Oregon River Monsters

Today’s blog post comes from Jana Waller, host of Skull Bound TV.  You can tune in for hunts with Jana on Wednesdays at 8:30 PM ET and 11:30PM ET and Thursdays at 12:30 PM ET.  Follow Jana on Twitter or Facebook.

Many weekends of my childhood were spent sitting on the edge of an old, wooden pier on Little Hills Lake in Wisconsin. Surrounded by thick woods and lined with quaint cabins, the small crystal-clear lake was the perfect getaway for my parents and the ideal friend for me. Catching countless bluegills and bullheads was the start to a lifetime of fishing adventures which would eventually include wetting lines across the United States, Canada, Alaska, Europe and Africa. Whether Iʼm fly fishing my backyard of Montana or bouncing weights in search of spoonbills in Oklahoma, any day on or in the water is a great day.

After hunting elk in Oregon last Fall, our friend and guide Scott Coe suggested we return in the summer and try our luck at fishing for sturgeon. “Iʼve got a buddy Greg who is known as ʻThe Sturgeon Generalʼ.” Scott commented. “I guarantee youʼve never experienced the rush like reeling in a 400 pound fish!”

The idea of a prehistoric river monster on the end of my line was so intriguing that we contacted Greg Gustafson and set up a time in August to drive over to The Dalles, Oregon and meet up on The Columbia River. I was thrilled with the idea of wrapping my arms around my very first sturgeon, regardless of size. Thereʼs something so thrilling about catching a fish youʼve never seen before. Fish tanks donʼt count.

After a five hour drive from Montana, we pulled up to the boat launch to see Gregʼs boat out in the river by the dam. He was collecting fresh shad for bait that were stunned or dead from attempting to cross the dam. Within minutes we were loaded up and baiting the first of many hooks. It was mind blowing to be using three to four pound shad as bait when typically thatʼs a nice catch! While Greg was preparing the shad, his friend Jim Jones was behind the wheel helping navigate the water, watching for the perfect depth to launch our first attack.

Two lines were dropped on each side of the boat. “Well give each spot 15 minutes then weʼll move on if nobodyʼs home.” Greg instructed. It wasnʼt five minutes before the first rod tip started bouncing. I carefully removed the rod from the holder and held on tight in hopes of setting the hook on the next strike. The line went taught and I swung for the fences. A sturgeonʼs lips are like the leather on a horse saddle and if you want the hook to set you need to use all the strength youʼve got. “Youʼve got him! Youʼve got him!” yelled Greg as Jim scrambled into position to film what was to be an epic battle. Holding onto the rod with all my might, Greg helped put a fishing belt around my waist to steady the rodʼs base and aid in the fight. I sat down on the center platform and propped my legs up on the side of the boat for leverage against the beast.

Surfacing a sturgeon is an accomplishment in and about itself.

Surfacing a sturgeon is an accomplishment in and about itself.

Reeling as hard as I could, I bared down and tried to gain line when the giant fish would swim in our direction. It seemed like every few feet of line I would gain the fish would wise up, turn and swim away with all my hard work. My back and biceps were burning but my determination was growing in hopes of reeling in my first sturgeon. After an hour of the fiercest game of tug oʼ war, I was able to see the green indicator bobber signaling the fish was close. The top of the water broke and the sturgeonʼs grey, slick back surfaced by the boat, looking like a huge beautiful shark! Greg grabbed the leader and was able to turn the fish on itʼs back, putting it into a trance-like state. “First fish to the boat! Eight feet long!” I shouted as we measured the fish against the boatʼs painted on tape measure. We slowly turned the beast upright for the release and he bolted off like a torpedo, splashing our big smiles with a wave of water.

The very first fish of the day measured 8 feet long on the boats tape measure.

The very first fish of the day measured 8 feet long on the boats tape measure.

Gregʼs prediction of the dayʼs adventure didnʼt fall short and after taking numerous pictures of the first fish we proceeded to catch seven sturgeon that first day on the Columbia River. The smallest was a six footer and the largest was nearly nine. The sun went down and we crashed hard that night, our shoulders, back and arms burning from battle.

Coffee and aspirin were a must the next morning before we hit the river again with Greg and his daughter Mandy. The golden sun bounced off the still water as Greg prepared the lines and bait. Like the previous afternoon, the first rod tip started bouncing just minutes after the shad had settled to the bottom and the duel commenced. In all my years of fishing I had never experienced this type of work out while fishing. Thirty minutes into the first fight my line snapped and I was left wondering what sized monster won that round. Lines were re-rigged and the last fish of the morning turned into a two hour epic battle.

Greg had a suspicion that this last fish was a wise old sage. The sturgeon dove deep pulling almost all of the line out of the reel while Greg fought to keep the fish out of an area of the river that was filled with sharp rocks and debris. We all watched in horror as the line became frayed and weak from getting wrapped around whatever lurked on the riverʼs bottom. “This is a huge fish!” Greg exclaimed. “Heʼs a smart one that keeps heading towards the safety of the structure on the bottom! If we donʼt break him off it will be a miracle.”

Cameraman Jimmy got in on the action and caught this nice 8.5 footer.

Cameraman Jimmy got in on the action and caught this nice 8.5 footer.

Two hours later the beast finally surfaced 50 yards from the boat as we all gasped! “There he is! There he is!” shouted Greg as he carefully played the fish until he was close enough to have Mandy grab the leader. Turning this river monster on his back he was measured at just under 11 feet long! “44 inches around!” Mandy hollered as she put a tape rope around the beastʼs mid section.

The nearly 11 foot prehistoric river monster.

The nearly 11 foot prehistoric river monster.

To get in the water with such a magnificent ancient creature was incredibly thrilling. Running my fingers down the 200 year old river monsterʼs spine and feeling itʼs powerful tail was a highlight of my year. After snapping a few photos we watched as Greg pointed the sturgeon towards the deep and slowly released him to swim another day and thrill another angler.

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