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Catching Sturgeon On Tillamook Bay

by: Dennis Dobson
Weíd been anchored on one of my favorite Tillamook Bay sturgeon flats, on Oregon's scenic north coast, for just over an hour , rocking heavily in the chop created by 15-knot winds, when without any warning, I jumped up, reached over a clientís shoulder, pulled two feet of line off his reel and removed his rod from the holder, all in pretty much one single motion. While the client and his buddies were still trying to decide what I was doing, I bent at the waist, pointing the rod tip at the water and waited for the line to go taught. Suddenly I reared back, setting the hook. "Fish on!" I shouted, setting the hook a second and third time, then turning and thrusting the rod towards the astonished angler. This was just the first of what proved to be six fish we played that day. There are a number of things an angler can do to increase the chances of hooking into one of these great fighting, great tasting fish. Some are simple and self-evident, while others require a little practice. Paramount among these are tides, location, water temperature, rigging, bait and knowing a bite when you get one. The bottom line is, though, that anyone can learn to do it.
Dennis, at right, and a happy crew
of clients with a full limit of sturgeon.
Unlike fresh water fisheries such as the Willamette and Columbia rivers, tides play a critical role in sturgeon fishing in any bay or stretch of tidewater. Sturgeon like a lot of water movement, so minus tides tend to produce more fish. And while it certainly isnít impossible to catch sturgeon on an incoming tide or during a tide cycle that doesnít produce minus tides, you will increase your chances by targeting your fishing time to days during a minus tide cycle. There are a couple of reasons for this and they are directly related to the feeding cycle of the fish themselves. Commonly, sturgeon move from the deeper holes up onto tidal flats on an outgoing tide. While they may live in the deeper water, they are rarely caught there because it isnít where their favorite food lives. As a result, they feed in relatively shallow water. When you see them on your fish finder in water deeper than about fifteen feet, theyíre just resting and waiting for the next tide change. As the tides go out, it carries away the top layers of mud, sand and silt covering the shallow flats where the sand shrimp and mud shrimp, their favorite food, live, exposing the tasty crustaceans to the probing mouths and sensitive feelers of cruising sturgeon. And yes, while salt water sturgeon are true scavengers and will eat almost anything they can find, including crab, baitfish, eel and squid, their diet depends upon a steady supply of sand and mud shrimp. So, while the tide drops, sturgeon slowly cruise up onto the shrimp flats searching for food. Once the tide turns and begins to head back in, they reverse course and slowly hunt their way back into deeper water. An easy way to remember which tide cycles produce the best sturgeon fishing is to key on the fact that it is the same as a good clamming tide and the exact reverse of a good crabbing tide.
Since anglers can keep just
one fish between 42 inches
and 60 inches per day, each
fish is carefully measured
before deciding to keep it or
release it to fight another day.
Many sturgeon anglers, especially those that fish the larger rivers as well as the bay, tend to use gear thatís far too heavy for bay fish. While it makes sense to use heavy, short rods, huge capacity reels and 80 to120-pound braided dacron fishing line in a large river, like the Columbia, where you are fishing in a hundred feet of water and catching fish that run to ten or twelve feet in length, itís unnecessary on the bay. Here you are anchored in ten or twelve feet of water and fishing in just four to ten feet. As a matter of fact, it isnít uncommon to see sturgeon rolling when you are on the bay. And on a really low, minus tide, youíll see them tailing just like bonefish on the flats. On the Columbia youíll catch a fair number of truly large fish, fish you have to release. On Tillamook Bay, you wonít. We simply donít catch fish that large with any regularity. As a matter of fact, the largest fish Iíve hooked in the last two years, just two weeks ago, was just under eight feet in length. What we do catch, however, is a lot of keepers. On an average day, fifty-percent of the fish you catch on Tillamook Bay will be legal keepers. Compare that to the ten to twenty-percent keeper ratio on the Columbia on a good day. Bear in mind also that the fish you catch in the bay will be fat, firm, feisty and free of toxic chemicals. Many folks consider them to be the finest tasting gamefish in the world.

That all of this means to the average angler is that you donít need a bunch of new, expensive gear to catch these fish. If you have basic fall chinook rods, reels and line, you can handle anything the bay is likely to produce. I use nine-foot North River rods rated for 20-50 pound test line, Abu-Garcia 5500 and 6500-series reels and thirty or forty-pound test line. Iíve recently switched lines to Trileneís Big Game 40-pound in bright green. These fish are not at all line shy so the bright color doesnít matter and I find it very easy to see, especially on gray, overcast days. And, as weíll discuss a little later, a lot of successful sturgeon catching is visual, keying on the line for clues to a bite.
Sturgeon are the only
gamefish in Oregon that
the regulations allow
an angler to keep a limit
and continue fishing as
long as all subsequent
fish are released unharmed.
In this case, Paul Turnbull
(left) has decided that
this 59-127/128ths inch
bruiser is definitely headed
for the freezer.
To rig for sturgeon simply place a slider, either the commercially available products or a large snap swivel ( two hints here: I donít like using snap swivels because they abraid your line as they slide up and down. I use the commercially made plastic sliders with one modification. They come from the factory with a small T-shaped catch on top. I cut the
catches off as they have a tendency to foul the line when you cast) on the terminal end of your line. Next, slide on a plastic bead and tie the line to a large barrel swivel. Be sure the bead is large enough to protect the knot from the slider. Thatís itís only purpose for being there. Leaders are tied using approximately three feet of 80 to 130-pound braided dacron line and are attached to the open end of the barrel swivel youíve already tied to your main line. Being softer, yet stronger than standard mono or co-polymer lines, they will lay flatter on the bottom, where the fish feed, and resist abrasion by crab claws as the little beasties try to steal your bait. I use two 5/0 or 6/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hooks tied two to three inches apart, one above the other, with bait loop knots (also known as a guideís loop), tandem style. Impale two or three shrimp on the hooks, secure them with elastic thread, add some scent and your bait is ready to go. Depending on how fast the current is moving youíll need anywhere from six to ten or even twelve ounces of weight attached to the clip on the slider. The beauty of this method of rigging is that the fish can pick up the bait and move a short distance with it, thereby letting you see the bite, without feeling the weight.

