The Light Switch Sturgeon
September 21, 2011
The trip with Guide Jason Schultz up the Snake River into the head of Hell's Canyon in a search for giant white sturgeon is one of the most spectacular adventures I've been on in over 30 years in this business. It's 3 hours by jet boat up the river through white-water chutes as the canyon rises magnificently on each side. The spot where we finally fish is in the deepest gorge in North America — the surrounding canyon rims are at more than 9,200 feet, while you fish some 8,000 feet below. The word "epic" comes to mind over and over as we spend the day filming — epic country, epic fish.
The day before we catch spring-run king salmon on another portion of the Snake; so we have fresh salmon belly for bait. The fish isn't this fresh at Nobu in New York or Las Vegas. I have to keep from cutting off a piece for myself as I rig my line.
Not many folks get that far up the canyon to fish for the sturgeon, but Schultz has been at it for 15 years. The fish, which can be more than 75 years old and weigh up to 400 pounds, pretty much live in the same series of holes year round. He's caught and released some of the biggest fish more than a dozen times.
So as we fish through the first holes without a bite, it isn't because the fish aren't there. Schultz: "Sometimes these giants are incredibly selective. Pick up that spinning rod and catch us a little trout."
Moments later I slide the big hook through the head of the freshly caught steelhead smolt and drop it into 40 feet of water. The bait barely touches bottom when the rod tip slams down and I am fast to my first sturgeon. That's 1.5 hours without a pickup for the wrong presentation — 20 seconds and fast to a fish with the right presentation. Like flicking a light switch. The biggest of four fish in the next three hours measures 9 feet and weighs well over 300 pounds.
This past June I film with Guide Rob Schulz out of his G & S Marina on Last Mountain Lake, Saskatchewan. The bay we slid into early that morning has lots of big pike. We can see them cruising. Some of them follow up the lures we are throwing. Occasionally, we catch one. The fish are tentative?
Or are they? I pick up a rod with a Glidin' Rap, a lure that has been terrific in many similar situations. It's a shallow-running flat-sided jerkbait that works best moved with an injured flashing wobble, first left and then right, in walk-the-dog fashion. The next three casts each produce fish over 40 inches.
The lure change lights up the fish in the bay. In the next three hours we catch 20 more pike surpassing 40 inches. They don't just bite the lure, they explode on it, smash it, rip it, shake it. Time after time we see jaws go agape as they try to swallow this injured thing. Tentative fish? It's more like frenzied sharks. Pike hysteria. Light switch off, light switch on.
Most often the situation isn't quite so dramatic. Still, eventually when you get it right, you flip the switch — presentation right, fish bite; get it wrong and it seems the fish are gone.
This time I'm shooting a show segment illustrating techniques for difficult situations — smallmouths have been heavily fished and are in transition to off-shore rockpiles after spawning. Early in the day I catch fish by working a 5-inch PowerBait Hollow Belly Split Tail (fluke-style softbait) rigged on a Lazer Sharp 111 Swim Bait hook just erratically enough so it's highly curious yet just catchable — or, said another way, I work it just unpredictably enough to be not quite identifiable. This all is a matter of sleight of hand, working mostly on the smallmouth's sense of curiosity.
As the sun gets higher in the sky, they won't bite the soft jerk, no matter how trickily and curiously I work it. At this point the only thing they seem willing to sample is a "soft something" suspended below a fixed float. Let the wind make it dance or cast and retrieve the float with lure hanging down 3 or 4 feet below.
Five-inch Gulp! Leeches hooked through the sucker on the butt end are pretty good. I try the new Gulp! Hellgrammite with some success. Further experimentation shows fish really want to sample a 5-inch Gulp! Wacky Worm (black's best) rigged in wacky fashion. On most rockpiles you swear no one's at home until you drift that past them.
We've long maintained that in almost every situation some of the fish are always biting something. Granted, at times, in the most difficult situations, wrong time on the right water, right time on the wrong water, getting even a few fish to bite seems improbable. But it's almost always possible. The light switch is always waiting. There have been only one or two major tournaments that I know of in the past 20 years where everyone's gone home skunked. Only five boats out of a hundred catching limits might not seem like magic, but . . .
At times, flipping the switch leads to the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I've often seen big swimbaits and crankbaits work miracles fished aggressively in situations where other anglers insist on fishing smaller lures in finesse fashion. Most times, our light-switch discoveries are subtle. It's finding, like we did trolling on the Bay of Quinte last December, that big walleyes won't go unless the trolling speed is a dead-on .8 mph.
Depth control remains the most important presentation variable, followed by speed and working method, followed by vibration pattern — and finally a host of lesser things like lure size, shape, and color. Even when you know you have the main part of the experiment right, as in the case of the Glidin' Rap and pike at Last Mountain, we go farther, trying to determine just the right color, just the right retrieve method.
We generally suppose there are no magic lures or presentations, but at times some things come close. Right time, right place, right fish, right presentation, and it can be light switch on, lights out for big catches. No matter the situation, the light switch is waiting.