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Carmen Macdonald

A passion for fishing and hunting grew into a career that's included Alaskan guide, media sales, writer and the politics of outdoor recreation. My company, Vaunt Marketing, represents industry-leading brands in the US and Canadian markets.

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June 05, 2012

Willamette Sturgeon- Go Big or Go Home

by Carmen Macdonald


If you have yet to notice, there's a ton of over-sized sturgeon in the Willamette River right now.

Over the last few years, it seems like their numbers have been growing. From what I understand, the biologists are a bit mystified also. Food source is the leading theory. The hypothesis is that the fish are simply following the food, in this case shad. Just as with salmon and steelhead though, you cannot over look temperature and flow as motivational features, capable of causing change in fish behavior. And lastly, maybe inside their tiny little brains, they're simply tired of being eaten by an escalating number of sea lions.

Nevertheless, if you can hit a deep spot in the Willamette River between the falls and Lake Oswego, perhaps further down too, you're almost certain to hookup with a river monster.

That's not to say that you should.

A group of us put in at Cedaroak on Sunday for a last ditch springer effort (trip was a bust, 63-degree water temp, La Boheme echoed through the area). There were a number of boats fishing sturgeon, many of which seemed well under-gunned for the fishery, evidenced by the fact that they were fighting these fish for around an hour.

In the slow current of the WIllamette and with the proper gear, these fish can be bested pretty quickly, as they should be. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing at all against targeting these fish. It can be a ton of fun to watch someone else manhandle one of these big Bertas. But at the same time, you have to have the gear to ensure you can win the battle as quickly as possible. In speaking with guides on the Columbia prior to that fishery being shut down, their target number was 15 minutes, in a lot more powerful river.

The big fish in the Willamette right now are all the big spawners. Not every one of them is there to spawn this year, but they are all spawners nonetheless. They hold the keys to the future of a population that seems to be suffering from poor recruitment.

These fish cannot be legally harvested. Fishing for them is 100% for sport. Here are a few thoughts on how to minimize the cortisone buildup within these fish to make sure you're releasing them in the best condition.

1. Power up the reel. Leave the star drag reels with 10-pounds of maximum drag output at home. They're great keeper reels but don't have the power for the over-sized fish. Get a lever drag reel with much greater drag output. They don't have to be the shiny marlin stuff. Many brands make affordable graphite framed lever drags. Okuma Solterra and Shimano TLD come to mind.

2. Heavy up the rod. Perhaps more important than the reel because if you cannot move the fish, it's pretty difficult to gain line. Think heavy, halibut-type rods with ratings in the 50-100 or 80-120 pound line range.

3. Stay right on top of the fish. Keep the boat right over the fish and don't give an inch. A good operator can save both the angler and the fish a lot of time and effort. Staying over top of the fish maximizes the available leverage in the rod.

I don't believe that the over-sized fishery at Bonneville dam played any role whatsoever in the recent decline of available keeper-sized sturgeon. I do think, from a simple common sense standpoint, that if these fish of spawning size are going to be targeted for catch-and-release, that doing so in a manner that minimized stress is simply good policy for anglers.

Have fun out there! Last night at Fisherman's I saw an end cap of big, slide-on rod butt cushions. I might recommend one of them too. It'll save your groin, stomach, kidney, liver and arm pits!

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