Strategies for Sturgeon
Often I’m asked the same questions, Where do sturgeon live? Do you only fish deep holes? How do you know where to find sturgeon? Do sturgeons live in the river or do they migrate? These are all great questions, the trouble is, there is no one correct answer. Sturgeon live in both fresh and saltwater, there found in deep water, shallow water, stillwater and fast current. They can be found from as far up the Fraser as Prince George and as low as the ocean estuaries in Vancouver. Sturgeons are in the Pacific Ocean as far north as Alaska and south along the California Coast. The 3 largest populations of sturgeon in North America are all found on the Pacific Coast. To the far north is the Fraser River, 400 miles south in the Columbia River and even further south, the Sacramento River. Of these 3 river systems, the Fraser River is the only remaining wild population.
I believe that migration between these 3 rivers systems occurs annually or seasonally by some sturgeons. How many or how often is unknown but we do know for sure that some fish do move between these 3 rivers. In 2004 there were 2 sturgeons captured and released on the Fraser River that were previously tagged on the Columbia River in Astoria Washington. There was also 1 other recorded capture of a Columbia River Sturgeon on the Fraser and one that I know of on the Sacramento River. I have also heard of several Columbia River Sturgeons caught in fishermen’s nets in Alaska but that has not been confirmed. There are also ocean estuary fisheries along the coast that are often overlooked.
Many anglers along the USA Coast fish for sturgeon. San Fransico Bay has a very popular sturgeon fishery as does Astoria Washington. Sturgeon Banks just outside the south arm of the Fraser was once a popular fishing spot. What does this all mean to us, the angler who seeks them out for pleasure or sport? To us it means there is no one simple answer, there are many fisheries and strategies used to target this species and not one is above the other. I know good anglers who mainly fish large deep waters looking for holding fish, I know good anglers who prefer to fish during migratory seasons only in fast current and other who prefer to fish shallow water. All are good anglers who catch plenty of fish.
Strategies for Catching Sturgeon
Frequently Asked Questions – By Vic Carrao
One question I get asked often before a guide trip begins is “are we going to be fishing deep holes?” I often hear people say that sturgeons are only found in deep holes or they live in deep holes. Well, they can definitely be found in deep holes, we know for sure that sturgeon winter in the deeper holes of the Fraser, but when it comes to fishing for sturgeon you need to re-think how you define a hole. If the water is 35 feet deep with a 10 ft. drop it would be safe to assume there is a hole, this is the obvious hole. But what if the bottom drop was only 3 ft, would you still consider this a hole and would you fish it?
The hummingbird side imagine fish finder has opened my mind to an entirely new way to think about the bottom of the Fraser. The images that I see show exactly how sturgeon use the bottom of the Fraser and how the slightest drop provides a great place to stalk prey and rest out of fast current. Think of the river bottom as a wave across the top of the lake on a windy day. There are big waves, small and even the odd flat spot. The river bottom is much the same. These waves are caused by daily tidal influences, large tugboats and natural curve of the river bottom. When fish lay in behind these waves they are provided with shelter from current and debris and great places for food to settle.
Taken just above Mission Bridge, in the Hatzic Flats area. Notice the waves, the images on the right side of the screen are sturgeon laying in behind the waves.
The left side of the screen shows a slight drop, see how the fish are tucked in behind the drop.
When we scan the bottom of the Fraser for fish we most often see sturgeons lying in behind these small waves. Sometimes we see as many as 5 or 10 fish across the river bottom, their noses shoved up against the back of the wave. The side image fish finder is able to scan as much as 200 feet to either side of the boat; I find that 100 to 150 feet give the best results for scanning the river bottom. When you’re searching for holes, look for 2-4 ft. drops as well the obvious 10 ft. drops. Think of these smaller holes as feeding lanes or resting spots and fish them often.
