Lewis and Clark floated within a few hundred yards of this spot, where my breaths now come in shallow, anxious gulps. Their journal entries from the days they were here in late October of 1805 paint a dismal picture of the party’s life, just a few weeks before they’d ultimately arrive at the Pacific.
Since crossing the Rockies and floating down the Salmon, Clearwater, and Columbia rivers, the expedition had been plagued by rapids that crushed and sunk their dugout canoes on an almost daily basis. Gear was lost, and they were hungry—with little game in the arid high plains that roll out between the Cascades and the Rockies, the explorers filled their bellies with dogs they bought from local Indians.
They were both on the final leg of their journey and at their breaking point.
In my own small way, in the same ancient place, I am too. My biceps and shoulders feel as if the muscle is tearing from the bone, and my fingers have morphed into white, arthritic claws. Everything burns. The half-exhilarating, half-sickening scream of braided line zipping off through the guides has been the soundtrack to my morning since hooking a monstrous white sturgeon that engulfed a foot-long American shad at daybreak.
I hardly notice the words tumble past my teeth. “I’m scared,” the voice says.
Line pours off the spool in long, fluid runs, broken only by what feel like angry headshakes. I try to reel down and pump the rod, but the fish doesn’t budge—more line sheds from the reel as I rear back.
Then I rest. The fish rests. And for a few sweet moments, line stays on the spool.
A Precious Relic
When Cabela’s Chuck Smock talked me into joining him at a special fishing camp on the Columbia, the possibility of fighting a fish like this is what sealed the deal. The river is home to mega walleye, smallmouth, steelhead and salmon fisheries, but let’s face it, similar ones exist in scores of other places in North America—I’m a four-hour road trip from all of the above.
White sturgeon, Acipenser transmontanus, are a different story. Not only are they the largest freshwater fish on the continent, reaching lengths of up to 15 feet and sometimes tipping the scales at over 1,000 pounds, they’re increasingly rare. They and all sturgeon subspecies have been battered worldwide, thanks to a shotgun blast of human pressures—dams that block spawning migrations and change ecosystems, netting that kills indiscriminately, deteriorating water quality and poaching spurred by the caviar trade, to name just a few. And although the stretch of the Columbia River sandwiched between the Oregon and Washington shores is no exception, the river is a relative stronghold for the species—especially larger fish.
But white sturgeon aren’t just a survivor of mankind’s recent industrial past—they’re survivors in a much bigger evolutionary sense. They’ve outlasted the dinosaurs, beaten ice ages, and conquered droughts.
Amazingly, they’ve persisted through all of it while hardly changing over more than 200 million years. And I like that—something that stubbornly sticks to its guns when the world changes around it. How can you not?
That’s exactly what we’re fishing with Louis McMinds, a retired guide and pipefitter with over a half-century of experience battling giant Columbia River sturgeon. And although I don’t dare say it to his face, he reminds me a lot of the fish he chases.
He’s mostly gray, a little ornery and strong as hell. And at 65—he’s about the same age as the oversize fish he targets. I’m sure that if sturgeon could talk, they’d probably speak their mind. McMinds is good at that, too.
But he’s not just a character—and he is. His knowledge of the river and the patterns of his favorite species lets him home in on tiny swaths of water that go unnoticed in the vast river.
In our case, we’re fishing the upstream end of a long, funnel-shaped trough below the John Day Dam near the Oregon shore. The deep trench splits two large, shallow flats where he says oversize sturgeon feed during low-light hours. When the sun comes out, all those fish concentrate in this deep, swift bottleneck.
To intercept them, McMinds rigs a whole American shad and a smoking-size chunk of jack chinook belly meat on a 9/0 Tru Turn hook, tethered to a 2-foot leader of 300-pound mason twine. A 24- to 84-ounce cannon ball on a dropper anchors the bait to bottom 52 feet down, despite the current.
This isn’t about finesse. It’s tackle on a dirty, industrial scale, and it begged a question.
“Why do you fish sturgeon?” I’d asked him while he rigged the giant bait earlier in the day, instantly realizing the stupidity of the question.
“They’re big,” he grunted. “If I catch 10, I want to catch 11—I mean I just love catching the big, damn things.”
