How to fish for sturgeon (I think…)

How to Fish For Sturgeon… (I Think):

December 23, 2008

2011-12-6 sturgy 1

Arriving back home with a big ‘ol sturgeon trophy is a pretty heady experience. Be sure to pose for the photo when neighbors are likely to see your big catch!

For rod and reel suggestions, check my tackle page here.

Sturgeon fishing can be about as frustrating as fishing gets, requiring more commitment than most folks are willing to give. It is also the most rewarding of any type of fishing I’ve done, bar none!

The thrill of setting the hook into what bites like a pollywog, then feels like a big log, then runs like a freight train, peeling off line with complete abandon is, well, unforgettable! There’s just nothing else quite like it!

So, here are some of my ideas of what it takes to catch a sturgeon. Now, I’m no expert and I don’t claim to be. I am, however, very, very determined and am willing to fish for weeks on end, trip after trip, to catch a keeper. At my skill level, that’s about what it takes.


Much of my success has been fishing near the ship channel off Decker Island on the Sacramento River, just a few miles below Rio Vista, California. I generally anchor in exactly the same spot there, very near the ship channel and the flats off the channel. I generally find water that is about 20 to 25 ft., and drop anchor. I’ve also done pretty fair around Light 25, downriver from Rio Vista. There is also an excellent spot on Suisun Bay that is even more productive, but I’m sworn to secrecy about that hole. The secret to catching sturgeon is not so much where one fishes because sturgeon move around quite a lot. I am more content to stay in one spot for several hours waiting for the sturgeon to come to me. Some of the expert sturgeon fishermen believe in moving around looking for sturgeon on their sonar fish finders. Maybe that’s a trick I’ve got to learn yet, because some of those guys catch a lot of sturgeon. I turn off my sonar while fishing – observing .0000000001% of the river can’t be worth much!


That’s another very important issue in the pursuit of sturgeon. I believe that noise bothers sturgeon a great deal. Prop and motor noise created by passing boats is no help. Hollering, noisy fishermen nearby isn’t any help, either. If a heavy object is dropped onto the deck of the boat, I believe that any sturgeon within hundreds of feet have been spooked. Sturgeon like a quiet river. I think fishing after nightfall is one of the best times to fish for sturgeon because the boat traffic is likely much reduced. If a noisy bunch of drinking fishermen or an inconsiderate boob with a blaring radio anchors near me, I just move on. They’re probably going to ruin the sturgeon fishing for everyone near them.

The Balance Beam:

2012-3-8 sundown fishing

Here’s the rod and reel on the balance beam, awaiting the little nibble of the mighty sturgeon. This system is so sensitive that even crab nibbles cause the tip to wiggle slightly…or is that little wiggle a 100 pound sturgeon?! When a sturgeon takes the bait into it’s mouth, the rod will dip down, greatly exaggerating the movement of the bite. The fisherman then grabs the rod and sets the hook – but sometimes it’s prudent to wait for a bit more activity.


Actually, it’s best to hold the rod in hand while awaiting the bite, and I do that when it isn’t too cold. Most sturgeon and striper fishermen I know use the balance beam system.

I set the reel on free spool (many guys lock it down) with the clicker on. An unusual “suicide” run by a sturgeon – taking the bait suddenly and swimming away with it – is no problem (unless the reel is locked down). The line will play out smoothly and the clicker will alert the fisherman. A sliding sinker arrangement is used, the sinker stays put and the line plays out freely through the sleeve to which the weight is attached. This system is also excellent for striper fishing. Stripers will hit the bait hard and run with it a short distance. With this system the fish will not feel any resistance.


The tides and currents are important issues when sturgeon fishing. The California Delta is a huge estuary, influenced by ocean tides. The water of the entire area of the Delta that I fish is continually rising and falling, moving in or moving out. Yes, the river flows upriver, or backwards, on every incoming tide. It seems that the behavior of all fish is influenced to some extent by the up and down, in and out movement of water. It is, it seems, the deeper tides and greater volume of outgoing water that turn on the sturgeon bite. Sure, sturgeon are caught on high tides with slow moving water as well, but I don’t think they are caught as often in those conditions. It would seem that the more water that moves out, the more movement of bottom debris – and sturgeon food – the more likely the sturgeon’s desire to feed would turn on.  So, I like to time my sturgeon fishing to the deeper, faster outgoing tidal movement of water. 