Since we’re talking about holes, let’s talk about how sturgeon uses these deeper holes for survival. I stated above that sturgeon don’t just live in holes; they use the entire river including all depths. Deeper holes on the Fraser provide some of the most important habitat for both juvenile and adult fish. One of the deepest holes in the lower/ mid-Fraser River is Hatzic Hole located at kilometer 84. This important hole has been identified by sturgeon biologists as very important habitat. Sturgeons of all sizes use this hole for many different reasons. It provides a place for juvenile sturgeon to feed and grow, sturgeon of all sizes use this hole for wintering; in fact, this is one of the largest wintering holes on the Fraser River. During spring, summer and fall anglers will fish this area for sturgeon.
Over the past 2 years, Sturgeon biologists have been conducting research looking for juvenile fish and possible rearing habitat. These small fish (less than 40cm) do not get caught by anglers very often as they are too small for the gear being used. The baits, hooks and location angler’s fish are generally not suitable for catching smaller sturgeon. Biologists are using a method called tangle net fishing to catch these smaller sturgeons. Small diameter mesh is used so that the tiniest of fish are trapped in the net. A bit off topic but the point of this is that Hatzic hole is where the majority of juvenile fish have been found. From data collected by angling guides, volunteer anglers and biologists studying juvenile fish we can confidently say that Hatzic Hole may be one of the most important pieces of Sturgeon Habitat found anywhere on the lower Fraser.
Fishing Hatzic Hole can be difficult and frustrating, the deepest area is between 80 to 90 feet, there is a back eddy that spins clockwise to Mission side of the river, if anchored too far out, the current is very fast, anchoring to close to shore will put you in the middle of the spinning eddy and make it difficult to hold still and identify bites. The most efficient way to fish Hatzic Hole is to either fish the top end before it drops into the hole (45 to 65 ft.), the bottom end near the pylons on the Mission side (35 to 50 ft.) Or find the current line just on the edge of the eddy (65 to 75ft).
I usually choose to fish the upper part of the hole (45 to 65) ft. before it drops into the deeper water. Fishing this upper ledge allows you to fish several depths and move down further into the hole if necessary. I sometimes like to fish the edge of the eddy but this can be difficult when trying to drop anchor in that perfect spot. Incoming tides also provide a challenge when trying to fish Hatzic Hole. The tides can be as much as 4ft which often slows the river current to an almost stop. In this case, you may have to anchor more towards the middle of the river where there is more current.
Although Hatzic Hole can provide some excellent sturgeon fishing, it should be noted that this area has been identified as very important habitat and wintering grounds for sturgeon. Fishing Hatzic Hole in winter should be avoided so that wintering fish can rest and conserve their energy. Once water temperatures drop below 40 degrees sturgeons become quite lethargic. Catching sturgeon during these water temperatures could lessen their chances of surviving the winter.
This Beautiful Sturgeon was caught in Hatzic Hole this past September.
Other known wintering hole not far from Hatzic is Matsqui Island. This area is also considered important habitat and should be avoided during winter months. From the ongoing sturgeon study, we know sturgeon of all sizes use this area with the majority being smaller fish between 60 to 120 cm. There are several other smaller holes located downstream of Mission, Hanna Creek, Stave River Confluence, Fort Langley and Billy Minor hole to name a few. There are also a fair number of smaller holes upriver from Mission which include Mossy rocks, MacDonald’s landing, Vedder River confluence, Catermoles, Mountain Bar, Duncan rock and Jespersons. These smaller holes have not been identified as wintering holes but are used by sturgeon year round.
Another frequently asked question is “what baits do we use” “are we going to use dead rotten chickens today?” I love that one. My answer is no, we don’t use dead rotten chickens. Could we catch a sturgeon using dead rotten chickens? Probably. I truly believe you can catch a single sturgeon on just about anything if it is left in the water long enough. Can you consistently catch 6 to 10 sturgeon a day, each and every day, No I don’t think so.