As he spoke—as he did everything, for that matter—he’s perpetually shadowed by Sage, a chocolate Lab with a graying muzzle and soft amber eyes that have seen more sturgeon in their 11 years than most anglers’ do in a lifetime. It’s hard to tell who loves fishing more. When McMinds’ jet boat comes off plane, Sage jumps onto the motor cowling and whimpers, ready to stand vigil over the rods. He’s not just excited—he knows a bite when he sees one.
“When I’m out here alone, I’ll sometimes take a little nap and let him watch the rod—Sage’ll let me know if there’s a fish,” he said.
Moments later, the dog proved his ability when his head swiveled to the port-side rod as the tip bounced. McMinds stood deliberately and pulled the rod from the holder under a steady pull that brought the tip closer to the water with each passing second.
The hookset was ugly and violent. He rested the rod’s forend in the crook of his elbow and pulled it to his chest, in the sort of awkward hug you’d give someone you don’t know particularly well, thumbing the reel with the other hand. When the rodtip loaded under the sustained pull of the fish, he twisted into a wad of gritted teeth and clenched muscle, grunting as he popped the rod back a half-dozen times—with so much force that his boots leave the boat deck.
“Someone take it,” he said in a way that makes it clear he was not asking.
The Battle Rages
It’s 20 minutes later, and McMinds is talking again, but his voice is now jagged and hot as he tries to break my stalemate.
“Dammit, now don’t just sit there—if you’re resting up, so is the fish, and if you let that happen, you’re not going to win in the end. We ain’t trout fishing,” he says, sounding more drill sergeant than guide. He’s right, but even if he wasn’t, he’s a hard guy to refuse. “This fish is bigger than you.”
Threatened out of my stupor, I begin to reclaim some line. Then a bit more. But, the strength has been so sapped from my hands that the rod begins rolling over, turning the saltwater-size baitcaster upside down into my lap. I’m already a mess, and this is the first fish of the day. First of the trip.
As a few anxious moments pass, the fish runs less, I reel more, and the spool thickens as the battle finally turns in my favor.
Then I see something unthinkable. Unreal. A flickering mass of green-gray light reflecting back off something so large as to be completely out of my frame of reference. It’s an optical illusion, I tell myself, but an instant later the mammoth sturgeon rises high enough to reveal every detail of its form.
I’ve seen plenty of sturgeon before in Midwestern rivers, so I thought I had an idea of what I was about to see—the armor plates (called scutes), the sandpaper skin, the protruding sucker mouth. But the scale of this fish is all wrong. The head’s as big as a microwave; the mouth could hold a cantaloupe.
It’s over 9 feet long.
Other—less tasteful—words leave my lips.
My grip has become so weak; my tendons so unresponsive, that I’m afraid the giant will at any moment rip the rod from my hand and catapult it into the chalky-green waters of the river.
“Don’t you turn loose of that rod—if that goes in, you’re going in with it,” McMinds barks through his pepper-gray moustache as he renews his pep talk. I catch him flash a discreet smile back at Chuck, but he’s only half-kidding. “That’s $600 worth of rod-and-reel you’ve got there.”
When the fish finally comes to boatside and he removes the 9/0 hook from its leathery mouth, my exhaustion and panic wane enough for the reality of it all to seep in: I’ll never forget this day.
Looking Back, And Ahead
In the next day and a half of fishing, we bring 10 more sturgeon to the boat ranging from a 7-foot, 150 pounder to a 10 ½-foot dinosaur with a 55-inch girth that McMinds estimates at 700 pounds.
A lot’s changed in the Columbia Gorge since Louis and Clark first passed through that lean October in 1805. A forest of new wind turbines sprout from the high-plains hills, and a steady torrent of trains thunder up and down railways flanking both sides of the river. The endless flow of traffic on Interstate 84 provides a roar of tires against asphalt that goes on day and night—a fact I know all too well after five nights in a tent on the Washington side. The river’s strangled by a network of dams, turning what were once wicked, boulder-strewn whitewater into deep, slow-moving lakes.
But as we stand and watch over the last sturgeon of the trip, a 7 ½ footer, it’s good to see that some things—like big, prehistoric fish in this ancient place—still survive.
|Video: White Sturgeon Stripping Line
||Video: Hookset on 8-ft White Sturgeon
||Video: 8-ft White Sturgeon Bubbles
|White Sturgeon Hookset
||White Sturgeon Underwater
||White Sturgeon Boatside
|Ryan's Success Fishing for Sturgeon on Columbia River
||Ryan and Keith With Huge White Sturgeon
||Releasing the Sturgeon Back into Oregon Waters