Grant’s Getaways: Willamette Sturgeon Fishing

January 6, 2012 (Updated February 17, 2012)

This week, I headed to the Willamette River with a rod, reel and spirit of adventure to learn more about Oregon’s famous dinosaur fish species called “sturgeon.”

Steve Williams says his fishing doesn’t slow despite what the calendar shows. He and fishing partner, Rick Hargrave, are hearty anglers who don’t mind winter’s bone chilling cold as long as there’s promise of a fishing hole all their own.

Despite winter morning air that hovered near freezing, I joined Williams to check out the opportunity and cast into the Willamette River to catch the dinosaur of Oregon’s fish species called “sturgeon.” I’ve enjoyed sturgeon fishing action before, but usually in summer’s warm glow and nearly a hundred miles away in the Columbia River estuary near Astoria.


Williams and Hargrave swear by “smelt” for bait (they stretch their investment by cutting each of the small fish in half) and then spear them each on a 5-0 barbless hook followed by a series of half hitches to secure each piece. Each of the anglers employed four ounces of lead that slid up and down the line – just above the leader line and brass swivel.

Here’s a tip: add a scent to your bait – Williams swears by garlic scent bait products for sturgeon, but be careful how much you use.

“You don’t want to do is spill it in your boat though,” he said with a chuckle. “Otherwise it’ll be with you for the whole season.”

Williams knows these fish first hand! Not just fishing for them on his days off, but as the ODFW Fish Division’s Administrative Assistant.

He said that anyone is able to go eyeball to eyeball with Oregon’s dinosaur fish anytime at Bonneville Fish Hatchery in the Columbia River Gorge.

Hargrave is ODFW’S Public Information Director and said that the Oregon Wildlife Heritage Foundation partnered with the state to build an intriguing sturgeon exhibit at the hatchery.

In fact, an exhibit area sports an acre-sized pond that has massive plate glass windows positioned below water level so to allow visitors a way to peer into the sturgeon’s underwater world.

“It’s a place to see sturgeon in their environment, ask questions and gain new information about an amazing fish,” said Hargrave.

Back on the Willamette River – as wintertime boaters motored past our anchored position, I was reminded of a new marine tool that will enhance Oregon boater’s experiences in 2012.

The Oregon State Marine Board offers a new Interactive Boating Access Map that is downloadable and details over 1,000 Oregon boat launches, ramps and marinas. The new site and mobile app answers any question an Oregon mariner might have about boating in the state including fees, restroom facilities and area amenities.

Back on William’s boat, Hargrave’s rod tip bobbed slightly up and down and he quickly picked up the rod from its holder, reared back and set the hook.

He gave me no choice and stuck the rod and reel in my chest and said – “it’s yours!”

The fish felt heavy and pulled back against the stiff rod tip and I wondered aloud, “So the secret on this is hold on for dear life?”

I suddenly felt helpless as the 80-pound test line easily sped out of the large reel.

“This is the fun part, Grant,” shouted Williams. “Try to smile!”

He was right – I needed to relax a bit. After all, it’s the part of the adventure that everyone is supposed to enjoy the most. There simply aren’t many places you can go in Oregon to catch fish that can reach gigantic proportions.

“That’s a big fish right there,” noted Hargrave.

That much was certain as the line played out from a sturgeon that seemed to have one thing on its mind – get back to the ocean – and fast!

I held my ground for twenty minutes as the fish scooted away from the boat several times on runs that reached forty, thirty and then twenty yards – each time I slowly worked the sturgeon back toward the boat.

Williams said, “Right here in the Willamette and Columbia River Basins are the largest populations of white sturgeon on the planet. Biologists figure that the population is about one million fish below Bonneville Dam.”

It was a huge fish too – easily four feet long – perhaps much longer – and reached fifty or sixty pounds.

No net would be used for this fish – Hargrave gently reached out and pulled in the mainline as the fish reached the surface.

The Willamette River is largely a catch and release sturgeon fishery (there is a short catch and keep Willamette River sturgeon fishery season each February) so there was no need to stress the fish further by hauling it aboard the boat. Williams pointed to the underside of the sturgeon’s head and the spaghetti-like “barbels’ that extended from the underside of the fish’s snout. “These are the fish’s sense of smell here, as they swim along the bottom,” added Williams. “Glance down the fish’s side and check out the diamond-like patches. Those are called “scuts” and are made of cartilage. They are considered the sturgeon’s armor plating and a real indication of the fish’s prehistoric biology.”

And with that, Williams unhooked the big fish and we watched it slide back down into the river’s dark depths. Williams said that he preferred to leave the sturgeon in the water; there’s less damage to the fish that way and a bit of respect due an ancient species.

Editor’s Note: Most of Oregon’s bodies of water are 41 degrees or lower in the winter which means you have about a minute and a half before hypothermia sets in; be sure to wear a Personal Flotation Device before heading out to the river. Finally, if you have questions about tactics and techniques for sturgeon, salmon or steelhead fishing, try Dave Johnson, the Ask Oregon Fishing Ambassador. You can reach him on Twitter or Facebook

About The

Grant McOmie
Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.