Think of sturgeon fishing the same as you would if you were going fly fishing for trout or trolling for salmon in the ocean. The most successful trout and salmon anglers will “Match the Hatch”. This means give those fish what they would eat naturally during that same time period. If a trout is feeding on mosquito larva, fish a Chronimid, if Salmon are feeding on Herring, use Herring or something that imitates Herring. This is what we call “matching the hatch”.
With Sturgeon there are many Baits you can use, some of the most common are; salmon eggs, gills, salmon bellies, lamprey eel & eulachons. During early spring when there is not much food in the river sturgeon will eat just about anything. You can catch sturgeon on all of the baits mentioned above and more. Over 20 plus years of guiding for sturgeon, we have found that some bait will out fish others during this period when there is no one dominant bait. Salmon eggs are probably at the top of my list as the #1 year-round bait that will consistently produce Sturgeon, Eulachons would be second on my list and one that is being used more often these days is Pike Minnow.
Will any salmon eggs do? Absolutely not. Chum & Chinook salmon eggs will out fish Pink, Sockeye or Coho eggs 10 to 1 in spring, once the Chinook run begins in early summer Chinook eggs will produce best results. As Sockeye begin to enter the Fraser both Chinook & Sockeye eggs work best. When Pink salmon are abundant use Pink eggs. I have never found sturgeon to key in on Coho eggs, probably because Coho are not a dominant species in the Fraser like Chinook, Sockeye, Chum & Pink Salmon. Since we are talking about salmon eggs we better discuss the differences between good and bad eggs and how to store them.
Well Kept Eggs
Single Chum Eggs
When you fish 4 rods on just about every trip and often compete with a team of guides, you quickly realize that not all salmon eggs are equal. Regardless of the season or type of salmon eggs you use, fresh eggs produce better results than eggs that are one or more days old. Time after time we see anglers and guides get out fished by other anglers and guides who take great care of their eggs. One of the most important factors in keeping eggs fresh is air temperature. The warmer the air, the quicker the eggs turn bad. Sturgeons ability to smell is what has kept them alive for 2 ice ages and over 200 million years. They can smell fresh eggs vs. bad eggs, single eggs vs. skeined eggs. Although sturgeons sometimes prefer rotten baits such as Stink Bait (rotten salmon meat) that will be covered in another paragraph on bait.
I could not even begin to tell you how many times we out fish other anglers because of the care we take with our baits. When fishing for many species such as salmon, its location, location, location, with sturgeon it is bait, bait, bait. Just because your salmon eggs look bright does not mean they have not gone bad. Many people associate bad eggs with the color, as a general rule, the brighter the eggs, the fresher, this is true however eggs can also look bright and be bad. If you take your eggs out of the freezer and let them thaw, they will look bright orange, as the day goes on, the eggs will begin to darken, the warmer the temperature the quicker they darken. Dark red eggs will milk out very quickly, as soon as they hit the water you will see a white milky film cover the eggs, these eggs have gone bad. They still might produce a few fish but don’t be surprised if others anglers using better bait are catching more fish. To slow the process of eggs going bad, we will keep our eggs on ice throughout the day which keeps eggs fresh all day.
As mentioned above, eggs don’t have to be dark to have gone bad. We once had hired a local guide to help us on a large group trip. We hired him for 4 straight days of sturgeon fishing. Sturgeon fishing was very good that week with all of our boats averaging 15 to 20 sturgeons per day. The first day he only caught 2 fish, anyone can have a bad day so we didn`t think much of it. Day 2 he caught 3 fish which was a bit concerning as our bottom boat for the day was 17 fish. By the end of the 3rd day, we knew something had to be wrong. We looked at his bait after the second day and it looked to be fine, the 3rd day we checked closer and one of our guides smelled his eggs, they had a sweet smell to them. They looked fine but it was quite obvious that sturgeon could tell the difference. Once we switched him over to our eggs he began to catch more fish. Moral of the story, sturgeon live and die by their ability to smell, if your eggs look good but you are not catching fish when everyone else is, there is a good chance that your eggs have gone bad.
