Ladyfisher's Sturgeon

Photo by Jim Birkholm
Thanks for use permission!

No, It's Not Fly Fishing

But it is fishing! And more than once in the past year I have encouraged folks to take advantage of the fish they have. But there is more to this story.

JC and I celebrated our 25th Wedding Anniversary last week. Since it was the "Silver Anniversary" JC decided we should go fishing for Silver Salmon. Those who have had the pleasure of either reading his columns or have met him in person would not find that surprising. Others, however, might find it a bit odd. The background is we met fly fishing, were married on the troutstream where we met. So fishing on our anniversary really fits the pattern.

We headed for the Oregon coast - at least they are supposed to have some salmon - ours in Washington are pretty pathetic at this point, between total mismanagement (that is an oxymoron if I ever heard one) and commercial over-harvest.

JC decides if we really want to catch salmon, and not just fish for them, the direction should be to book a charter on a real boat. Hey, I'm game, why not? This becomes a comedy routine. Most charters are already booked, but after five phone calls we find one.

"Show up at 7:00 a.m. at the boat basin in Warrenton OR" says the booking office. I give the gal a credit card number and we are booked! Once in our room in Seaside OR (lovely, right on the promanade looking out at the sea) I call to confirm the charter reservation. But in the rush to get away, I can't remember which of the phone numbers the charter is. And to make it worse, I can't remember the name of it either.

Four phone calls later I've got the right one. But in the meantime, JC is doubled up laughing at my phone conversations. Example: "Hi, this is Deanna Birkholm, do you have a reservation for 2 people tomorrow morning?" Geeze. Did finally get the right one, and double-checked on the departure time.

We ask for a wake-up call for 5:00am. and set our little travel alarm for the same time. JC insists on breakfast - I frankly don't want to look at food at that hour.

Off to the boat basin in Warrenton. Pass a local cafe, and of course, go back for breakfast. Lots of local fellows in Arnies having breakfast or morning coffee, and even some other fisherman. It was good food. That out of the way, find the boat basin, and the little building where we are to meet our captain. Again, lots of people, and we stand in line for a while. Once at the counter, the gal asks my name, I tell her and she says, "gee, I don't have you on my list."

My mind is racing! Did I screw up? Are we at the wrong place? Then the gal asks, "which bait did you want?" Seems she is working a pre-order list for folks who put their requests in for bait - not anything to do with charters. Big relief. But not for long.

The charter has left. We were supposed to be there at 6:00 not 7:00. Not by what I was told, twice I explained. Well, there might be a fix. She gets on the marine radio, explains the problem to the captain. After some grumbling and muttering - both on the captains part and ours, he agrees to put in at the marina downstream at Hammond. Directions given, and we are off again.

The marina isn't hard to find, just follow all boats on trailers. This place is huge. So huge there is a guy directing traffic, one way looks like the parking lot at the state fair - without the ferris wheel. JC finds a parking space, not easy, and we grab our gear and head for the docks. A young man comes up a ramp off the floating docks and asks if we are looking for the Thunderbird! Hurrah, that's our boat. A personal escort yet. That was the nice part. The not so nice part is the rest of the people on the charter are not too thrilled at having to come back into port to pick us up. We apologize for the inconvenience and find out no one has caught anything anyway. Probably not a big deal.

The Captain, Leo Bushnell greets us, the young man who had met us casts off and we are finally underway. Salmon, here we come!

Well, not exactly. The boat runs out to between two sand bars, a slot according to Capt. Leo, and we drop anchor. Hmmmm, not like any salmon fishing we have ever done. The short, ugly-stick type boat rods are rigged. With 16 to 20 ounces of lead, heavy 30 pound leaders, and cut anchovies for bait, half-hitched onto the barbless single hook. This is bottom fishing! And we are fishing for Sturgeon.

Capt. Leo had been monitoring the marine band radio. No one was catching any salmon. We had no idea how many boats were out fishing for salmon until several hours later. Turns out there were boats from the upstream side of the Astoria Bridge all the way to Buoy 10. Several miles, and several thousand boats!

Captain Giving Instructions

So Sturgeon fishing it is. The how-to instructions included keep your bait steady, sturgeon don't like moving things. Keep a tight line, but make sure the sinker is on the bottom. If you see the line and tip of the rod move, feed out a little line. If it moves again, come up hard until the rod is pointing straight up.

