How To Catch a Sturgeon
Table of Contents
The word sturgeon is commonly used to refer to about 27 species of fish in the same family. These species have evolved into their own niche based on their location and habitat. Generally, sturgeon are found in subtropical, temperate, subarctic rivers, lakes and coastlines in the Northern Hemisphere. Fisherman in some parts of the country may be more familiar with the closely related paddlefish. As a group, these fish are sometimes referred to as primitive fish. This is largely in response to the fact these fish have remained relatively unchanged in structure from the earlies fossil records to present. The first fossils of what we would recognize as sturgeons enter the fossil record in the Middle Jurassic period around 174 million years ago. The sturgeon is a truly ancient fish with a long and storied tradition.
Sturgeons are a highly valued commercial fish and as such, they have been exploited for the better part of 3 centuries. Fish are harvested for their roe (eggs), flesh and swim bladders. Most people may not have tried caviar, but they have certainly heard of it. It is a high-end item and very expensive; it is harvested from female sturgeon of certain species. Most of the high-end caviar comes from the Russian fisheries.
Sturgeon meat is also highly sought after in some regions. It is most commonly sold fresh, pickled and smoked. Another commercial use for sturgeon is their swim bladders. These are harvested in order to use the inner membrane and make isinglass. This is a special and pure form of gelatin that is used in some industrial processes around the globe. All these factors have combined to make the sturgeon one of the most overly exploited natural resources in the world. Several species of sturgeon have become extinct and many other species are endangered. It is important for any fisherman going after these fish to practice catch and release.
Behavior and Habitat
Sturgeon have an extensive range from North America to Eurasia. In these habitats, sturgeon make their home in rivers, lakes, estuaries and ocean coastlines. Although certain species make their home in exclusively freshwater, most sturgeon split their time between freshwater, brackish water and ocean water. Most species migrate up rivers, out of estuaries or coastal oceans, in the spring and summer, to spawn. After spawning these fish will move back out to brackish estuaries and coastlines to feed for the remainder of the year.
Some species of sturgeon have developed into only freshwater fish. This is generally due to habitat loss and the impoundment of their native rivers. Dams have made the large-scale migration of sturgeon impossible in some of their native habitat. Some sturgeon, like the lake sturgeon, found in the Great Lakes region, have evolved to solely live in freshwater, using large lake systems to migrate and propagate.
The lake sturgeon were once prolific in the Great Lakes Region of North America. During the 1800’s and early 1900’s, commercial fishing had nearly wiped out the lake sturgeon. In the early 1990’s, these fish were recognized as endangered and large-scale efforts were undertaken to bolster the population. However, lake sturgeon, and other species of sturgeon have certain traits that make their come back more difficult.
Sturgeon mature relatively slowly, it takes years for an individual to reach spawning age. Their spawning cycles can also be easily interrupted by many environmental or manmade factors. This means that some years, there may be zero spawning activity. Losing an entire year’s worth of offspring can be detrimental to any species. Due to these factors, sturgeon are also highly susceptible to impacts from pollution, loss of food sources and certain invasive species. These fish appear to be particularly affected by climate change.
For this article we will focus on fishing for white and lake sturgeon. Despite their name, lake sturgeon frequent rivers that connect lake chains, but they live only in freshwater, and generally do not venture to brackish water. This can be due to evolutionary changes or the simple fact that certain groups of fish don’t have access to brackish water due to human alteration of river and lake systems.
White sturgeon behave as one would generally think, they inhabit coastal areas and estuaries. They return to the river where they were spawned to reproduce themselves. There are a group of white sturgeon that are completely landlocked and have evolved into a strictly freshwater fish. This group of sturgeon are found in the Columbia River Drainage, Montana and California.
Size and Age
These fish are generally the largest fish in any freshwater system. They can reach lengths of 20 feet and weigh several hundred pounds. They are also extremely long-lived fish, surviving 100 years or more.
Sturgeon are classic bottom feeders, I would compare them to a channel catfish, based on their feeding behavior. They use the four barbells located around their mouth to “feel” along the bottom for a meal. Their mouth is like a vacuum, sucking food in whole. Sturgeon have no teeth to hold on to prey, so most of their diet is relatively immobile food or dead aquatics.
What do Sturgeon Eat
Some sturgeon eat fish eggs and other small fish; some of the larger specimens eat larger whole fish and crustaceans including salmon, flounder, herring, crabs and mussels.
Avoid Flashy Lures
Sturgeon do not feed based on sight, so flashy lures do nothing to attract them. They feed based on feel and smell, much like a channel catfish. Generally, when sturgeon feed in rivers, they take advantage of the rivers current to bring food to them. This means they position themselves facing into strong current in the river. Prime locations for feeding fish are at the head of deep holes in the main river channel, especially down from dams.
Fishing Strategies for Sturgeon
We will mostly discuss fishing for sturgeon in river systems, these fish are easier to find and pattern; this makes these fish more catchable. There are many factors that affect the activity level of sturgeon. Dam generation, time of year, weather, and water temperature are all things that will affect how fish will feed and where they will be located.