I have been reading some expert opinion that fishing shallow in faster moving water and fishing deeper in slow moving water helps. Many other fishermen agree that the outgoing tide is best for sturgeon fishing, especially for the bigger sturgeon. Of course, one cannot always time fishing trips to just the most ideal conditions. That is why most of us fish for sturgeon no matter the conditions. But the results may be best with the outgoing currents, especially in muddy colored water. 


I now fish for sturgeon  only with lamprey eel.  They seem pretty expensive – I just paid $12 for a small one – but based on hours of use, lamprey is the cheapest bait available. Lamprey cannot be nipped away by little stripers or crabs. It is like tough beef and stays on the hook ’til cut off with a knife. Lamprey seems to attract sturgeon, but not much else seems to like it. When the little nippers do try to steal it, there’s no chance that it will be stolen. I add smaller chunks of lamprey every couple of hours to keep the scent strong and fresh. In the past, most of my shrimp baits have gone to the little thieves, but that doesn’t happen with lamprey.
2013-2-28c barbless with rubberLamprey steaks ready to be served to a hungry sturgeon. This photo shows the new reality of sturgeon fishing with only barbless hooks in California as of  2013. Note the rubber tube section nearest the lamprey. I also added a bit of rubber band to the hook as added protection. This barbless nonsense is typical political posturing by California’s F&G and will likely do nothing to increase the sturgeon population. But it will mean buying more bait as it will likely be nibbled away by the usual lil’ nippers who tried to steal it off barbed hooks – but failed. Now they’ll likely more often succeed.

A wise fisherman once convinced me that “big bait means big fish”. I believe it. After all the expense of the boat, the electronics and the many other expenses of this addictive hobby, trying to save 50 cents per cast on bait is a bit ridiculous! The more bait the better!  After all, the bait is where all of the fisherman’s efforts and expense actually meet the fish. That’s not a good place to save pocket change.

Sturgeon like shrimp. Of course, sturgeon are caught on most anything including worms, clams, shad, sardines, lamprey, etc., etc. Two types of shrimp seem to be the most popular: ghost shrimp and grass shrimp. 

Ghost shrimp look like naked babies, pinkish in color and generally pretty docile. They can put a good pinch on careless fingers, and handling them can be entirely too entertaining. I usually attach one to each hook and I use two hooks. If the ghosts are real small, I’ll use two per hook.

Grass shrimp are small twitchy little critters and several can be put on each hook. Load on as much shrimp as you possibly can to each hook. 

A third shrimp, the mud shrimp, is more expensive and probably less popular because of the cost. The mud shrimp looks like a ghost shrimp that grew up in a tough neighborhood. They are stinky, dirty and a bit bigger. It is said that they put more scent into the water.

Bait should be checked often. I check it every twenty to forty minutes, depending on various factors. If there’s a bunch of nibbling going on by other fish (or the detested mitten crab), or if the current is especially fast, the bait should be checked more often. If in any doubt at all, reel in and check the bait! Bare hooks don’t catch many sturgeon. Even lamprey should be checked every half hour or so for accumulation of debris.

When fishing the faster currents, it is a good idea to use shorter leaders and maybe even add a bit of weight very near the hooks. The bait should be on the bottom! Bait that is floating a bit off the bottom, twisting and turning in the current, is not as likely to be taken by a sturgeon.

Setting the hook:

When the soft nibbling sturgeon actually does take the bait, the grand scheme of fooling the monster is complete and everything next depends on the hookset. It takes a mighty heave to set a hook in a sturgeon’s leathery, tough mouth. I’ve lost my share of sturgeon, and have learned to set the hook not once, but several times. I try to set it very deep, very sure,  clear through the mouth. After three or four hard sets, I begin the battle. Of course, if the sturgeon is peeling off line in a hurry, the extra hook sets will likely have to wait. And if setting the hook again and again results in pulling the hook loose, it wasn’t a good hookset from the start. The sturgeon would likely not have made it to the boat. 

