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Out There: Hooked to Goliath

9/28/2004

My fingers ached. My muscles burned. Sweat scalded my eyes. I could barely turn the reel handle.

I felt like David standing before Goliath. Could I defeat this giant? Or would it defeat me?

For fifteen minutes I fought the enormous fish in the cold, swift water of Oregon's Columbia River. Nothing prepared me for its astounding power. At first, I simply held on, gripping the rod with both hands and watching helplessly as yard after yard of line stripped from the reel. I thought the fish might spool me or yank the rod from my hands, but gradually, with one turn of the reel handle then another, I began to gain ground. Pull, crank. Pull, crank. I set my back into it, and reeled for all I was worth.

There was no shortage of encouragement. Three friends — Louis McMind, Matt Foster and Mark Davis — cheered me from the confines of Louis' jet boat. Louis, who has battled such giants hundreds of times before, offered instruction.

"Keep your line tight at all times," he said. "The hook is barbless, and if you give him slack, he'll be gone."

It seemed I was destined for failure. Now matter how hard I pulled, the fish pulled harder. When I reeled in five yards of line, the giant took ten. It was a battle of give and take, and my out-of-shape body took a beating. Then, suddenly, a huge round nose broke above the water.

"There he is!" Louis shouted.

Beneath the enormous snout was a Hitler's mustache of barbels and a protruding vacuum-cleaner mouth big enough to suck up softballs. The eyes seemed small and useless on a creature so large. Seven feet of him now floated beside us, every inch covered with thick bony armor.

But the fish was not done. With a flip of its tail, it drenched us and dove again. There was another short run, another spasm of reeling, then once again the fish surfaced. This time he was mine.

"Around seven feet, 200 pounds," Louis estimated as he brought the fish close to unhook it. "Not bad for your first sturgeon, huh?"

It was — still is — the biggest fish I've caught in 40 years fishing fresh and saltwater. But Goliath it was not. White sturgeons reach 18 feet and almost a ton. By comparison, mine was a midget.

White sturgeon grow larger than any fish in North America's inland waters. The current world record is a 468-pounder caught at Benicia, California in 1983, but much larger specimens have been verified.

In 1912, a giant measuring 12.5 feet long and weighing 1,285 pounds was captured in the Columbia in a gill-net. A 1,500-pound specimen was caught and photographed in Idaho's Snake River in 1911. An even larger sturgeon, a 2,000-pound Oregon fish, was reportedly mounted for exhibition at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.

Sturgeons much larger than the world record fall to Columbia River anglers every year, but catch-and-release regulations aimed at protecting depleted sturgeon stocks make it unlikely the record will be broken anywhere in the fish's range. Potential record-breakers can't be removed from the water and weighed, so it's difficult to determine their true size.

White sturgeons roam Pacific Coast waters from central California to Alaska. Like salmon, they are anadramous, living part of their lives in the ocean and ascending large rivers to spawn in freshwater. The primary reproductive waters are British Columbia's Fraser River system; the Columbia-Snake River system in Washington, Oregon and Idaho; and the Sacramento-San Joaquin river system in California. Seventeen white sturgeon populations are landlocked due to dam construction. The Kootenai River population in Idaho and Montana is naturally isolated and was listed as endangered in 1994.

The lower Columbia River, below Bonneville Dam near Portland, Oregon, harbors North America's densest population of white sturgeons. During my one-day fishing trip, I saw several seven- to eight-footers brought in by other anglers. One leviathan stretched 10 feet long and surely weighed 600 pounds.

We also saw many huge sturgeon leaping around us. They launched when least expected, often flying completely out of the water and landing with a massive splash. Biologists aren't sure why they do this. Some say it helps rid them of parasitic lampreys. To me, it looked like play — gentle giants testing the air.

Our host, Louis McMind of Troutdale, Oregon, started fishing for the Columbia's giant sturgeon in the early 1950s. He fishes year-round, usually alone, and often videotapes his battles with river Goliaths. He catches 50 to 60 fish over six feet each year, and once caught 13 seven- to 10-footers in a single day. One extraordinary videos shows him subduing a 13-footer that weighed nearly half a ton.

"I love catching these big fish," McMind says. "They're extremely powerful and love to jump and thrash. A big one can take 200 yards of line out in a heartbeat, and they may not stop. This isn't trout fishing. I'm out here to catch giants, fish that may weigh as much as a trophy marlin.

"Good heavy tackle is a must," McMind continues. "I use 100-pound-test line, big Penn level-wind reels and heavy, seven-foot G. Loomis rods. I have favorite holes I've been fishing for years, but I never put a hook in the water until I see fish on my electronics."

Single-point barbless hooks are required by law. McMind prefers 12/0, weighted with 32- to 64-ounce cannonball sinkers above a short leader attached to a ball-bearing swivel. Sturgeons feed on bottom, using their four barbels, or whiskers, to pinpoint food. So keeping your rig down is important.

"To catch the big ones, you need big baits," says McMind. "I like to use whole American shad, but sometimes the current is too fast, so I use just a piece. Lamprey eels make excellent bait, too, and when smelt are in the river, those are preferred baits for many anglers."

With the boat anchored and bait set, the wait begins. McMind places the rods in holders and watches for a bite. When a light tap leads to a serious rod-tip dip and the line starts moving off, that's the signal that whitey has sucked up the bait. With an upward sweep, McMind lays steel to him.

"When the fish takes off, you better be prepared to go with him," McMind cautions. "If he runs and you're not set up, he's gone. I untie a quick-release knot on the anchor rope, then just float down and follow the fish.

"Sometimes you wonder who's got who," he says, laughing. "You never know for sure what's gonna happen. I commonly have fish on for 30 minutes to an hour, sometimes much more."

When hooked, many of these behemoths rocket into the air, leaving the water like a Polaris missile. Not all of them do these marlin-on-steroids impersonations, but it happens often enough to keep things interesting, and it usually happens with sturgeons over six feet.

As we ended our day on the beautiful Columbia, McMind offered an apology.

"I really hate you didn't catch a big one," he said. "You came a long way, and I was hoping you'd land a nice one."

Imagine that. I caught my biggest fish ever — 200 pounds, seven feet long — and my host was apologizing. That happens only when you're fishing for great white sturgeons.

Some day I'll return, looking for Goliath.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.