Read This! http://cartt.4j.lane.edu/ttr/sturgeon/sturgeon.html
Read This! http://cartt.4j.lane.edu/ttr/sturgeon/sturgeon.html
Monsters of the mid-Willamette:
Few giant sturgeon still prowl the Willamette River - but reinforcements are on the way
By MIKE STAHLBERG ©The Register-Guard - Used with permission
NOT MANY PEOPLE KNOW IT, but there are monsters growing in our river.
Honest-to-goodness, prehistoric, armor-plated denizens of the deep. Fish as big as a log. Strong enough to tow the boat of any angler who happens to hook one - if the line doesn't snap, of course.
These aren't mythical monsters, like that skinny-necked thing they make such a fuss about over in Loch Ness, Scotland.
Plenty of people have seen the monsters of the Willamette River.
Some, like Mark Huddleston, have even briefly subdued some of the big bruisers after hour-long wrestling matches.
"The largest one we ever caught measured nine-and-a-half feet," says Huddleston, a Salem tire store manager
"I'll tell you, it's almost more than one man can handle by himself."
These monsters, of course, are commonly known as white sturgeon - a fish with bony protective plates on its side and which hasn't changed much since its ancestors swam with the dinosaurs.
Sturgeon are newcomers to the Willamette River above Willamette Falls, having been transplanted there a half century ago by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Most of the sturgeon in the Willamette River are either too big or too little to be legally kept by anglers.
Female sturgeon don't spawn until they're about 20 years old and over five feet long. So, to protect the brood stock, state law requires that all sturgeon over 60 inches in length be released unharmed.
On the other hand, the law also protects mini-monsters by requiring the release of sturgeon under 42 inches in length.
"Keepers," if you will, are between three-and-a-half and five feet long. But it takes a sturgeon anywhere from five to 10 years to grow through that window of vulnerability.
Huddleston caught his first Willamette sturgeon back in 1990 and has fished for them regularly ever since. In all that time, however, he says he has seen only two "keeper-size" sturgeon caught on the Willamette.
But that is about to change, thanks to a little-known state sturgeon stocking program that has been going on for 10 years now.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Kin Daily releases a sturgeon back into the waters of the Willamette River north of Albany.
In 1989, for the first time since 1951, the ODFW resumed stocking juvenile sturgeon in the upper Willamette River. Additional releases have been made every year.
But you don't grow monsters overnight. Only now are some of the younger sturgeon approaching legal size.
All told, a total of 55,891 sturgeon have been transplanted into the Willamette since 1989. The vast majority were set free at the boat ramp in Harrisburg, from whence they scattered throughout the main stem.
The ODFW gets the baby sturgeon as part of a "payback" arrangement with a private hatchery that rears small sturgeon for the aquarium trade. The state allows the hatchery operator to surgically remove the eggs from up to six mature females a year (carefully stitching up the fish and releasing it when he's finished). In exchange, the hatchery must give the state a minimum of 1,000 sturgeon fingerling for each female from which eggs are removed.
The numbers involved seem small until you consider that, according to ODFW records, the previous sturgeon stocking of the Willamette amounted to only 511 fish in 1950 and 319 in 1951.
Survivors from among those 830 sturgeon released in the 1950s arebelieved to be responsible for providing the occasional burst ofexcitement for anglers like Huddleston. (Sturgeon do not migratethrough the fish ladder over Willamette Falls, but a few may passthrough the shipping locks.)
"The fish ended up staying in theriver and producing thoseoversized fish that they'recatching now," said Kin Daily, aSalem fish biologist who overseesthe ODFW's Willamette sturgeon program.
"The fact that they've survived and grown in here makes us think that maybe we can eventually build up the population to where it would provide a nice little sport fishery."
Since 1995, Daily and Marc Nusom, a wildlife technician from Corvallis, have used elaborately rigged long lines to catch sturgeon so they can monitor the progress of the Willamette population.
"I predict we'll get 10 fish here," Daily said one day last week as he and Nusom prepared to winch in a long line that had 180 hooks attached to it at 10-foot intervals.
The hooks, each on a separate 18-inch leader made of 40-pound test line, had been baited with pickled squid, then attached to the main line with a special clip. The whole set-up had been marked with buoys and anchored into a deep hole near Albany the previous day.
But it quickly became obvious that this particular bit of test fishing was not going to go as smoothly as hoped. Most of the hooks were clogged by clumps of thick green algae that had to be pulled free as the main line was reeled in.
"The first time we tried this it was in the fall and every hook had a leaf on it, and we didn't catch anything," Nusom said. "So we learned not to do it in the fall. Now it looks like it's not good to do it in the middle of summer either."
A sturgeon pulled from Willamette River.
The biologists did, however, boat five sturgeon that managed to find the bait among the algae. Each was measured, weighed and tagged with a piece of numbered plastic wire inserted below its dorsal fin, then released.
Daily and Nusom had much better luck the next day, pulling 22 sturgeon from a deep pool in the Newberg-Wilsonville section of the river. The largest of those, Daily said, "measured 41.5 inches - we couldn't quite make it legal." Back when the releases began in 1989, state biologists would have predicted the stocking program would be producing legal-size sturgeon by now.
In the interim, however, the minimum harvest size on sturgeon was raised from 36 inches to 42 inches.
Also, Daily says, survival rates were not good among sturgeon released during the first three years of the program. Those sturgeon were all yearlings and measured only three to five inches in length.
So the ODFW arranged to have its sturgeon reared in a federal hatchery for an additional year. Since 1993, most of the released sturgeon have been in the eight- to 14-inch size range. The larger juvenile sturgeon appear to have very good survival rates, Daily said.
Beginning in 1994, the released fish were given a distinctive clip mark for each brood year so biologists can tell when it was released. "We're encouraged," Daily said after reviewing the results of last week's test fishing.
"We're getting more fish and they're getting bigger every year. We're also seeing an expansion of the known locations where we can catch 'em. "We're seeing survival from most of the years that we put fish out. Sturgeon are such a long-lived fish, we should be able to stockpile them in here."
However, he said, Willamette sturgeon do not appear to be growing as fast as their cousins in the Columbia River, the region's primary sturgeon nursery.
"The growth here is probably not going to be as good as in the Columbia, from what we've seen so far," Daily said.
"This river definitely does not have the food supply that the Columbia has," said Nusom.
Sturgeon are bottom feeders that rely upon their senses of smell to locate food. They eat everything from freshwater clams to carcasses of other fish. Daily and Nusom have tried several different baits. First, they baited their hooks with dead suckers because sturgeon anglers like Huddleston reported that's what worked best for them.
"But on almost every other hook we'd have a squawfish," Nusom said. "Once we switched to the squid, we got away from squawfish and started catching sturgeon."
Meanwhile, the sturgeon researchers are making plans to get some stronger hooks and leaders for next year's test fishing.
"Down there at Newberg, we had 11 break-offs," Daily said. "We think we're losing the bigger fish. There's only one thing down there that will break those lines like that."
Oregon Department Fish and Wildlife biologists Mark Nusom (left) and Kin Daily measure and tag a sturgeon.