Four of us sat inside a frozen yogurt shop in Sandy and talked about sturgeon and the bite. Someone said, when it comes to setting the hook, “You've got to get your feelers on!”
I went home and built a mask with a sturgeon's nose, barbels and googly eyes, and when I met a catfish wrangler who called fishing with a rod and reel “sissy fishin'” I put the mask on him.
We invited Animal Planet stars Ernie “Turtleman” Brown and Hillbilly Hand Fishing's Skipper Bivins out to Oregon for a day of live action. But we couldn't help ourselves, and we started two days early.
At the wheel was Greg Gustafson. His daughters, Heather Fitz-Gustafson and Mandy Williams, were his deckhands.
First order of business was the fly rod. I had tied a big bunny strip streamer and my 16-year-old daughter, Mikayla, dropped it back with a 6-ounce weight into what we hoped was a pod of small, hungry sturgeon. It was a matter of moments before we had the first bite, but it wasn't on the fly, it was on a 3-pound shad bait. A 6 1/2-foot-long dinosaur of the deep gulped the shad and we were in battle mode.
At the first bite, the girls went into action. In came the sea anchors, in came the rods, out went the bow line. Mandy grabbed the rod from Gustafson and put the heat on the fish that was blistering across the river toward Washington.
On the other boat, Rodney Smith, John Holen and guide Fred Hays kept pace, hooking fish with heads as big as garbage cans, as big around as oil drums. Our bait of choice was fresh shad, which we spotted on the surface, usually beneath the watchful eye (and beak) of a seagull.
Shad are silvery fish with big scales and big eyes. They run up to about 5 pounds and measure up to about 20 inches long. Back on the East Coast, they are considered food. Out here in the West, we call them bait.
We fought the big dinosaurs in battles that lasted anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes or more. Heather fought a giant fish for most of an hour, her sister at her side coaching, watching to make sure she stayed safe for a lot can go wrong. Mikayla's sturgeon, the biggest fish of her life, stretched the tape at 7 feet.
It is serious business, but when Turtleman and Skipper showed up, everything changed. Turtleman walked down to the dock, flexing his muscles and rolling up his sleeves. He posed for pictures with his big Bowie knife, Thunder, and mercifully, he kept his shirt on.
I had to ask Skipper if it was true he called fishing with rod and reel “sissy fishin.'” It was true, he said.
Sometimes a reality star's words have consequences. Sissy fishin'? We showed him.
Turtleman went aboard with Smith and Hays. Skipper, and his wife, Joann, climbed aboard Gustafson's boat with Mandy, Sam Pyke, Eric Holen and I. It was less than two minutes before a fish began to peck at the bait.
“Hit him hard,” Gustafson said. I waited, waited, let the fish peck, then drove a 10/0 barbless sliver of steel in. In shallow water, a sturgeon is likely to go up and this one walked on its tail, 9 feet of fish above the surface. Next, it burned toward the middle of the river, while I tried to slow it with my thumb.
As I worked from one side of the boat to the other, Skipper held on to my shirt to keep me out of the drink. We fought that 8-footer to a standstill in about 20 minutes, but I wanted to see Skipper take a big fish start to finish.
Two minutes after the bait went in, the rod began to tap. Skipper took the rod out of the holder and watched the tip. Tap, tap. He tried to set the hook, but whiffed it.
“You've got to get your feelers on,” I told him.
He bounced the weight back down and I grabbed the mask with its googly eyes and good mojo. Skipper strapped on the feelers like a visor, those four little whiskers hanging down over his eyes. He focused on the rod tip. Tap, tap-tap. He swung hard and set the hook, three times. This time the rod buried, line burned off the reel and Skipper lost most of a thumbprint trying to slow it.
We walked him back and forth from one side of the boat to the other. Skipper fought that fish to the boat in 50 minutes. When it was over, he couldn't lift his hands above his shoulders. “My arms are like noodles,” moaned the World Champion catfish noodler.
We could have fished smaller baits and caught smaller sturgeon, but we had something to prove. Next time Skipper says something about sissy fishin', you can bet somewhere in the back of his mind he'll remember an ancient fish, a dinosaur that prowls the bottom of the Columbia.