This picture was taken while fishing the Harrison River in late November
Storing and thawing your eggs can be just as important as how you keep them once they are thawed. As soon as we decide that we are going to freeze our eggs for future use we place them in a zip lock baggy, remove all the air and place in a freezer. We then take them out 12 to 24 hours later and vacuum seal so that all the air is completely removed. If you try to vacuum seal them when they are still fresh, the vacuum sealer will suck the juice from the eggs making sealing difficult. When we thaw our eggs we try to thaw them slowly over a 24 hour period, if the weather is cool, you can thaw them in your garage, if the weather is warm it is better to thaw them slowly in the refrigerator. One last note on salmon eggs, if you come across single eggs, use them sparingly as they will out fish skeined eggs 3 to 1. I would guess that the reason for this is that sturgeon key in on salmon eggs when salmon are spawning like on the Harrison River. Have you ever caught a sturgeon in the Fall that had raw lips or a raw nose? This is likely caused by sturgeon digging and sucking up gravel looking for those eggs deposited by spawning salmon, my guess is that single mature eggs give off a unique or different scent than immature seined eggs. I have spent considerable time discussing salmon eggs for good reason; they are probably one of the best producing year round baits for sturgeon.
As mentioned earlier, matching the hatch will produce great results whether you’re fishing for sturgeon, salmon or trout. With sturgeon there are several obvious seasons when matching the hatch is quite easy. The first of the obvious is the oolichan run that begins in mid-April. Although the numbers are down from years past we still see a small sturgeon migration with fish moving towards the lower river in search of this food source. Once the oolichans begin moving upriver, we can follow them by watching for seals and birds that key in on the same run. For example, this last season we followed a large group of fish as they migrated upstream before stopping at Strawberry Island to spawn. Once at Strawberry the sturgeon stopped moving and stayed with this school of fish. We managed to land hundreds of sturgeon over a 3 week period using oolichan for bait. There was a time not long ago when we would use fresh, caught daily from the Fraser, because of low returns the past 4 or 5 years, we are now purchasing bait from Alaska, Oregon & Skeena. Although they all catch sturgeon, we find that the Skeena ones fish better. Growing concerns about the low returns of oolichans could change angling regulations in the near future, be sure to check regulations before using them.
Oolichan fishing was traditionally done by drift netting
Even sport anglers were able to use this method of fishing.
The next big feed and one of the most important for Sturgeon on the Fraser is the Sockeye Salmon run that begins in early summer. By the middle of July, anywhere between 130,000 to 500,000 sockeye have passed through the lower Fraser on their route to the interior of British Columbia. Sturgeon can smell this and have already begun to feed on some of the available fish. Between late July and early August, the larger summer runs of Sockeye begin to migrate up the Fraser. This is usually when the First Nations and recreational fishery begins. One of my key observations would be that as soon as we see a large FN or recreational opening, sturgeon fishing improves greatly. Sturgeons begin feasting on Sockeye, giant Sturgeon will eat whole Sockeye while smaller Sturgeon will feed on discarded heads, gills, guts and eggs. You can use just about any part of the Sockeye Salmon as bait but we do find that they prefer the eggs, belly strips and gills. Belly strips can last for hours but note that eggs and gills scent is released quite quickly so keeping fresh bait on the hook is important. Gills last the least amount of time and should be changed every 10 to 15 minutes as they bleed out very quickly.
Finding feeding Sturgeon during the Sockeye migration is quite easy, just look for anywhere that food will settle on the river bottom. Obvious locations would be large back eddies, the bottom of a gravel bar where recreational anglers are fishing and FN fishers are cleaning their fish. Dead carcasses also gather in a large hole so fishing these locations are all productive. Earlier we had mentioned stink bait so this would be a good time to talk about using this for bait. Stink Bait as we call it is dead rotten fish, as the season progresses this becomes a major food source for sturgeon. For the angler it becomes equally important.
