Pacific Northwest Part II: The Journey for my White Whale

I woke to a gray light streaming through the window at the hostel, as my phone rang. With sleepiness in my voice, I answered the call to the voice of the guide who I had arranged to lead me in my pursuit of my “white whale.” Having spent a fun filled night out with my fellow hostel mates, I had embarrassingly overslept our rendezvous time, and jumped out of bed to throw together my things and check out in a hurry.

Speeding over to the dock where we had agreed to meet, the grey skies that hung over Portland continued to threaten rain, but with a covered boat and full rain gear at my disposal, I wasn’t worried about getting wet. Instead, I could only wonder whether I would finally meet the mythical beast that had brought me to the Pacific Northwest. The white sturgeon is one of the largest fish in the world, with individuals that attain lengths of 16 feet not unheard of. Having existed in virtually unchanged form for millions of years, these ancient beasts are essentially swimming dinosaurs, and this reputation is reflected in the name that sturgeon fishermen have given to these giants: “dinos.” Although they still exist in Californian waters, their populations have dwindled over time as commercial fisheries in pursuit of their boneless steaks and caviar depleted their stocks throughout their range.

In no time, I found myself at a small river where my guide’s boat was waiting at a small dock. A slight drizzle had begun to fall, as I climbed into his boat. I admired the full set of Avets and Calstars at my disposal that were set up with large 8/0 hooks loaded with squid and ghost shrimp and wrapped with thread. We quickly sped off upriver and within just a few minutes we had arrived at our designated fishing grounds: a deep cavern cut through the river bed that went 80 feet deep at the base of a dam.

After anchoring the boat, we set out the rods with 16 oz weights that still struggled to hold the bottom through the absolutely surging current. Within a few minutes of settling into the current, however, I watched as the rod tips bounce down and up, hard. I looked over at my guide and asked, “Dino?” He nodded, “Yup… but those are line bites.” Line bites occur when a fish swims through the weighted lines, catching the line on the armored scutes that line the sides and back of the fish. As the line slips off the fish, the rod tip would bounce back. Glancing at the sonar, rows of inverted U’s filled the bottom of the screen, showing the absolutely stacked fish who couldn’t help but swim into our lines. So, we were at the right place. Now, we were just waiting for the right time: when a hungry fish would come around, vacuuming the bottom and looking for a free meal.

After about 30 minutes of no true bites, my guide decides to relocate to a slightly different part of the river. Unfortunately this is when things start to get screwy. The engine begins to sputter and before long our boat is drifting powerless in the current. My guide quickly waves down a nearby boat and we are towed back to our launching ramp. There, a quick diagnostic rundown is done, and it is found that the major reason of engine failure was: no gas. An hour later, the boat is refueled and ready once again to hunt for my first dino! However, the morning was about to become much more eventful as just when we get back into position on the river, we look upstream to see a private boater shuddering in the current and a passenger hanging off the side waving a flag.

“He’s in big trouble!” my guide exclaims as we speed over to see what happened. In the pursuit of big fish, this boater had positioned his boat in some dangerously rough currents that roared their way through this narrow canyon below the dam. Caution in the wind, the driver had dropped his anchor before his boat came to a stop, catching his anchor line in his prop and flipping his boat backwards as the anchor caught onto the snaggy grounds in the riverbed. With his boat solidly connected to the river bottom, and the prop snagged in the anchor line, it was helplessly tossed around in the heavy currents as the ice cold water threatened to submerge the boat.

Then came the most blood curdling moment as we pulled up alongside the boat: 4 pairs of tearful eyes watched from the side of the boat, and we realize there are a group of young children clinging to the deck of the boat. With their tiny body masses, to fall into the river would almost mean instant death for these young children. My guide quickly yells at the adults on the floundering boat, “Get those kids onto my boat, get them out of harms way!” I quickly lean over the edge of our boat as my guide positions us parallel to the stuck boat and one by one transfer the frightened little kids to safety.

