Growing up on the river, I have seen the Columbia in all her moods: frigid, tempestuous, rowdy, dangerous. But in June, you expect a sunnier disposition.
We woke to a brooding sky.
We had checked in to Skamania Lodge the night before, sampled salmon chowder and headed to our rooms. Up before dawn, we were too early for a lodge breakfast and had to settle for a fried fare kick-start at a convenience store in Stevenson, Wash.
Clouds, bruised and sullen, sat low on the Cascades. The river ran high and muddy with runoff.
Steve Leonard had his boat in the water in the shadow of Beacon Rock. He waved from the dock and we carried our gear down and shook hands all around. Kristy Titus had one sturgeon to her credit, a 69-incher, the biggest fish of her life. We hoped to eclipse that record.
A lot of people don’t give sturgeon the credit they are due. The Random House Dictionary calls them, “a large food fish valued as a source of caviar.” Oxford American calls them, “a large shark-like fish with flesh that is valued as food and roe that is made into caviar.”
Sturgeon are so much more than a source of pickled fish eggs. To me, they are a brush with the prehistoric — dinosaurs of the river.
We circled out of the side channel to anchor in 15 feet of water. Three two-pound shad tumbled to our dancing Dick Nites. With bait in the cooler, we headed downstream.
Leonard, the owner of Steve’s Guided Adventures (www.stevesguideservice.com), dropped anchor in 43 feet of water then slipped us back down with 250 feet of rope. A wind out of the northwest blew a light chop. We paid out our lines, bouncing baits back on 20 ounces of lead. Two rods were dedicated to oversize fish and a third was for entertainment, baited with herring for shaker and keeper-size fish.
Usually it takes about 45 minutes for the sturgeon to find the baits, but we must have nearly hit this one on the head. It inhaled a 2-pound shad, turned and tore line off the reel.
Kristy grabbed the rod, put her thumb on the spool and set the hook. Line continued to peel off the reel. Running forward, I paid the anchor rope over the bow until we were free from the buoy. I looked at my watch to establish the start of the battle.
Pitted against a big fish, the lady fought it to a standstill. Leonard helped her guide the 8-footer alongside then held the sturgeon until it was able to kick away under its own power.
Kristy, at 5 feet 2 inches, had landed an 8-foot, 276-pound sturgeon in an incredible 20 minutes. I’ve seen 6-pound steelhead take twice that long. “You’re going to have to beat my time,” she challenged.
Twenty minutes later, the shaker rod bounced, a small one working the bait. No way was I going to touch that one. “Kristy, that one is yours.” She stepped up and caught another sturgeon, this one a 30-incher, probably a 7-year-old fish. That was a close call. The only fish I wanted was one that ate a whole shad.
My rod was next and when the line began to rip off the reel, I picked it up, thumbed the spool and set the hook. No way to tell how big it was, but I knew I’d better bring it to the boat in 20 minutes or less.
Forty-three feet down, 200 feet back, a sturgeon shook its head back and forth. The braided line transmitted all that power to the big Ugly Stik. Every time I gained 5 feet of line, it pulled 20 back out.
Leonard had disconnected us from the anchor and we followed the fish down the river. A lot of times when you hook a big one, everyone takes a turn. Not on this boat. Not after Kristy’s fight. No way I was giving up the rod.
Still the great fish held to the bottom. My line was taut as a banjo string. I plucked it with thumb and forefinger. Twang. “A B-flat.” Brad Douglas, cameraman and critic, told me to try an A-sharp. He said it might make the fish jump. Twa-ang.
It was a tune that this sturgeon hadn’t heard before. The great fish lifted off the bottom and I was able to gain about 20 feet. Every time it stalled, I repeated the instrumental and brought the fish a bit closer.
She showed off the back of the boat. Nine feet, 2 inches of purple-gray beast. We guided her alongside. Fifteen minutes had elapsed since the fish had grabbed the shad. We took it away and watched the big female kick back to the deep.
The bigger she gets, the more eggs she will be able to carry, the better the potential that anglers 100 years from now can prospect the great river for a brush with the prehistoric.