Biggest of them all

Keith Sutton

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 McMinds, Matt Foster and Mark Davis — cheered me on 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 to me 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. I was ready to pass the rod.

"Maybe we should untie from the anchor and follow him," Louis said, nonchalantly.

"You mean ..."

"Yeah, we're still anchored, Sutton."

Mark and Matt laughed while Louis loosed the rope connecting boat to anchor. With adrenaline blurring my senses, I had failed to notice we were still tied up. I was battling not only the fish, but the strong current as well.

Thoughts of the Philistines aiding Goliath crossed my mind, but with the boat floating free, I had no time to contemplate revenge. The fish no longer took line. It was coming in.

Suddenly, a huge round nose broke above the water.

"There he is!" Louis shouted.

On the underside of 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 back into the Columbia's frigid waters. 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 45 years fishing fresh and saltwater. But Goliath it was not. White sturgeons are known to 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, on July 9, 1983, by Joey Pallotta, 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 when it became tangled in a gill-net. A 1,500-pound specimen was caught and photographed in the Snake River near Payette, Idaho, 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 Pallotta's record fall to Columbia River anglers every year, but catch-and-release regulations aimed at protecting depleted sturgeon stocks make it unlikely his 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, Ore., harbors North America's densest population of great white sturgeons. During my one-day fishing trip, I saw several 7- to 8-footers brought in by other anglers. One leviathan subdued by a nearby fisherman 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 McMinds of Troutdale, Ore., started fishing for the Columbia's giant sturgeon in the early 1950s. Back then, he and his father secured their boat to an engine-block on the river's bottom.

Now most area anglers use the E-Z Puller anchor system designed and marketed by McMinds. This simple tool allows quick release from your anchor when a sturgeon strikes. Fight your fish, then return to the brightly colored buoy and retie at the same spot where you started. When it's time to leave, the E-Z Puller permits hands-off anchor hoisting using the boat for power. Such a rig is essential for safety when anchoring in the Columbia's treacherous waters.

McMinds exhibits an intense passion for giant sturgeon. He fishes year-round on the Columbia, usually alone, and often videotapes his battles with river Goliaths. He catches 50 to 60 fish over 6 feet each year, and once caught thirteen 7- to 10-footers in a single day. One of his extraordinary videos shows him subduing a 13-footer that weighed nearly half a ton.

"I love catching these big fish," McMinds 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," McMinds continues. "I use 100-pound-test line, big Penn level-wind reels and heavy, 7-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, and that's an absolute."

Single-point barbless hooks are required by law. McMinds 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 McMinds. "I like to use a whole American shad, but sometimes the current is so fast I can't get away with it, so I use just a piece. And when smelt are in the river, those are preferred baits for many anglers targeting big sturgeon."

With the boat anchored and bait set, the wait begins. McMinds 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 to move off, that's the signal that whitey has sucked up the bait. With an upward sweep, he lays steel to him and hangs on.

"When the fish takes off, you better be prepared to go with him," McMinds cautionns. "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, twisting to one side and crashing back in the river with a resounding splash. 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 exceeding 6 feet.

As we ended our day on the beautiful Columbia, Louis McMinds 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, 7 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.

Columbia River Trip Tips

• May and June, when the Columbia river shad runs are in full swing, serve up some of the year's best hook-and-release fishing for sturgeons over 6 feet. Fishing for giant sturgeon continues to be good July through September as well.

• For detailed fishing regulations and license information, contact the Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife, 503-872-5268, or the Washington Dept. of Fish & Wildlife, 360-902-2200. Or check out their websites: www.dfw.state.or.us or www.wdfw.wa.gov.

• For info on the E-Z Puller anchor system, visit www.ezmarine.com.