Virtually any of the flats, or shallow areas, dotting Tillamook Bay will attract sturgeon at one time or another. There are, however, a few favorite, consistent spots you should know. The Dolphins, at Bay City, South Channel - near the oyster beds lining the western edge of the bay - and the Corral, near the center of the bay, are three of the best. Rather than explain here in writing how to find each of these, a daunting task at best, I strongly recommend you visit Sherry Lyster at Lysterís Bait, just a mile north of Garibaldi on Hwy 101. She has good maps of the bay for sale that show these and other favorite areas. She also stocks a complete supply of bait and gear and can answer any questions you might have. Keep in mind that the bay is a tricky, often dangerous piece of water. Each winter and spring flood changes channels and mud bars. Just because you could drive a channel safely last year doesnít mean you can now. The best way to learn the safe channels is to take the time to chart the bay. Just spend a day or two slowly cruising the bay with your depth finder on, marking on your map or in your memory where the water is going to be deep enough at low tide to travel safely. This will also help you find the shrimp flats that attract the fish.
Dennis, at right, and a happy crew
of clients with a full limit of sturgeon.
Another location key are rip lines. You can see a rip line anywhere the current is dropping off a really shallow flat into deeper water. Youíll actually see the line, or rip, where the current changes speed. Ideally youíll anchor up in a position that allows you to let as many anglers in your party as possible fish the rip. The perfect rip line drops from a foot or less of water at low tide into six to nine feet. Sturgeon spend a lot of time cruising these dropoffs because the increased velocity of the water on top of the flat pulls food down the dropoff to the slightly deeper water below. And donít start worrying when you see the water color changing from a nice sea green to brown and muddy. Thatís what youíre looking for. That suspended mud and sand creating the color change is the top layer being pulled off the flat by the current, exposing the shrimp beds to hungry sturgeon. Think of it as a dinner bell ringing out for every sturgeon in the neighborhood to hear.

A sturgeon bite and water temperature are closely linked. In cold water, like we have right now - just 44 degrees on Friday, April 9th - they bite very slowly, very tentatively. Much like a hatchery trout, with a series of slow pecks, it can often be difficult to detect. Often mistaken for the weight dragging on bottom due to the current, the easiest way to tell whether itís bite or not is to remember that a dragging weight will make your rod tip move a bit but will do so only once. A sturgeon bite will repeat itself several times. Commonly the fish will suck the bait in and spit it out a few to several times before deciding it wants it. Heís just tasting it and trying to make up his mind. Let him play with it until heís sure he wants it. If you set the hook too soon all youíll do is either pull it away from him entirely or foul hook him. Once heís decided he wants your bait the line will go tight, then slack in a series of a few to several abrupt jerks. If the rod is in the holder, strip a couple of feet of line from the reel before picking up the rod.
Otherwise, the fish will feel the tension and vibration as you handle the rod and heíll drop the bait and go looking for something else that shows less signs of life. Once the rod is in your hands, gently reel up most, but not all, of the slack. The next time the line goes out set the hook. This way you know the fish actually has the bait in his mouth and you are assured of a fair hook up.

In warmer water, above 50 degrees, which we normally see from May through September, the bite will be noticeably more active and often even aggressive. The closer the fish get to spawning, usually in July and August and triggered by warming water temps and longer days, the more aggressive they get. An active bite will look and feel much the same as a cold water bite except that itís quicker and the telltale movements of rod tip and line are much more noticeable. There wonít be much doubt in your mind that itís a bite. A truly aggressive bite is called "freight-training" and is unmistakable, leaving absolutely no doubt in your mind as to whatís going on. After all, when your rod suddenly doubles over without warning, no tap-tap-tap, and you can hear line screaming off the reel itís a reasonable assumption that it isnít the current or a crab toying with your bait. Just set the hook and hang on!

Windy conditions on the bay, a not uncommon occurrence any time of year, can make visually detecting a bite almost impossible. Between the pitching and rocking of the boat and the wind playing tag with exposed line, even the most experienced sturgeon angler has difficulty seeing a subtle bite. This is when it pays to use your sense of touch. With winds any stronger than a mild breeze, I encourage everyone in the boat to hold their rods in their hand. That first tug or two, often too light to see due to wind and waves, can, however, be readily felt. It is your first clue that something noteworthy is happening. Once you feel that first tug, concentrate on seeing as well as feeling the bite. The combination of senses will definitely improve your hook-up ratio in windy weather.

If all of this seems like just too much to remember and use, keep in mind that 99-percent of fishing was designed and developed by a guy named ĎBubbaí. If he could do it, so can you.

Copyright 1999 Dennis Dobson, Oregon Outdoors.

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Added: Thu Oct 16 2008
Last Modified: Wed May 27 2009

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