Two other boats soon come to our aid, and with the kids safely in my arms we watched with bated breaths as the boat twirled helplessly in the current. In an attempt to free the boat, the anchor line is cut loose, and miraculously it slips through the tangled prop. Within moments, the tense situation was alleviated and we all breathed a sigh of relief as the boat motors its way to the dock to meet us. A quick transfer of the children, and my guide and I are finally ready to start diligently hunting for dinos!

Carefully positioning us in the current, we once again anchor and set out our lines. Settling down with some warm drinks, we chat about the adventure we just experienced. However, our conversation is interrupted when my guide points out a rod tip that begins to tap lightly. Bouncing up and down in an almost rhythmic bounce, it seems so unlikely that an enormous animal 60 feet below us could be causing such a subtle disturbance while feeding. Nonetheless, I listened to the guide, took the rod in my hand, and got ready to strike on the next time the rod tip dipped.

Heart in my throat I wondered, was this the moment? Was this the culmination of countless hours of fruitless fishing? Would I finally come face to face with a fish that had captured my attention and intrigue for years? I felt the gentle pull from the end of the line, and I gave an almighty strike. The rod bent into a parabolic arc as I struck into something absolutely solid. Was this bottom? No, it was something big, alive, and not happy. I watched as the line sizzled along the surface away from me. “Get ready, she’s going for a jump!” my guide exclaimed. 50 yards away, the waters parted as a huge white shape exploded out of the water and breached back in with the force of a grenade. Once again, the waters parted as the fish fought to shake the hook loose from it’s lips. And a third time, the fish powered it’s way straight out of the water, suspending for just a moment at the peak of it’s jump.

I was awestruck that I had finally connected with this legendary fish. But the battle was far from over, and it would not count as a successful mission until I had the animal safely in my arms. So began the back breaking effort of getting the fish to the boat. My guide sat back with his drink, and chuckled as he told me that I should be ready for this to take some time.

Back and forth we fought. I would gain some line, the fish would take it back. It went on another few long runs, never using up too much energy on sizzling runs, but solidly taking line as it casually strolled away from me. My 100 lb braid held firm though, and soon the fish was below the boat. Here, not unlike how a tuna does circles, the sturgeon took it’s enormous pectoral fins and planed them downwards in the surging current to exponentially increase the effort required from me to inch it’s way up towards the surface. With each turn of the handle, I shortened the distance to my fish and I breathlessly watched the murky water for a sign of it.

Like a vision from a dream, the murky green water soon showed a hint of a shimmering white from the depth. Slowly, the vision became clearer as the elongated sinuous shape of a fish began to materialize. The tired fish soon surfaced, and I eagerly consumed the details of my white whale. The diamond shaped scutes that lined the sides and back of the fish were worn down from age, but they were still razor sharp near the tail.

A bony encased huge head with tiny beady eyes watched me with exhausted curiosity as I ran my hands along it’s sides, feeling the roughness of the tiny scutes that were scattered over the surface of the fish. With it’s powerful shark-like body and tail, armored scutes, whiskers and sucker mouth, this fish seemed like a nightmarish animal that was put together from spare parts. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and to me, this animal was a picture of evolutionary perfection.

Being well protected in Oregon, and rightly so, the fish was carefully released back into the water after a set of photos. I waved farewell to a fish that was probably as old as me, and marked it as a chapter that had finally closed in my fishing adventures. But the day was far from over, and my guide asked me, “Ready for another one?” I laughed and responded, “Just give me one second to catch my breath!”

As we finished the day, I ended up hooking 8 white sturgeon, ranging from 4 feet to 9 feet and approximately 150 lbs. It was simply awesome to capture, see, and touch a fish that was longer than half the boat. These oversized sturgeon were so heavy that it was illegal to remove them from the water as their organs, unsupported by the water, would begin to crush themselves to death. Covered in sturgeon slime, with aching arms and a sore back, I was a picture of angler’s bliss. Although the search for these fish had taken me a thousand miles from home, I could finally say I successfully hunted (and released) my white whale.

So with the White Sturgeon solidly checked off on my list of fish to catch, I continued on my exploration of the Pacific Northwest. Although the sturgeon was the species that had initially brought me to the area, I decided that I might as well take the time to continue north to pursue even more species. So north I would go… 300 miles north into the land of flowing maple syrup, also known as Canada!

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