hells canyon sturgeon fishing
I need to apologize immediately. Clearly my headline is a shameful (classic) example of bait and switch, or more appropriately switch to bait. Of course I didn’t fish for sturgeon using a dry fly, or even a fly rod for that matter. But I am a fly angler, and I did go sturgeon fishing a few years ago. In fact, I had a brush with angling greatness and even earned the temporary rank of Sturgeon General for a day. It involved a good amount of beginner’s luck, but I earned my stars.
My friend “Monty” was the orchestrator of the trip. Monty is a real sturgeon fisherman and for good reason. I don’t believe sturgeon fisherman so much love the sport of fishing as much as they love the physical challenge of hooking, landing and otherwise imposing their will over gigantic fish. They are, quite simply, prehistoric behemoths. So are the sturgeon. The mindset of a sturgeon fisherman is completely different than that of say, a gentleman dry fly angler pursuing lovely trout on an English chalk stream. Put on your camo baseball hat, wife beater and overalls, drop in a plug of Redman and you may begin to understand the world from the perspective of a sturgeon fisherman.
Our driving destination was Heller Bar, along the banks of the Snake River at the confluence with the Grande Ronde. The entrance to Hells Canyon is at the point where Washington, Oregon and Idaho all come within spitting distance of each other. It’s about a 6 hour drive in a car across the state of Washington from where I live. Add an RV and severe side winds to the equation and the drive takes a lot longer.
Once we arrived at Heller Bar we set up camp, explored the contents of our coolers, grilled some flesh and spent the night in the beauty of the gravel parking lot. There were four of us along for the trip, but I’m going to protect their innocence of the others and not mention them. Pretend they weren’t even there. We awoke early the next morning and Monty cooked a hearty breakfast high in the calories needed to sustain ourselves for a day of fighting big fish: Bacon, ham, sausage, eggs, hash browns and human growth hormone. We were hopeful that we’d burn off the calories anyway. Just because the intended quarry is a fish weighing a couple hundred pounds or more does not guarantee that you’ll catch one weighing even a fraction of that amount. It is fishing after all – and there is never any guarantee of catching.
We met our guide, Gabe Cassell of Snake Dancer Excursions, at the boat ramp where we loaded up our gear and shoved off. The weather was brisk but the blue sky held the promise of a warm day. Captain Gabe throttled up the V-8 engine of “Redbeard”, pointed the bow of the 24 foot jet-powered craft into the current and launched us into Hells Canyon. Once in the canyon it becomes clear as to the origins of its name: Hells Canyon is North America’s deepest gorge, and if one were inclined to hike to the top of the 8000 foot canyon rim it would be like trying to climb out of the depths of hell. The scenery alone is worth the trip and one needn’t be in pursuit of sturgeon to justify a trip into this beautiful country. We saw plenty of Bighorn sheep and deer. Eagles, chukar and turkey are common sights as well. The Snake river is home to trout and smallmouth bass and at times of the year when one would expect to find steelhead, one will find just that. But this was April, and we were in search of sturgeon.
Even with a particular destination in mind, Gabe didn’t want to pass up potentially good water so we stopped at a few likely spots on our way upriver. Sturgeon are bottom feeders, so a deep hole with a swirling current that gathers food is a likely place to find one of these fish. It should be noted that because of the dams along the Snake River, these fish are landlocked and therefore it’s all catch and release fishing. Sturgeon grow slow in comparison to other fish, and it’s estimated that a six foot white sturgeon will be 25 years old. Fishing was immediately productive, and everyone on the boat caught a fish during the morning hours. Monty was first to set the massive barbless hook on a sturgeon, and when he fastened his weight lifting belt around his waist I realized what it is that draws him to sturgeon fishing. He spends a lot of time in the gym and the results of that are arms bigger than my thighs, and a back and shoulders that are too wide to fit down most conventional hallways. Suffice it to say he likes pitting himself against heavy objects, be it a barbell or a fish. I’ve hunted elk with him before, and he actually looks forward to packing out the meat.
Not surprisingly Monty was right at home on the south end of the fishing pole (sturgeon fishermen do not use the term “rod”), with a 6-1/2 foot sturgeon on the other end. My first fish was a modest 6 footer, which I believe Monty described as a “cute little fish”. What the –? The last time I caught a 6 foot fish (which was never), I would not have described it as cute, or little. Monty’s expression seemed to say, “Jest you wait, cuzzin.” The 6 footer was a good workout for someone my size (I’m a buck forty soaking wet with a pocketful of change), and after going back and forth with the fish for 15 minutes my arms and back definitely gave me some feedback to let me know they weren’t accustomed to this type of fishing.