Stink bait can’t be purchased so anglers must either make their own by taking a freshly caught fish and letting it rot or collect a dead salmon from the shoreline. Before doing this you must check your local regulations to ensure that this is legal in your region. There are also some fin fish restrictions in region 3 so be sure to check before using fish parts for bait.
Rotten Salmon makes for great stink bait.
New Tackle for 2012
There has been some progress on rods & reels used for catching sturgeon but the big news is probably more to do with new technology in fishing lines. There are many new lines are the market, so many that it is quite confusing. Every guide or angler I know has his favorite line so they are all probably correct when they say their lines work great. Some of the more popular braided lines would include Tufline, Big Game Braid, Spider Wire, Fireline, Power Pro and my favorite Spider Wire Stealth Braid. All of these lines are suitable for sturgeon fishing on the Fraser River.
One of the reasons I prefer Spider Wire Stealth Braid over some of these other braided lines is because of the thickness of the lines. One of the big advantages of these new super lines is that you can now purchase ultra strong lines in the 150 to 200 lb range with the diameter of 30lb Mono. If you look at the picture above on the right it shows 130 lb Tufline beside 200 Stealth Braid, the lines are almost exactly the same diameter. What is the advantage you ask, well it is simple, the larger the line diameter the greater the drag on your rod. Not only that but you will also need larger /heavier weights to hold the bait on the bottom. Having the ability to use 200lb test line with the diameter that is equal to other lines in the 130lb range gives us a huge advantage when battling those larger fish over 300lbs.
Penn VSX 16 with Spider Wire Stealth Braid
The canyon area of the Fraser is littered with large rocks that offer a greater challenge in landing large sturgeon.
If braided lines have a disadvantage it would be in sharp object abrasion. Although braided lines can take a substantial amount of abrasion under normal conditions, battling a 200-500lb sturgeon is far from normal. The bottom of the Fraser is littered with logs and debris so finding one of these during a long 1-2 hour sturgeon war is not uncommon. When one of these monster sturgeon are on the line, there is an incredible amount of tension on the line, if a large sturgeon takes your line under one of these structures it can often result in a lost fish. One of the problems I have experienced with abrasion issues is with sharp rocks like we see in the canyon area of the Fraser River. In this area, I prefer to use mono for mainline and use braided lines for a leader. Not everyone has two reel choices so I would suggest using as heavy as line as possible to reduce chances of breaking off that trophy sturgeon of a lifetime.
Tips and Tricks
When deciding on which line strength to purchase you need to consider several things like your reel size, line capability and line diameter. For example, if you are using a Penn 320 vs a Penn 330 the 330 can hold about 75 to 100 yards more line than a Penn 320. If you are using a Penn 320 you will want to use either a smaller diameter line which means less strength or choose a line like Spire Wire Stealth Braid where the line diameter at 130 lb test is equal to 80 or 100 lb test on most other lines. If you are using the Penn 330 then line diameter is not a big issue so you can get away with using large diameter lines.
For reference, the Penn 330, Shimano TLD 20, Penn International VSX16 all hold about the same amount of line. Keep in mind that the larger the diameter of the line, the more drag on the rod and more weight is needed to hold the bait on the bottom. Flat weights work the best for sturgeon fishing in fast water as they lay flat on the bottom. When re-spooling your reels only replace the top 150 yards of line using the old line as backing. I use a blood knot to attach my new line to my backing line.
Penn VSX12 & Fathom 60 Level Wind
For those of you looking for a new sturgeon reel, Penn introduced an inexpensive reel that produces 30lbs of drag which is as much as the Penn International Series. The Fathom 60 Level Wind offers big line capacity 4.3:1 gear ratio and a 24-inch line retrieve while only weighing 25 oz. This will make a great sturgeon reel for the Fraser River. It was released in 2011 and is still available for 2012. In 2010 Penn introduced the VSX16 International Series. The VSX 16 is a larger reel that is more comparable to the Shimano TLD25 but late last year Penn released the new VSX12 which is much lighter and more like the size of the TLD20. A very nice reel that will last most anglers a lifetime.
