recent years by Marion Woodward of Boise, Idaho, before that state placed a 72- inch maximum size limit on the spe­cies. Fishing at night, it took him nearly three hours to ease a monster to bank that tipped the scales at 320 pounds. Some time before this Dr. Wilbert M. Chapman of the Washing­ton Bureau of Fisheries checked in a sturgeon that weighed 1,285 pounds, was toting 125 lbs. of caviar and was  hauled from a Hells Canyon stretch of the Snake. This, of course, was prior to 1943 when the states of Oregon and Washington, in joint legislative action, banned commercial fishing for sturgeon in that area. In 196.,, Idaho joined Oregon and Washington in es­tablishing a mmrmum (32 inches) and maximum (72 inches) length limit for sturgeon. 

It was in February of this year (1967) that 1 received a report of a 71-inch specimen taken from the Willamette by Dud Nelsen, off Jennings Lodge, practically in view of his front lawn. Quite a few keepers are caught the year around in the deep waters of the Willamette below Oregon City.

According to the Oregon Game Com­mission, a 976-pounder was taken on a set line from the Columbia near The Dalles. It was estimated by biologists to be around 80 years of age. 

Perhaps a good way to end a stur­geon story is to relate a tale that has long been accepted as part of north­west folklore by some, naked truth by others. The dubious hero of the tale is an Idaho farm lad who devised what has since been regarded as a mean and sordid method. 

He rigged a large shark hook with ripe cow meat, attached it to a tow rope and cast it into the swollen waters of the Snake River. He than tied the free end of the line to a flexing branch of a streamside sapling and went about his chores. 

Late that same day, he returned to the scene, excited to high pitch by the sight of the sturdy sapling, throbbing up and down. To his amazement, the whatever-it-was at the other end of the line was pulling the tree out of the ground. 

 

THIS GIANT STURGEON, weighing approximately 1,000 pounds, was caught in June, 1912 in a fish wheel above Bonneville Dam.

 

Quickly the lad eased his plow horse near the throbbing rope and managed to throw a half-hitch over the neck of the mare. This was but the begin­ning of a three-hour tug-of-war - fish on one end, man and his plow horse on the other. Suddenly the bank gave away and the farm lad scampered for his life. The horse, unfortunately, was quickly swallowed up by the swift and murky river. 

All the next day the farm lad boated the river, searching the bankside eddies and pools. At the end of the day he trudged home, the enigma un­solved. The next day, 20 miles down the river, a huge sturgeon was found washed up into a shallow bend. It was carted into town. It measured 15 feet from snout to tail and was said to tip the scales at 2,500 pounds. Lodged in the fish's tube-like mouth was the farmer lad's hook, still baited with cow meat. There was a frayed length of tow rope attached to the hook, but nothing at the other end. 

They never did find the horse.

 

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