It was about 2 p.m. on the Snake River. Jeff and Alex had already caught a sturgeon each. The guide said the fish tend to get less aggressive by the afternoon, so the feeling of restlessness settled. The tip of my fishing pole had bounced gently every five-to-10 seconds before I yanked the pole into the air finally hooking my elusive prey. The guide said he had never landed a fish on this particular part of the river which intensified my anxiety ever more. The boat was pulled downstream by the tug of the fish, all without snapping the line or freeing itself from the hook. When the boat abruptly stopped, my pole was placed then in its holder and the real battle began. It lasted roughly 20-to-25 minutes with the sturgeon jumping out of the water twice, trying to release itself from the hook. My left hand was starting to cramp from holding the pole. Even though my pole was in the holder, it was still a natural reflex to maintain a grip on it. A sudden thought comes to mind, could I outlast an aquatic creature that weighs more than I do? In response, more adrenaline kicked in and the cramp was gone. As the fish approached the boat, it was clear it was starting to tire and so I guided it to the bank. The battle was over-and I had never felt so alive. I went down to the water to claim my trophy.
In the summer of 2008, my brothers, dad and I went sturgeon fishing on the Snake River outside of Glenns Ferry, Idaho. Our trip was guided by Justin Johnson, owner and operator of Thirsty Fish Outfitters, which is located in Jerome, Idaho.
This fishing trip was something we had discussed as a family for quite some time. The thrill of catching a prehistoric creature-that is, the largest fresh-water fish in North America-is something that has always appealed to us. Being avid anglers, this was a new challenge in our lives. We attended the annual International Sportsmens Exposition in Sandy, Utah, in March of 2008. My dad stopped at the Thirsty Fish Outfitters booth where he met Johnson. After several minutes of discussion between the two, the sturgeon fishing trip was booked.
We drove from our family residence in Lyman, Wyo. to Glenns Ferry the day before the fishing trip and stayed in a small hotel there. Six a.m. couldnt come soon enough. I was hardly able to sleep because of the excitement of this new experience. Well, that and the fact that each passing freight train blared its deafening horn as it came through town. But none of that mattered when 6 a.m. happened. We packed up our gear and drove to the Snake River to meet Johnson. There he was waiting with his red Ford pickup truck backed up at the boat dock with his river boat on its trailer ready to be launched into the water.
We all shook hands with Johnson and introduced ourselves. After the boat was banked, Johnson parked his truck, jumped in and we were off. The fishing rods and bait were supplied by Thirsty Fish Outfitters, however, I brought along my own fishing pole to fish from the boat and bank as well.
We headed upstream from the dock on the Snake for a few miles under a cool light rain. Along the way, black, lava rock cliffs rose above the steady, murky water on each side of the river. We followed the Oregon Trail which ran along the south bank. The water was becoming rougher and with each bounce with every wave, I became more and more nauseous. I went to the back of the boat so that I could breathe easier and I could avoid the possibility of vomiting. Its nothing against that particular boat, Im just not a boat-fairing kind of person I suppose. Once we arrived at our first fishing spot around 9 a.m., the sun appeared from behind the clouds and the rain stopped. The river was calm and quiet and the birds chirped around us.
Johnson baited the hooks using a small rainbow trout then cast each of our deep-sea fishing pole lines into the water. Johnson said sturgeon are more aggressive in the morning, thus the chances are greater to catch one. While we waited for the first strike, I took a few casts along the bank with my pole. Before long, my younger brother, Alex, hooked a sturgeon. I rushed back to the boat to reel in my line and see the action first hand. Alex placed his rod in its holder and the trip was suddenly looking brighter.
Alex sat upon in the metal chair that is bolted to the deck and reeled in with all his might. Johnson continually guided him on how to control the pole, when to reel in, and when to let the drag go. After 10-to-15 minutes of reeling the sturgeon in, the fish eventually rose to the surface. The gray, shark-looking fish was line-guided to the bank and Johnson went to the water to release the hook. Alex went down to the water and touched the 60, 160-pound fish as we took pictures. We could not take the sturgeon out of the water because of the Idaho Game and Fish regulations.
This was the first time weve seen the long, slender, gray bodies of the bottom-feeding species in person. The sturgeon is classified as a bony fish but has a cartilaginous structure instead of a bone structure, like what a shark has thus giving it a shark-like appearance. But unlike a shark, a sturgeons mouth has no teeth. Instead it has four barbels, which are whisker-like food sensory organs located on the outside of its protruding mouth.