The net:

The often-neglected sturgeon net is a critical part of a sturgeon fisherman’s tackle. The netting ages over time and becomes weak. A popular sturgeon video shows two very experienced fishermen nearly lose a sturgeon when their old, sun-worn netting failed and the big sturgeon fell through. At the moment of truth, the net failed because the netting was old and weak. Check your net regularly for breaks and weakness. New netting every couple of years is well worth the investment. 

Stay in touch:

Hold that rod when you  can! When the mighty sturgeon lightly nibbles your offering, your window of opportunity is very small. If you have to reach for your rod in response to that nibble, you may miss your opportunity. Keep the rod in hand as much as possible, have the reel in free spool and the clicker on. When the reel gives up a small amount of line – click, click, click – that may be a huge sturgeon sucking up your bait. That means it’s time to thumb the spool tightly and set the hook — hard! I believe the sturgeon often simply crushes the bait, then spits it. That can be a very brief moment, and it may be your only opportunity to set the hook. 

Fishing line:

Fishing line is a sometimes controversial issue among fishermen. I favor 50 # to 80# braid. It is very small, the diameter is much smaller than equally rated mono, and it doesn’t stretch as mono does. The small diameter is to the fisherman’s advantage in moving water – it doesn’t tend to float as much as mono. And the hammer like set the fishermen makes to hook a sturgeon doesn’t lose it’s punch at the fish’s end due to line stretch. The hookset is critical in sturgeon fishing.

Don’t force the issue:

Don’t try to overpower a keeper sturgeon; it just can’t be done. Play the fish to exhaustion, let him run when he’s so inclined, and don’t allow him rest when he tries. Have enough drag on your reel to make him earn every yard of line he takes, and when reeling in, don’t force the issue. Some sturgeon have more endurance than others, a very few wage long fights. When a sturgeon tires, he comes to the boat rather easily. When he’s belly up or simply not trying to move any longer, you’ve likely won the fight. Poke him with the fish knocker – or some such item – to be sure he doesn’t have another run left in him. If the poke doesn’t cause him to move, that’s when it’s time to net him. 

Easier said than done:

Patience, patience and more patience. Sturgeon seldom cooperate in just two hours of fishing time. You aren’t likely to catch a sturgeon in a short fishing trip unless you are among the luckiest sturgeon fishermen. It takes time, so expect to invest a lot of it. Most of us have to invest lots of time; it’s the very few who catch sturgeon regularly. 

Make notes:

When you spot a fishing guide or fisherman that you know is good at catching sturgeon, mark his location on your chart or in your mind. He’s probably over a productive hole or trench. Maybe he’s over a clam bed. Those are places that attract sturgeon. If you reel in a clam attached to your hook, and that happens often on the Delta, you may be over a clam bed. When fishing for sturgeon, that’s a good place to be. 

Good Luck!

About FishWisher

Over the years I have posted many exciting fishing and boating stories here, but now in my seventies, it was time to sell the boat and find less demanding pastimes. All the fishing stories are still here! I will now post my travels aboard the motorhome and other activities. I hope y'all will still enjoy the fishing and boating adventures and perhaps peek in on my post-boating activities on occasion. Thanks for dropping in and I hope you enjoy your visit.
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4 Responses to How to fish for sturgeon (I think…)

  1. David Reyes says:

    Excellent advice. Where do you purchase your eel?

  2. FishWisher says:

    I buy Happy Hooker brand frozen eel at Hap’s Bait in Rio Vista. It’s not always available so call first! – Dale

  3. FishWisher says:

    David – I cannot find large ones nowadays, but use what I can find. Those pictured above are about the size I’m buying lately. I mostly see those skinny ones, too. The best brand locally for me is “FishHookers”. Good luck.

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