JC gets the first hit. A dandy fish, 58 inches in length, which makes it a keeper. Sturgeon are fished within a 'slot limit' have to be over a certain length and under a larger length. One fish on board. I get a hit - which is much more gentle than I would have imagined for such a horrendous looking fish. My fish was undersized and was gently returned to the water.

Thrilled Grandson!

A young man, grandson of a couple on board gets one. Too small. His grandmother gets one. She can't get it in, the Captain comes to her rescue and lands it. Too small. Another of the group gets one - a keeper. JC gets another, too small. I get one - hey a keeper.

Finally, the bite is over. The tide has changed and no more sturgeon are taking our bait, we ran out of cut anchovies and changed to squid. We see sturgeon basking and breaching the surface. Cool! Gear brought in, the Captain heads for infamous Buoy 10. Buoy 10 is the beginning of the area open to salmon fishing. Salmon headed for the Columbia River pass through the Buoy 10 region.

Other than on Lake Michigan in the late 1950's when Coho Fever hit, we have not seen so many boats gathered in one place. Some were just too small to be on the ocean. But the weather was calm, 'tho a bit overcast and no one was in danger - except maybe by being run over by another boat.

This is a professional Captain's nightmare. People who are not really trained for running boats on the ocean, trolling, crossing other boat's lines and in general doing dumb stuff. Captain Leo muttered something about the original amateur hour and changed direction.

F/V Thunderbird

The charter boat we were on was a 48 footer, rigged for 6 people. There was an ample cabin with a microwave for a hot cup of coffee or a lunch. Plenty of room, and a fine, attentive Captain. You can reach Captain Leo for reservations on the Thunderbird at 503-861-7460.

We did not see a salmon caught. After trolling an hour or so we picked up the gear and headed for the Hammond Marina.

What do you do with two very large sturgeon? Broiled with lemon butter is one suggestion. Deep fried if you like that, or dipped in egg batter and sauteed. Or you could smoke some. Or pickle some.

We do smoke fish occasionally, and decided to do some of the fish that way. The 'pickle some' was also an interesting idea. The Captain has a well-tested recipe he offered to share. Said he uses it for salmon, sturgeon, smelt, herring and anything generally that swims.

I have a jug in process now, and if it comes out nearly as good as it looks it will indeed be a treat. If you have ever had pickled herring either plain or with sour cream and thought it was good, you might give this one a try.

Captain Leo's Pickled Fish

  • You will need a glass gallon jar. (Plastic doesn't work. Trust me, did that one years ago, plastic buckled in the middle of the night and pickles running off the cupboard onto the floor was the sight that greeted me in the morning.)

  • Cut fish into bite-sized pieces. Start by putting a layer of thinly sliced onions in bottom of jar. Cover with a layer of cut-up raw fish. Repeat with layer of onion and layer of fish until almost full.

  • Mix 2 1/2 to 3 cups sugar (depending on how sweet you want the finished product), and 12 Tablespoons salt. Pour in jar over fish and onions. Make a small cheesecloth bag and put 8 Teaspoons of pickling spices in the bag and tie up. Put bag in jar.

  • Fill with cold white vinegar. Cover with lid.

  • Let set 5 days, but shake the jar once a day. Eat!

    I altered the recipe slightly. I put a couple of cups of white vinegar in a pan on the stove, heated it and added the sugar and salt, stirred until it was dissolved. Let that cool completely and poured it, now cold, over the fish and onions. And then filled the jar with enough white vinegar to cover the fish and onions. I made the bag for the spices from a clean discared toe section of panty hose. I'll let you know how the pickled fish turned out.

    Pickled Sturgeon
    *Update! The picked sturgeon is wonderful! Do give the recipe a try.

    Sturgeon are an amazing looking fish. With all that armor, I wonder who they evolved to avoid! It was an interesting adventure, and I would not have missed it. They are fighters.

    There are people out there who think "real" fly fishermen never fish for anything but trout. Or who certainly wouldn't stoop to fish any way but with flies. Wrong. That is an elitist attitude, way outside the real world. If you find yourself in a position or place (like the Columbia River) and have an opportunity to fish for sturgeon go for it!

    What a neat way to spend a 25th Anniversary!

    ~Deanna Birkholm

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