How to Fish For Sturgeon… (I Think):
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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:
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 with only lamprey “eel”. They seem pretty expensive – I just paid $12 for s 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.
Lamprey 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.