Ready to catch your bucket-list fish, the largest freshwater fish in North America? Then head to Lewiston, Idaho as fast as you can for stellar white sturgeon fishing. If latching onto a 10-foot fish weighing in at 400 pounds is your idea of fun, then Hells Canyon on the Snake River is the place to be.
“The fishery is in great shape,” said Jason Schultz, owner of Hells Canyon Sport Fishing in Lewiston. “I’ve fished for sturgeon my whole life, and the large-fish population now is as good as it’s ever been.”
These behemoths don’t get big in a couple years: they take decades to get into the bruiser category. In fact, sturgeon often live to 100 years, with females taking 20 years to become reproductively mature.
The construction of the dams on the Snake River isolated the sturgeon population, and with the diminishment of salmon due to the dams, these giant fish declined. To preserve the fish and fishery, Idaho Department of Fish and Game adopted catch-and-release-only rules in 1970. Those rules have allowed the fish numbers to remain healthy and provide excellent sportfishing opportunity.
“These fish are easy to catch and release, and we find mortality is not an issue,” reaffirmed Schultz.
With that said, Schultz noted that working the fish quickly to the boat is important.
“We encourage anglers to take turns bringing sturgeon in,” he said. “That way the angler stays fresh, and the fish is brought in much quicker with far less stress.”
According to the IDFG, the healthiest populations of sturgeon are found in the free-flowing stretches of the Snake River from Lewiston upriver to the Hells Canyon Dam.
Other areas with good fish numbers are between Bliss Dam and the upper end of C J Strike Reservoir. Hells Canyon Sport Fishing has a coveted permit to bring clients through the section of the Snake River that runs through the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.
“We take long boat rides to some super good fishing along that section,” said Schultz.
IDFG has some excellent tips on fishing for sturgeon on their website. In particular, using the correct gear is stressed. Barbless hooks are required, as well as hooks with a sliding sinker. These keep the fish from ingesting the hooks.
“We use big, saltwater-type gear, 200-pound test line, and 10- to 16-oz lead weights, to get to the bottom of the river,” said Schultz. “Sturgeon like to keep to deeper holes, and the rocks on the bottom are jagged and sharp. The heavy line doesn’t break off on rocks as easily as lighter weight line does.”
IDFG also recommends at least 250 yards of line on your reel.
Unlike a lot of fish, you don’t jerk to set the hook when sturgeon fishing. Instead, when you feel the first nibble, let the fish get a good taste, then smoothly reel your line in. Once the fish is on, IDFG recommends playing it fast, to avoid exhausting the fish.
Schultz said bait for sturgeon is varied.
“We use salmon guts, squid, and cut bait most often. Sturgeon are opportunistic and will eat clams, suckers, crayfish, steelhead, and salmon carcasses after spawning.”
While some anglers think sturgeon don’t fight much, Schultz puts that myth to rest. “They can make long, screaming runs and can jump out of the water, too. That’s a real thrill!”
Schultz estimates an average of 20 minutes to land a sturgeon but says it can take up to an hour with a feisty fish in strong current.
A typical sturgeon out of the Snake River is usually 6 to 8 feet long, so be prepared to use those arm muscles getting one in.
It’s illegal to take a sturgeon out of the water for photo ops, so don’t get carried away. Keep the fish in the water at all times.
“One of the best things about where we sturgeon fish is we can get to shallow water near the bank for photos while still keeping the fish in water,” said Schultz.
If you’re reading this, then you should know now is a great time to fish for sturgeon.
“April through July and again October and November are prime times for sturgeon fishing on the Snake,” said Schultz. “If the water gets too hot or too cold, they stop feeding, and it’s hard to catch them.”
So, what are you waiting for? Your bucket list is just dying to have awesome sturgeon fishing checked off! — ISI