Being a fisheries biologist certainly can have its perks. We may not make the most money, but sometimes we get paid to do things that others would pay a lot of money to do. Jet boating Hells Canyon and fishing for sturgeon is one of those things.
Although it may look like we are just having fun when we're out doing this, this research actually helps us learn important things about this White Sturgeon population. Every year we spend time fishing Hells Canyon for sturgeon so that we can measure, tag, scan for previous tags, and evaluate the condition of sturgeon we catch. This work helps us better understand growth, movement, and mortality of these unique fish, and it helps highlight areas of concern where we may want to do more focused research in the future.
One of the common questions we get is, “just how big do these fish get?” To date, the biggest sturgeon we have sampled between Lower Granite Dam and Hells Canyon Dam was 10 feet 8 inches long and bottomed out a 500 lb scale. We (IDFG, Idaho Power, and Nez Perce Tribe) have been capturing (through rod and reel and set lines) and tagging sturgeon in Hells Canyon for over 30 years now. During this time we have handled over 4,000 fish, and fewer than 10 of those exceeded 10 ft. in length. In addition, Idaho’s current catch-and-release record sturgeon is a fish caught from Hells Canyon that was 119.5 inches long (a 1/2 inch short of 10 feet). So, to say the least, catching a 10 ft. sturgeon is rare.
A group of us were out sampling sturgeon this fall and what we experienced was so amazing that I just had to share it with you. Now remember, 10 foot sturgeon are rare in Hells Canyon, and in fact, we hadn’t caught one for over five years – that was until this amazing week. We were having difficulty hooking fish this particular day as the fish were biting very lightly, and if you didn’t get to the rod quickly, you missed your opportunity. So, we adjusted our strategy staying focused on our rods, and when the rod moved we did not wait to set the hook. This strategy paid back in dividends, as not too much later we hooked into a brute, and when it launched itself into the air we all gasped at its size. An hour and 15 minutes later, we boated this monster that measured 10 feet 1 inch long. Not only was this fish long, it was also fat. It taped 50 inches around its belly! We had never caught and tagged this fish before which was surprising seeing it has been around a long time.
After working up this fish, we boated downriver to catch up to the other sampling boat to meet up for lunch (we were late) and brag a little. When we found them, they were hooked up into a large sturgeon of their own. When we put a tape to it, it measured 10 feet 4 inches in length. The picture doesn’t do it justice as it was incredibly fat – 54 inches around! We didn’t have a scale with us, but this fish was probably pushing 500 pounds. It was also a fish that we had never caught and tagged before.
And it didn’t stop there. Over the rest of the week, we landed another 10 footer, twice! The second time we caught it, it was a half mile farther up river. This was the sixth and seventh time we have landed this particular sturgeon.
If you are wondering how old those fish are, it is largely dependent on whether they lived in Lower Granite Reservoir for part of their life or not. If they lived in the reservoir, they are likely around 70-80 years old (they grow faster there), whereas if they lived in the river their entire life, they would be more than 100 years old!
Here are some tips if you want to go after big sturgeon. First, if you want to catch big fish, use heavy line. We like to use 60 lb. mono for the main line with 80 lb. leaders. Although you can fish with heavy braid (150 lb. plus), I don’t like to use it as when it wraps around fish it can cut into them. Next, if you hook a big fish, it is important that you follow it closely with the boat. It is almost impossible to land a 10 footer from shore. You will often have to fight fish of this size for more than an hour, and if you don’t keep the boat above it to keep the line off the bottom, the wear on the line will eventually cause you to break it off. I also like to use big hooks. I prefer to use 12/0 circle hooks or “J” hooks 10/0 or larger. I have found that with smaller hooks you often don’t get a good bite into their lip which will make it more likely that it will eventually pull out. Finally, you need luck in your favor. I suspect we have lost many more 10 footers than we have landed.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Joe DuPont is the Idaho Fish & Game Clearwater Region fisheries manager.