As the day wore on and the sun warmed things to a comfortable 75 degrees, we arrived at what was apparently our destination. Gabe’s confident expression suggested that the particularly wide, particularly deep-looking pool with the telltale swirling current would be the perfect place to toss out a baited hook and prospect for something large. The bow of the boat was beached and a couple lines were cast from the stern. We waited as the bait settled into the depths of the swirling current. Somewhere around these parts lurked a trophy-sized fish known as “Old Rip Lip”. Gabe and his first mate were overheard mentioning that someone had recently hooked this particular old-timer near this locale. I paid little mind as the end of one of the rods poles did a little dance. Seeing this, Monty moved toward the quivering rod pole and gently lifted it from the rod pole holder, careful not to jerk the rod pole. Doing so would have spooked the fish on the other end, which at this point was just mouthing the bait that disguised the hook. Cradling the rod pole gentling in his hands, Monty bent his knees into a crouch, did some rapid breathing and then stood up abruptly as if he were squatting 500 lbs. He let out a primal yell as he lifted the rod pole skyward to set the hook with authority into the thick, tough lip of a fish. Satisfied that his work was done, Monty looked at me and said, “You’re up.” Apparently it was my turn in the rotation, so I assumed the position.
The difference between this fish and the cute little six footer I’d landed earlier became immediately apparent: this fish was much heavier and imposed its will upon me rather than vice versa. Once hooked, it ran effortlessly as if I wasn’t even there (and soon thereafter I would wish I wasn’t). Everyone on board became immediately excited, and Gabe indicated that we had to get the boat off the beach to follow this fish if I was going to stand any chance of landing it. I took that as a distinct lack of faith in my ability to get the job done. As the boat lurched into reverse and off the beach I secured my footing and held the rod pole tightly. Following the fish allowed me to gain some line and I began to naively think that it was going to be fairly easy. When I had gained a few yards of line, the fish simply ran downstream, reclaiming it all and then some. It was still early in the game, but after 10 minutes my arms and shoulders began to tremble. This quickly gave way to a series of total body spasms. As I attempted to apply some resistance to the running fish my forearms screamed and every vein in my arms, neck and head swelled with pumping blood. I became distracted by the thought that if I were to brush up against a sharp object and spring a leak I would surely bleed out in scant seconds. Behind me I could hear laughter and the sound of cold beers being opened. I was not amused.
Intermission Seventh Inning Stretch
While I was writing this entry Mrs. UA burst into my office and glanced at the screen of my computer. Her words were: “Is that your blog? Oh my God – too long. Nobody is going to read that!” Nice to have her support. At any rate when I told her that I decided to have an intermission she suggested instead that I honor the World Series (currently taking place). Damnit, I hate it when she’s right (again). If you return with your peanuts and Cracker Jack, we’ll resume…
This game of give and take continued for what seemed like eternity. With each pump of the rod pole I hoped to slowly break the will of the big fish. It was using its size and the flow of the river to its full advantage, whereas all I had was my stubborn nature and hopefully the ability to lapse into a state of no-mindedness where primitive survival instincts would shroud out conscious thought and allow me to overcome physical pain and mental fatigue. Not so. I was in pain and issued forth a series of involuntary whimpers. Honest concern for my well being caused Monty to rush to my side: the taunting ceased and turned instead to positive encouragement. “You’re doing great…lift and breath, slowly lower the pole and reel in line…Get that tip up! You’re doing great – BREATH!” Apparently he had taken on the role of birth coach. The sun seemed much hotter now than it had earlier. “Shut up already and pour some damn water over my head!” I screamed. “This is all YOUR FAULT!!!” This level of pain trumped that of childbirth, I am sure.
Finally the fish was within about 50 feet of the boat when it surfaced and showed itself. “Damn, son – that’s a big fish!” I think were the words to describe my combatant. The fish obviously got a good look at me and decided I wasn’t such a big deal. It rolled, turned and dived again, peeling line from the reel. I may have started weeping at this point, but it was hard to discern tears from sweat rolling down my face. After a total of about 45 minutes (or eternity) the fish decided to quit playing with me and allowed me to bring it alongside the boat. Gabe quickly removed the hook from its mouth and declared, “Yep, it’s Old Rip Lip!” A large circular hole in the lower lip, long-healed over from a previous injury, was the identifying mark that set this fish apart from others in the river. She was a solid 8 feet long, and the increase in girth over a fish the size of what we’d caught earlier in the day was remarkable: I couldn’t have wrapped my arms around her even if I’d wanted to. I’m no expert sturgeon weight estimator, but I was told she probably weighed close to 400 lbs. All I know is she pushed me to a point where I’d never been before, and standing there in the boat after she swam off, my body shook from adrenalin and complete fatigue. One thing is for sure – I felt like I’d been to hell and back, and honestly I think I’d rather visit a chalk stream in England before going sturgeon fishing again.
It should be noted that time heals all wounds, and I went back to Hell’s Canyon a couple years later. I tried, but didn’t catch a sturgeon the second time around. What we did catch were scores of 10 and 12 inch smallmouth bass, though. They were a little more my size.