John Weiss: Columbia River sturgeon test Rochester anglers
Zach Stewart is expecting a major addition to his trophy shelf. In fact, he might need a bigger shelf.
The 13-year-old from Rochester has won about 20 trophies for hockey and football, and when he goes fishing in Canada with his dad, Tom, and grandfather Howard "Chub" Stewart, he often wins the trophy for biggest fish, said his proud grandpa.
But on June 28, he outdid himself. While fishing for sturgeon at the mouth of the Columbia River near Astoria, Ore., he hooked and landed the biggest fish of the day. At 5 feet long, it was nearly as tall as the 5-foot, 5-inch boy.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife puts the fish at about 17 years old; a guide service Web site said a fish that long would weigh about 65 pounds.
Because of regulations, the fish had to be released. So if Zach is going to get a trophy, it won't involve a taxidermist.
Zach said he and his dad got the idea to go sturgeon fishing because "My grandpa said he always wanted to go there." They got the information and talked to grandpa about it. He said yes.
They went fished for sturgeon June 28 and salmon June 29, Chub Stewart said. While most people think of sturgeon as living in deep water, they were fishing in only a few feet of water. The fish come into the sandbars at the mouth of the river and feed on some kind of shrimp. Guides would wrap a big minnow in line and add a hook and weight, then toss it out.
They began at 7:30 a.m. "We started catching sturgeon right away," Chub Stewart said. "By 10 a.m. I was exhausted. They were just to powerful that you couldn't turn them." They could easily run off 100 yards of 50-pound line.
By 10 a.m., "I had to take a rest," he said. They ran out of bait at 1 p.m. They lost count of the total, but they landed about 70 fish"and we had a lot of them on that we didn't land."
"I had one on that was an enormous fish," he said. It was about 12 feet long, and weighed maybe 250 to 350 pounds, but it broke off.
His grandson, however, was able to land his lunker.
Zach said they would set out bait and put down the pole. When a fish hit, "The pole will just start going crazy up and down," he said.
The big one hit later in the morning. "When I set it (the hook), you could feel it was heavier than usual," he said. He reeled it within about 20 feet of the boat, but then it ran off about 350 feet of line. "The guides were worried it would run out all the line" so they held a towel against the line to slow down the fish.
Zach played the fish by himself the whole time. He was tired because he had already caught about 15 fish. "It was really tiring," he said. He plays football and hockey but has never been that tired.
"That one took me 20 or 25 minutes" but "it felt a lot longer," he said. When he saw it, "I knew it was huge, but I didn't think it was that huge." Because sturgeon have no teeth, the guides just grabbed the fish and lifted it in.
They use barbless hooks so it could be unhooked easily. With some pictures taken, the fish was released.
The next day, they went out into the Pacific Ocean to fish salmon, Stewart said. They had to wait for Coast Guard permission because of 20-foot swells (they were in a 26-foot boat) but they finally got the OK. They fished in 5-foot swells and caught one king and seven cohos.
Now that the trip is over, Chub Stewart is already dreaming of going back. "I've never experienced anything like sturgeon fishing," he said. He's fished salmon above the Arctic Circle, landing some 50 pounds or bigger, but it was nothing like sturgeon.
"They are so powerful, they are just kind of a special fish," he said. He's heard that every now and then, they land one that's 1,000 pounds.
Now that the trip is over, Zach said he can go back to fishing on Bamber Lake, a private lake in southwest Rochester where he has caught a lot of fish with his grandpa.
The problem is, many of the fish will be the size of the bait he used to catch "the big one."
And now that he's back, he's left with wondering what his grandpa will doregarding a trophy to commemorate his 5-foot sturgeon. But he has a suggestion: "I think it should be as big as the fish."