Fish where the Fish Are
The single best strategy for sturgeon is to fish where the fish are. Now, that may sound like a common-sense tip, but sturgeon will be in very specific parts of the river. You need to think like a sturgeon, if you are not getting bites or catching them, you must move. Sturgeon will be keyed in on the most abundant food source in their river. One example of this is when dead fish or shad are passing through the turbines of dam, the sturgeon will enter a feeding frenzy, keying in on these dead fish. This is why it is important to always be aware of your surroundings, using your eyes and ears to glean clues from the environment.
Preferred Water Temperatures
Sturgeon seem to be most active when the water temps are between 50- and 65-degrees Fahrenheit. There will be some variability to that range; small sturgeon may feed actively in temps outside of this range, but larger specimens will become considerably less active when temperatures are outside of this zone.
Best Time of Year to fish for Sturgeon
As a rule, it is generally accepted that the best sturgeon fishing is in the months of May, June, October and November. There may be certain river systems where fishing for sturgeon is good all year, depending on that rivers external factors. As an example, sturgeon fishing is excellent year round on the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon.
Finding Sturgeon Locations
To locate active sturgeon on nearly any river, you need to find water with the most flow volume or current speed. Sturgeon use the current to carry bring food to them, the most food will be delivered by faster current or more flow volume. You can find this by reading the river, seeing how your boat or bait drifts and finding the main channel.
Find the Hole
The next step is continuing to refine your search, you have found the general area that holds fish. Now you need to find those sweet spots that hold the largest and most actively feeding fish. The most productive spots will also have holes, or deeper water than the surrounding area. In any discussion on sturgeon fishing, holes will come up. Most people think of a hole as a considerably deeper depression in the river bed, a 10-foot-deep or more depression. These places will absolutely hold fish that you can catch but if you only look for structure like this you are passing up the majority of likely sturgeon spots. A hole doesn’t have to be large or deep, a 1 – 3 foot drop or hole will hold fish and most anglers will overlook it. Sturgeon use these holes as a current break, they lay behind them to conserve energy, out of the full force of the current. The current sweeps over them, depositing food right in their face. Use your electronics to find these holes, side imaging sonar is the most effective tool to do this. We will discuss electronics further in the fishing products section.
It is true that sturgeon feed based on smell, among other things. You can catch fish on rotten or stink baits, but that is not always the most effective approach. Like many types of fishing, especially fly fishing, “matching the hatch” is the best approach. What this means in sturgeon fishing is matching your bait offering to what is naturally occurring in the river during any given time period.
Effective Bait for Sturgeon
One of the most effective baits at all times of the year are salmon eggs. The second may be a Eulachon or smelt. These oily, smelly fish are loved by sturgeon.
Another option is the standard shad, an abundant baitfish across North America. On many rivers, shad run up river by the millions in order to spawn, sturgeon will actively feed on them. Some river systems have large migrations of sockeye salmon, sturgeon will put on the feed bag during these times. Large fish will eat whole salmon, but the smaller ones will gorge themselves on the rotting pieces of salmon discarded by fisherman. During this time, match the hatch, and use salmon belly strips, salmon gills, etc.
Most Important Tip for Fishing Sturgeon
Possibly the most important tip in this article, is you need to use fresh bait. It doesn’t matter what you are fishing with, it needs to be as fresh as possible. This means taking care of your bait before you get to the water. This is especially important for using salmon eggs. Fresh, well kept salmon eggs will absolutely out fish old, poorly kept eggs.
This also means keeping the bait on your hook fresh. So if the bait has been floating on your hook for an hour, you are less likely to catch any sturgeon. When using fish bait, like smelt or shad, it’s the blood, guts and slime of the bait that will ultimately attract the sturgeon. Do yourself a favor and keep your bait fresh, it will absolutely make a difference.
Sturgeon Fishing Equipment
One of the most important products in sturgeon fishing is electronics or sonar. As stated earlier, you are trying to find large holes and the more subtle holes in the river bed. The best and most efficient way to locate these fish holding spots is with a side scan sonar unit. Carefully surveying the river bed with side scan will reveal all the likely fish holding spots. You will also be able to see if those particular spots are holding fish. Spend as much money as you can on sonar units, the larger the screen the easier it is to read and pick out fish and structure.
Strong Line, Reel, and Rod for the Strongest Freshwater Fish
With the chance of catching huge fish, you must match your tackle to the job at hand. Sturgeon may be several hundred pounds and they are the strongest fighting fish in freshwater. Your fishing line is a major consideration. Some people use braided line for their entire length of line. Braided line has advantages; it is smaller in diameter for a higher pound rating. This is important for line capacity on reels, friction on the rod and the amount of weight to hold your bait on the bottom.
The major disadvantage of braided line is its abrasion resistance. To counter this, some anglers use monofilament as their main line and use braided leaders for the lower portion.
Reels should be large and heavy duty with a large line capacity. Reels should also be geared for power instead of line retrieval rate.
Sturgeon are big and tough, you should be using a large, heavy, tough rod. One tip that will get you more fish is to use a heavy rod with a lighter tip. There are rods that have the backbone to haul in a behemoth but that also have a much lighter tip. The light tip is important so that the sturgeon feels as little resistance as possible while picking up your bait. In heavily pressured fish, the first sign of pressure or resistance will cause the sturgeon to spit out your bait before you have time to set the hook.
As always, you can’t catch them on the couch, get out there and employ these tactics to catch a sturgeon of your own.