Virgil and Dallas and Chehalis River sturgeon
It is wild rhododendron time and that means it is time to bring out your long casting rods and plan a white sturgeon fishing outing.
Washington State has sturgeon prowling its entire coast line and they make forays into many bays and rivers, including those in the Puget Sound area. However, the home rivers for sturgeon runs are predominantly the Chehalis and Columbia. Sturgeon have also been spotted in Lake Washington, and I have seen a photo of a dead sturgeon taken next to the Issaquah boat launch docks in Lake Sammamish.
Almost all Washington waters are open for catch and release of sturgeon. To keep sturgeon caught in the lower Columbia River the fish length must be 41 inch minimum to 54 inches maximum, as measured from snout to the fork in the tail. In the Chehalis River the keeper slot is 38 to 54 inches.
Seasons to retain sturgeon vary on different reaches of the Columbia River system. The next season for the Ilwaco area on the lower Columbia River is May 12 through July 8. On the Chehalis River sturgeon may be kept during other open game fish or salmon seasons. The retention limit for all catch areas is one per day.
Sturgeon feed in fresh water usually seeking bait such as river-run smelt that have died off and are rolling along the bottom. They also eat crustaceans and are fond of lampreys and their larvae burrowed into river bottoms. It was most probably lamprey larvae I imitated while fishing with night crawlers in the Snake River during my early adult years.
After my discharge from the Army, my wife, daughter and I became a student family attending the University of Idaho. To enhance our impoverished larder dad suggested we fish for sturgeon below an Idaho Power dam on the Snake River near Hagerman. I gathered an amply supply of night crawlers for bait from our flooded lawn. The next evening dad and I loaded the car and set off to fish at night.
After parking across the river from the fishing site, we had to climb up a steel ladder and walk across the dam walkway with our gear. Below the dam the plan was to cast out about 60 yards to have the bait rest just below a sandbar where fish, maimed and killed after passing through the turbine blades, were sought by the scavenging sturgeon.
We settled down by a shore fire to play checkers awaiting the tinkle of small brass bells fastened to the tips of the rods. Dad's bell tinkled several times from squaw-fish bites, but mine remained unusually silent. To check whether I had bait I reeled in after a half hour and discovered that a large river clam had my bait and hook encapsulated inside its shell. To get revenge I shelled and hooked the clam body on the large hook with night crawlers dangling down. I cast the assemblage, resembling an octopus, back into the sandbar hole.
Shortly afterwards my bell rang noisily and I was onto a big sturgeon. After fighting it for 45 minutes while running up and down the bank, I turned the pole over to dad who did a 15 minute stint. I finally grabbed the fish by the tail and dragged it onto shore with both of us whooping it up, for it measured 7 feet, 1/2 inches long. Then, there were no size restrictions so we departed for the dam with me carrying the 132 pound fish across my shoulders.
The dam keeper took pity and allowed us to carry the fish through the dam interior, past the noisy hydro-electric generators to the other side of the river. There we attempted to load the fish onto or into the car.
Dad had just purchased a new Peugeot compact because he figured he could get better mileage on his job. It was so small and streamlined that there was no way we could tie the fish on the hood or top, nor even put in the trunk. We ended up stuffing the fish through a rear window into the tiny back seat with about 2 feet of shark-like tail sticking out.
The drive home was through the dark, sagebrush desert near Bliss Idaho and just after the bars at the truck stop had closed. Driving slowly because of the open window, we were passed by several cars and trucks. Every vehicle slowed down for the occupants to take a second look. On one occasion the driver slammed on his brakes, abruptly pulled over to the shoulder and turned out his lights; having just seen a huge shark being ferried across the desert in an alien vehicle. This was obviously to him an illusion induced by over imbibing.
It was late at night when we returned home. We tried to put the sturgeon in water in the bath tub. A usual procedure for us as they sometimes live hours after being caught; but it wouldn't fit. So we finally hung the fish in the Russian olive tree in the front yard with a blanket over it and the garden hose dripping water to keep it cool.
I was the first up the next morning and when I looked out the blanket had fallen away. As I was eating cereal I saw the neighbor's cat, who constantly checked our garbage for fish heads, come strutting up the driveway with his tail straight up and twitching at the end. As he approached the tree he sniffed, quickened his movements and looked intently all around. At the bottom of the tree he looked up and froze. Abruptly, he turned around and ran back down the driveway to the street where he looked back before turning the corner and running home. Too big to consider and probably a threat may have been the thought. I fell down on the floor in laughter and the family got up in alarm wondering whether I had a seizure.
Whether eaten or traded for beef with the married rancher-students, the sturgeon was paramount in our getting through school that year.
Because of this memory and the continued delight in eating this delicious fish, I look forward to casting my trussed up smelt into the Columbia River in mid May.