Below is a copy of the Sturgeon Best Handling Practices that was produced by the CWG for sturgeon recovery. This group is comprised of sport angling reps, guide reps, fishery biologists, federal and provincial fishery managers. Please take a few minutes to read them over and please use these practices while sturgeon fishing in British Columbia.
In my next article I will try to cover more on sturgeon habits, migration, hook sets and strategies used by some of the top rods on the water. I will also talk more about the ongoing study on the Fraser River by the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society and some of the work we are doing through the White Sturgeon Technical Working Group for Sturgeon Recovery. Until then, please feel free to e-mail us with your comments, questions or your top secret sturgeon bait.
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Guidelines for Angling White Sturgeon in BC
Most white sturgeon populations in British Columbia are protected under the federal Species at Risk Act and are closed to recreational angling. The lower and middle Fraser River populations are designated as endangered but are considered healthy enough to support a catch and release sport fishery. Catch and release angling can be low impact if extra care is taken to ensure sturgeon health and survival. To sustain this treasured fishery, the following angling practices are necessary:
- Use only single barbless hooks and appropriate tackle
Only single barbless hooks are permitted while sturgeon angling. Use heavy rod and reels, with at least 130 lb. manufacture rated test line.
- Play sturgeon quickly
Play and release sturgeon as quickly as possible. Sturgeon played too long may not recover. If you hook a large sturgeon (by definition large sturgeon are 1.5 meters and greater in length) when boat fishing, release the anchor and play the fish to a pre-determined landing location. This will significantly reduce stress on the sturgeon by reducing time played and by not fighting the river current.
- Choose your fishing location carefully – Keep sturgeon in the water
Never lift a large sturgeon out of the water. Fish suffocate out of the water. Large sturgeon are at risk of internal injuries due to their own weight. Ropes, tailers, nooses or other devices must not be used to hold or land sturgeon.
From shore: Your fishing location must be suitable for landing sturgeon. Elevated docks are not suitable. Do not drag sturgeon out of the water onto the shore or dock. Release smaller sturgeon at the side of the dock. Be prepared to get wet when releasing sturgeon.
From boat: Do not lift or drag a large sturgeon into a boat. Land and release large sturgeon at the side of the boat. Never tow a large sturgeon by the tail to shore. Towing by the tail is damaging and can be lethal.
Release small sturgeon (by definition small sturgeon are less than 1.5 meters in length) at the side of the boat. If you lift a small sturgeon into a boat then cradle it with two gloved hands – one placed behind the front fins or on the mouth and the other hand placed just forward of the tail. Once in the boat use as many people as necessary to support the sturgeon. Never pull a sturgeon into a boat by using a rope or by the sturgeon’s gill plates, pectoral fins, or by its mouth or tail only.
- Remove hooks quickly but gently
Remove deeply embedded hooks with long needle-nose pliers or a hook remover. Grab the bend on the hook and twist. Be quick, but gentle. Sturgeon that are deeply hooked, hooked on or near the gills, or bleeding heavily have lower survival rates. Improve survival by cutting the leader and releasing the sturgeon with the hook left in.
- Handle and recover sturgeon with care – Be prepared to take photos quickly
Never squeeze or hug sturgeon. Keep your fingers away from the gills and out of the gill plates. If you want photographs, always leave large sturgeon in the water. Have your camera ready and be quick. Recover sturgeon by pointing nose-first upstream into the current and letting go when it struggles to swim.
Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society, Fraser Valley Angling Guides Association, Recreational Sturgeon Anglers of BC, Fisheries & Oceans Canada, and Province of BC supported the development, and encourage the practice of, these Guidelines.