When the big ones bite

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When the big ones bite

by Joe DuPont

There are certainly benefits to being a fisheries biologist. We may not make the most money, but sometimes we get paid to do things that other people would pay a lot of money to do. Jet boating in Hells Canyon and fishing for sturgeon are included. While it may seem like we’re just having fun doing this, this research actually helps us learn important things about this white sturgeon population. Every year we spend a lot of time fishing for sturgeon in Hells Canyon so that we can measure, mark, scan for earlier days and assess the condition of the sturgeon caught. This work helps us better understand the growth, movement, and mortality of these unique fish, and it helps us identify problem areas that we may want to research more specifically in the future (follow this link for an example Sturgeon research).

One of the most common questions we get is, “How big do these fish get?” To date, the largest sturgeon we sampled between Lower Granite Dam and Hells Canyon Dam was 10 feet 8 inches long and hit a 500 pound scale. We (IDFG, Idaho Power and Nez Perce Tribe) have been capturing and tagging sturgeons in Hells Canyon (using rods and reels and set lines) for over 30 years. During that time we have handled over 4,000 fish, and fewer than 10 of them have exceeded three meters in length. Additionally, Idaho’s current record-and-release record sturgeon is a fish caught from Hells Canyon that was 119.5 inches in length. So, to say the least, catching a 10 foot sturgeon is rare.

A group of us went out to taste sturgeon this fall and what we experienced was so amazing that I just had to share it with you. Remember, 10 foot sturgeon is rare in Hells Canyon, and in fact we hadn’t caught one in over five years – that was up to this amazing week. We struggled to hook fish that day as the fish bit very easily and if you didn’t get to the rod quickly you missed your opportunity. So we adjusted our strategy and focused on our rods, and when the rod moved we didn’t wait to put the hook. That strategy paid off because not too much later we hooked up with a monster, and when it shot into the air we all gasped at its size. An hour and fifteen minutes later we were riding this monster that was 10 feet 1 inch long. This fish was not only long but also fat. It was taped 50 inches around his belly! See for yourself in the picture below. We had never caught and tagged this fish before which was surprising as it has been around for a long time.

After processing this fish, we headed downstream to catch up with the other sampling boat to meet for lunch (we were late) and show off a little. When we found them, they were associated with a large sturgeon. Over time it turned out to be huge, and finally, an hour and a half after ticking this fish, they landed it when the light began to fade. When we taped it on, it measured 10 feet 4 inches long. The picture below doesn’t do it justice as it was incredibly bold – 54 inches in diameter! We didn’t have scales with us, but this fish probably weighed 500 pounds. It was also a fish that we had never caught and tagged before.

And it wasn’t all. We landed another 10 footer twice over the week! The second time we caught it, it was half a mile upriver. This was the sixth and seventh time that we have landed this particular sturgeon. It was first caught in 2010, and it measured 9 feet 10 inches. Eleven years later, it now measures 10 feet 4 inches. It wasn’t as fat as the other two, but massive nonetheless. Judge for yourself. I’ve seen times when the big fish tune in and all you catch is fish over eight feet in length, but never have I seen anything like this amazing week.

If you are wondering how old these fish are, it largely depends on whether or not they lived any part of their life in the Lower Granite Reservoir. If they lived in the reservoir they would probably be around 70-80 years old (they grow much faster there), while they would live in the river all their life if they were over 100 years old!

Here are some tips if you are looking for big sturgeons. If you want to catch large fish, use a heavy line first. We like to use 60 lb mono for the main line with 80 lb leaders. While you can fish with heavy braid (150 lb plus) I don’t like using it as it can cut into them when wrapping fish. Next, when you hook a large fish, it is important that you follow it closely with the boat. It is almost impossible to land one 10 feet from the shore. You will often have to grapple with fish this size for over an hour, and if you don’t hold the boat over it to keep the line off the bottom, the repeated pulling of the line when the fish hugs each other on the bottom eventually becomes you should break it off. Even if we follow the fish by boat, the line usually has considerable abrasion after a large one has landed. I also like to use large hooks. I prefer 12/0 circle hooks or “J” hooks 10/0 or larger. I’ve found that smaller hooks often don’t get you a good bite in your lip, which increases the chances of them pulling out at some point. After all, you need luck in your favor. I suspect we lost a lot more 10 feet than we landed.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


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