After Alex reeled in that sturgeon, the rest of the fish were spooked and it was time to move to another spot. We came to a wide portion the river and set our hooks there. I fished along the bank for a little while and caught a couple of Colorado Squawfish or Pikeminnow. I didnt know what it was initially because Ive never caught this species before. My older brother Jeff told me what it is called. After catching a few more of the squawfish, Jeff hooked a sturgeon. Once again, I rushed back to the boat, reeled in my bait, and watched the action yet again.
Johnson guided Jeff on controlling the rod like he did with Alex. Jeffs catch roughly took 10-to-20 minutes for the sturgeon to surface. This one was bigger than the one Alex had caught. Jeff guided it to the bank so that Johnson could release the hook. Johnson estimated it at six-and-a-half-feet and a 165-pounds which, he says, is the average size typically caught. We took pictures of Jeff with the aquatic behemoth.
With Jeff and Alex catching sturgeon, I was sure to be up next. We went to the next hole, and then the next, and the next, and I still had not hooked a sturgeon. As the day progressed and the temperature rose, the sturgeon became less aggressive. This is typical, according to Johnson. We finally chose to stop at a narrower and deeper portion of the river that was shadowed by the tall, black cliffs, and dropped my hook. It wasnt long before I had something messing with my bait, noted by the soft bounces of my rod at its point. With the bites being so light, I was hesitant to set the hook. All of a sudden, I felt a big bounce and instinct took over as I yanked the pole to set the hook. I felt the weight of the sturgeon and exclaimed I GOT IT!
Everyone reeled in as I set my rod in the holder, sat down and began to reel in. During my exuberant struggle, Johnson tells me that he has never landed a fish on this portion of the river before because of the strong current.
When you hook those fish, they get in that current and they just take off, Johnson said.
There is another fishing hole right below our spot and Johnson says he is going to drive the boat and follow the fish downstream to it. It was up to me to keep the fish on the line while the boat moved down river. Staying calm in this situation was extremely nerve-racking, but I did what I could to keep the fish in the main current so it wouldnt snap my line. I stood and held the rod up to keep the massive fish in the current, by doing so, my back felt like it was about to explode. Johnson parked the boat along the bank in the new spot and the battle raged on. I felt as if I was gaining ground until the sturgeon jumped out of the water a good 100-feet away from the boat trying to release itself from the hook. Seconds later, the sturgeon jumped again but appeared farther away. My left arm was cramping from holding my rod up. Fatigue began taking its toll. I questioned my ability both physically and mentally. Johnson said he had never landed a fish on this part of the Snake before and I was unsure whether I could win this fight.
Your forearms looked like they were about to burst, Johnson stated with awe while I reeled in the fresh-water titan.
With a renewed burst of an adrenaline kick that I so desperately needed, I kept reeling in. Twenty-to-25 minutes later, the sturgeon surfaced. I guided it to the bank and Johnson grabbed it to release the hook. He told us it was a female that had released its eggs, which could have added another 25 pounds, during spawn (sexual reproduction) and estimated it at staggering 70 and 185-pounds. Yes this fish is bigger than I am.
I went to the bank and felt its somewhat rough, yet spongy skin and touched the scutes, which are a type of protection or armor that run along the back and sides, and feel like jagged spines. My arm span was shorter than the length of this sturgeon. Landing this catch is the greatest accomplishment of my life. I felt as if I could conquer anything. My dad took pictures of me with the fish before Johnson released it. It was late afternoon and the fish were done biting, so we headed back to the boat dock. This trip lived up to every bit of hype, and I recommend it to any angler. My brothers, dad and I are planning another trip in the near future.
Thirsty Fish Outfitters suggests customers wanting to book a sturgeon fishing vacation do so at least two weeks in advance. The fishing season for sturgeon is year around, but Thirsty Fish Outfitters generally cater April to October. The reason for this is to avoid the colder months when the boat dock gets slippery. This makes it difficult to put the boat into the river. The best time to catch sturgeon is during spawn, which varies depending on how high the water temperature becomes. Sturgeon spawning usually takes place between April and October, according to Johnson. For further information about Thirsty Fish Outfitters, including products, pricing, booking, and camping and lodging, please visit www.thirstyfishoutfitters.com or call 208−644−1534.