We want them to learn to fight big fish. Little Smokey, 7, and Johnny, 5, have been on 17 fishing trips so far this year. They can handle fly rods and spinning rods and they have caught a lot of fish. But nothing like what a steelhead, a salmon or a sturgeon can dish out. The kids are too young for steelhead and salmon yet, in my view, but sturgeon can teach them a lot. I figured if they caught some little ones, they might advance a little in their fish-fighting skills. We headed for The Dalles and pizza night at Spooky’s before a stay at the Shilo Inn.
In the morning we had pancakes with my friend Lisa Farquharson who helped fill the kids on what they could expect.
My friend Greg Gustafson, owner of Sturgeon River Monsters, met us as the ramp in early afternoon. The kids buckled into life jackets and the boat rumbled away from the launch.
We anchored in the calm waters off the main channel where sturgeon roam in and out among the rocky islands. But big fluctuations in the river level the day before had put the fish off the bite.
Anchored in 14 feet of water off the edge of a tongue of current, we saw fish on the depth finder. Gustafson pointed out a larger image, close to the bottom. “That’s a bigger one,” he said to Johnny.
The tackle was downsized to fit the kids. Little Smokey’s was a short sturgeon boat rod, while Johnny’s was a nine-foot spinning setup, better suited to steelhead.
Pickled squid and nightcrawlers were the baits. I had anticipated a dozen sturgeon in two hours or so, based on past forays among the islands. It was not like that. The first bite came two hours in. We moved several times, looking for the deepest buckets that would hold the most fish. Looking for a fish that didn’t have lockjaw.
Greg didn’t want to admit defeat. We would stay till dark if we had to. It wasn’t part of the lesson plan, but the kids learned patience too. Then the rod baited with the squid began to tap-tap-tap and the clicker on the reel started to sing. Fish on!
Greg showed Little Smokey how to put her feet against the boat, keep the rod up in the air, and how to use her body to work the fish. It was five minutes of chaos.
Then there was a barbless hook to remove and a quick picture to take. Easily the biggest fish of her life, Little Smokey watched the 42-inch white sturgeon kick away into the deep.
Another hour passed and the sun slipped toward the Cascades in a smoky sky. The nightcrawler baits had been pecked at, but the fish were less than enthusiastic and we had lost almost all our hooks to the rocks. Johnny sulked. He wanted to catch a fish too.
I rummaged through my pockets, found a bottle of Pro-Cure squid oil and gave a fresh ‘crawler a liberal application.
Drop the bait all the way to the bottom, reel up one crank, let that squid-scented goodness hover among the dinosaurs.
A sturgeon climbed on.
We had no way of knowing if it was a seven-footer or a three-footer, but I hoped for the latter. The steelhead rod was bent all the way into the water. I held on to the boy’s life vest while he battled, and took the rod from him a couple of times as the fish went under the motor. To follow the fish around and clear the prop each time, the rod had to be stabbed down deep. After three times around the boat, the fish began to tire and Greg helped Little Smokey make the scoop.
We estimated this one at three feet long, with razor sharp scutes along its back and flanks. Both of the kids went home with war wounds from the biggest fish of their lives.
They came away with a little more fish-fighting confidence. And bragging rights too.
A sturgeon trip is more about teamwork than anything else. I tried to pass that along, but I’m not sure they caught the concept. They fought about how big their fish were all the way home, and how sharp the scutes were. What they could agree on was they wanted to fish for sturgeon at The Dalles again soon.
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Gary Lewis is the host of Frontier Unlimited TV and author of Fishing Central Oregon, Fishing Mount Hood Country, Hunting Oregon and other titles. Contact Gary at www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com