Diamond Back Basics
Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 13, 2012
White Sturgeon, in addition to being at the top of the west coast’s list of game fish in terms of size, fighting ability, and table fare are just down right interesting fish.
For starters they are by far the biggest freshwater fish living in the western United States, reaching 13 feet in length and attaining weights in excess of 1,300 pounds. Sturgeon are also thought to be among the longest lived fish surpassing the 100 year mark.
The range of the white sturgeon spans from Alaska in the north to the upper reaches of Baja California in the south. Most sturgeon reside in rivers and bays, but they occasional make their way into the ocean as well. The California bay and delta along with the Columbia River drainage play host to the bulk of the west coast’s sturgeon population.
Most sturgeon are believed to spend their lives in one river system, but some do cover substantial ground. One sturgeon that was tagged in San Francisco Bay turned up at the mouth of the Columbia River over 600 miles away!
Perhaps the most important asset an aspiring sturgeon angler can posses is patience. Expert delta sturgeon skipper Barry Canevaro estimates that it takes the average angler 100 hours of fishing to land their first keeper sturgeon.
The habits and physical characteristics of sturgeon dictate the type of tackle needed to successfully target them. Sturgeon are light biters, but posses considerable physical strength. As a result sturgeon fishing calls for a rod with a sensitive tip for detecting bites followed up with substantial back bone for setting the hook and wearing the fish down. Due the strength of sturgeon a conventional reel that will hold at least 200 yards of 25 pound test line is a must.
My current sturgeon rig consists of a Penn Power Stick PC3661 rod teamed with an Ambassadeur 10,000 Big Game reel loaded with 300 yards of 80 pound test Berkley Fireline XDS super line. Fireline features limited stretch, outstanding sensitivity, and great hook setting power.
Terminal tackle and rigging for diamond backs is simple and straight forward. Since sturgeon are notoriously light biters a sliding sinker rig is at the heart of the terminal set up. To begin rigging pass the main line through a plastic slider sleeve and then attach a large lock snap swivel. Since sturgeon frequent areas with heavy current and you want the bait stationary on the bottom pyramid sinkers from 3 to 10 ounces are the preferred weight.
In the old days, 40 inch wire leaders tipped with two large khale hooks were standard fair among sturgeon anglers. Today, most sturgeon enthusiast prefer short leaders constructed of 80 or 100 pound test monofilament. The regulations prohibit placing hooks less than 18 inches from a weight of 1 ounce or more, so I make my leaders 19 inches in length.
Sturgeon are strictly bottom feeders. If your bait is pushed off the bottom by the current a sturgeon won’t take it. Using a short leader lessens the chance that the current will raise the bait off the bottom. For added insurance I like to place a 3/8 ounce rubber core sinker on the leader 8 inches above the hook.
In terms of hooks a few anglers still prefer to use two, but most go with just one. If I opt to use a two hook set up I tie them on separate leaders and place them both in the same rubber core, which keeps them from wrapping and tangling. I use 8/0 Gamakatsu octopus hooks exclusively. They are exceptionally strong and sharp. Sturgeon have a tough leathery mouth and a ultra sharp hook is important.
Now that we’ve gotten the rod, reel, and terminal gear out of the way it is time to discuss sturgeon baits. Mature sturgeon eat a variety of morsels including marine worms, clams, shrimps, crabs, snails, and dead baitfish. In days gone by, grass shrimp, ghost, shrimp, and mud shrimp were the only options for the serious sturgeon hunter. Today those baits are still productive and popular, but there are other highly effective choices that have come to light.
One of the problems with using shrimp baits is that they are expensive and highly attractive to non target fish. Meaning you’ll have to deal with a lot of nibblers stealing your bait while waiting for Mr. Sturgeon. Having said that, shrimp remain the best choice when fishing in the north bay below the Benicia Bridge.
In Suisun Bay and the delta shrimp remain popular baits, however lamprey eel, salmon roe, and threadfin shad have all become recognized sturgeon slayers. During the fall and early winter uncured salmon roe is hard to beat with eel coming in a strong second. Eel is my hands down favorite bait. It is very durable and the sturgeon give the rod a strong pump when they try to suck it off the hook.
Regardless of the type of bait chosen a rod balancer is critical piece of equipment that will dramatically increase the number of bites that result in hook ups. A balancer is simply a Y-shaped rod holder that the rod sets in teeter totter fashion. When a sturgeon picks up the bait the rod dips without the fishing feeling resistance. When the rod dips and stays down you know the bait is in the sturgeon’s mouth and then it is just a matter of slamming the hook home.
The best tackle and bait won’t put sturgeon in the boat if you don’t locate fish. To do that you’ll need a high resolution sonar unit that is capable of showing fishing holding tight to the bottom. Cruise areas that feature drop offs, ledges, holes, and clam beds, looking for large fish holding on or near the bottom. Sturgeon move with the current, so when some fish are marked you’ll want to anchor about 125 yards down current and get your bait on the bottom quickly.
Sturgeon can be caught at any stage of the tide day or night. However, the action is typically most consistent during periods of strong tidal movement. Finding productive sturgeon spots is a matter of scouting. Once you locate an area that holds fish mark it on your GPS, so you can return to it with confidence.
Before you embark on your first sturgeon fishing adventure be warned that it’s an additive sport revolving around hours of meticulous waiting and moments of adrenaline pumping excitement. Land that first keeper and you’ll never be the same!