Keeper Sturgeon Of The Columbia River Estuary

We watch as the tip of Devon’s rod slowly throbs toward the water. He sets the hook hard and is instantly rewarded with the surge of a powerful fish. He deftly hands off the rod to Bob. Bob finds himself hooked up to a runaway missile. We watch as the heavy fish arches the 9-foot, 4-inch Castaway rod almost to the water. A muscle cramp forces Bob to hand off to me.

Eventually a huge white sturgeon comes to the net.

"This is going to be close," Devon laughs as he lifts the thrashing fish into the boat. Wow! The legal limit to keep the fish is 41- to 54 inches. This fish is 53-1/2 inches. "That is the biggest legal (keeper) I have ever landed," Devon says, with a broad grin.

Sturgeon fishing in big water with big-fish tackle.

We are fishing with Devon Pearsall, of Great White Hooker Fishing, in the lower Columbia River Estuary. We launched at Warrenton, Ore., at first light. Pearsall has fished the area for years. He has chosen today because of the early morning out-going tide.

Pearsall’s 23-foot Motion Marine boat is deep and seaworthy with plenty of power — that’s a must for the heavy currents of the lower Columbia. Four of us will be fishing today: Bob George, Tom Gerold, Pearsall, and myself.

Timing The Tide
Pearsall likes to fish certain areas of the estuary at specific stages of the tide.

"It’s no secret. The best fishing in this area is the out-going tide," he explains. "These fish move onto the sandbars to feed at high tide. As the tide flows out they move into deeper water. The key is to locate the traveling lanes, anchor up, put bait out, and establish a scent trail."

The out-going tide is not the only time to catch sturgeon. The in-coming tide can also be productive.

"There is a weird phenomenon about the incoming tide on the lower Columbia." Pearsall adds. "It starts coming in on the Washington side an hour before the Oregon side. At low slack, many boats will move to the Chinook area on the Washington side, for the first of the flood."

Catch More Keepers
We continue fishing the out-going tide. George hooks and lands a heavy 40-1/2-incher — that’s one-half-inch too short to keep. Later he lands a keeper of 44 inches.

At low tide we run about eight miles to the Washington side to fish the incoming tide. Crabs move in with the tide, and our baits are gone in a matter of minutes.

A rare green sturgeon.

We work our way back toward Oregon. Pearsall catches and releases a green sturgeon. It is the first one any of us have ever seen caught. They must be released. He hooks into a heavy fish, and it’s another keeper, 45 inches. It turns out to be our last fish of the day. It’s getting late and the crabs and bullheads have cleaned us out of bait. Three heavy fish in the boat means prime table fare. It has been a good day!

Flatlining And The Bite
Sturgeon are basically blind and find food utilizing a keen sense of smell. They use whisker-like barbels to locate food. Their vacuum hose-like mouth extends to suck in food. This can be a slow, tantalizing experience for the angler. Patience is crucial.

"As the bite develops, you need to feed them a little line until you feel the rod load up, then set the hook hard." Pearsall explains. "You don’t want them to feel any resistance when biting. That’s why we cast out far enough for the line to lie as flat as possible. The biter will be able to pick up the bait and pull it through the slip sinker without feeling resistance. You want him to have the bait inside the mouth, and be moving away, before setting the hook."

Importance Of Good Bait
"The basic rule of thumb is to have bait that is currently in the river. Early in the spring, smelt or Sand shrimp is your best bet. Once anchovies move into the estuary, fresh anchovies is the bait of choice," Pearsall adds. "These fish come from all over to fatten up on the millions of anchovies in the estuary. There was a time, this year, in early June, when you had to use a two anchovy set up. One anchovy out there, no bites. Add that second bait, same spot, a fish. You have to be flexible, and find what works."

When To Fish
Sturgeon are typically in the estuary most of the year. They move in and out in search of food.

"If I only had a month to fish for them, I would fish May 15-June 15. Pearsall shares. "There is an abundance of bait in at that time and sturgeon are having a feast. You can experience good fishing earlier or later. But, I have had my best luck mid-May to mid-June."

Where To Fish
The area downriver from the Astoria bridge has been described by some guides as, "the best keeper sturgeon fishery in the world."

Catching a keeper sturgeon brings a smile to anyone’s face.

The estuary can experience combinations of strong tides and winds. It can be extremely dangerous. Sandbars are prevalent. At high tide it appears you can run anywhere, but at low tide there are numerous sandbars. Many boaters have found out the hard way and wound up on a bar until tide change. Fog can become a problem. Pearsall stresses the importance of using a GPS.

If you plan on fishing the area, hire a licensed guide. This is the best way to learn the fishery. If you plan to learn the fishery and come back later, tell your guide, and ask questions.

The sturgeon catch is quota driven. This can change as numbers are generated. Example: The season was extended in July of 2009 because the quota hadn’t been reached. Anglers are cautioned to check with the Oregon or Washington Fish and Wildlife Departments before planning a trip.

A valid license and harvest tag are required.

Limits: One per day, 5 per year.

1) Minimum length 41 inches, maximum length 54 inches, measured from the tip of the nose to the fork of the tail.

2) Only one single-point barbless hook may be used.

3) Oversized sturgeon cannot be removed totally or in part, from the water.

Area Boat Ramps

In Oregon
John Day Boat Ramp, six miles upriver from Astoria.

Warrenton, seven miles downriver from Astoria.

Hammond, eleven miles downriver from Astoria.

In Washington
Chinook, Port of Chinook

Ilwaco, Baker Bay

Bait, Tackle Tips
The right bait is a must. When fishing is hot, shops may run out of bait. Call the day before and reserve your bait. Pearsall recommends one pound of anchovies per angler, plus one extra pound, because bait robbers abound in the estuary.

For more information on bait and tackle, contact:
Free Willy Bait & Tackle

Devon Pearsall (left to right), Bob George, and the author with three keepers.

Gear Up
Use a heavy-duty rod capable of handling up to 8-ounce weights, and 50-plus-pound fish, with a heavy-duty reel with capacity for 300 yards of 50- to 65-pound-test line. Other needed gear includes an assortment of pyramid sinkers 4- to 8 ounces, and slip sliders for sinkers. Pearsall prefers the metal ones by Oregon Tackle.

Also have on hand a supply of pre-tied, barbless hooks at least 6/0. Do not attempt to use hooks with the barbs pinched down. And finally, don’t forget to have on board a dependable measuring system up to 54 inches.

For More Information
For more information on fishing the Columbia River Estuary, contact:

John North, fisheries manager, Columbia River Programs, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, 971-673-6000, x6029.

Brad James, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, 360-902-2200

Devon Pearsall, Great White Hooker Fishing, 503-569-7534,,

Gordon Scheekloth, Reel Deal Guide Service, 503-390-0910

For a fine assortment of Fishing gear, click here.

Leave a Reply

Commenting Policy - We encourage open expression of your thoughts and ideas. But there are a few rules:

No abusive comments, threats, or personal attacks. Use clean language. No discussion of illegal activity. Racist, sexist, homophobic, and generally hateful comments are not tolerated. Keep comments on topic. Please don't spam.

While we reserve the right to remove or modify comments at our sole discretion, the Sportsman's Guide does not bear any responsibility for user comments. The views expressed within the comment section do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of The Sportsman's Guide.