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Written By: Cal Kellogg, September 1, 2014
A lot of guys believe that the best time to hook a sturgeon is during the dead of winter. In reality this is actually one of the worst times to target sturgeon. The best fishing of the year takes place in the spring and fall.
Typically the months of September and October offer outstanding sturgeon fishing for West Delta anglers. This being the case this is a perfect time to review all things sturgeon fishing. In this issue's How To column I’ll cover the top sturgeon baits. In the next issue we’ll talk tackle and tactics!
Sturgeon get their calories from a variety of different sources, including invertebrates, clams, marine worms, small fish and fish eggs. For a long time, shrimp baits were the staple of Delta sturgeon anglers, and they are still a great choice.
Back in the 1960s, grass shrimp were the first type of shrimp to garner the affections of the Golden State sturgeon fishing fraternity. Later on, ghost shrimp and mud shrimp joined them on the list of tried-and-true sturgeon offerings. Next, anglers discovered that pile worms and blood worms would also draw bites from Mr. Diamondback.
For an extended period of time, these were the only baits regularly employed by serious sturgeon anglers. At some point in the early ’90s somebody somewhere got their hands on a lamprey eel, cut a fillet from it, pinned it on a hook and found that sturgeon were quite fond of the eel’s tough, bloody flesh.
Still more recently, around the start of the new millennium, an enterprising angler discovered that sturgeon also enjoy globs of juicy salmon roe. In addition to these baits, shad also have loyal following, mainly in the form of stripers anglers who were surprised when a good-sized sturgeon scarfed down one of their striper baits.
Most skilled sturgeon anglers I’ve met put a lot of effort into keeping their baits fresh. None of the baits commonly used for sturgeon fishing hold up very well when exposed to heat or sunlight. For that reason, store your bait in a cooler. The better quality the bait, the better chance you have of hooking the diamondback of your dreams.
Let’s take a closer look at these baits. Grass shrimp are the godfather of all sturgeon baits. They are responsible for tempting big numbers of fish every year, and they are relatively cheap. Over the years more delta sturgeon have been landed on grass shrimp than all other baits combined. This is partly a testament to the effectiveness of grass shrimp, but before you turn your back on the other baits available, the fact that grass shrimp have been employed the longest has to be factored in.
Ghost shrimp are larger than grass shrimp and more expensive. Ghost shrimp are a favorite among sturgeon hunters, and some guys rely on them almost exclusively.
Mud shrimp are the largest of the shrimp baits, but they also are the hardest to find and the most expensive. Back in the late ’80s, mud shrimp were the bait of choice for anglers interested in catching truly massive diamondbacks, but more recently their popularity has declined. This decline likely stems from the fact that they typically are hard to come by.
All of these shrimp baits work the best when you buy them fresh. Once they’ve been frozen they become mushy and fragile. I never use frozen shrimp, and I advise you not to use them either.
One of the negative points about using shrimp baits is the fact that they draw a lot of action from small fish such as bullheads, juvenile stripers, catfish and flounders. On the up side, good-size stripers enjoy a hearty shrimp dinner, so when you use them there is always the possibility that you’ll pick up a bonus bass.
Pile worms and blood worms are much the same as shrimp baits in that they are very good sturgeon offerings. Pile worms are easier to get than blood worms, but both varieties are sold for a reasonable price. You never have to choose between fresh worms and frozen ones, since they are only sold live.
The quality and size of these worms varies considerably, so I always look them over before I take the plunge and purchase them. They are sold by the dozen. Naturally, a dozen eight-inch worms are a far better value than a dozen three-inch worms.
Lamprey eel is my all-time favorite sturgeon bait for a number of reasons. A decent-sized frozen lamprey eel runs about $12. To the uninitiated that sounds pretty expensive, but when you calculate in the longevity of lamprey it is probably the cheapest of all first-line sturgeon baits. Lamprey is exceptionally tough. Small bait stealers might nip at it and gnaw on it, but they can’t do any real damage to it.
If you find yourself fishing around a bunch of small fish while using shrimp baits or worms, you’ll need to resign yourself to checking your bait often to ensure that you have something on the hook — and you’ll be wasting a lot of expensive bait. When you rig up with lamprey, you can rest assured that your hook is armed and ready for action, and since you won’t be rebaiting time and time again, you will save money over the course of a year.
Another money-saving advantage to lamprey is the fact that it can be thawed out and refrozen over and over without losing its effectiveness. If I relied exclusively on shrimp baits or worms, I’d be buying fresh bait every time I hit the water since neither of these baits freeze well.
In an average year of fishing, I typically buy one or two lampreys and have an effective bait all season. The first year I used lamprey I caught three keeper sturgeon on a single two-inch long lamprey fillet. You simply don’t get that kind of durability and performance from any other bait.
In addition to the resilience and long-term savings lamprey offers, I also greatly appreciate the type of bites I get when using it. Sturgeon hit lamprey with vigor, and bites are very distinct most of the time.
I don’t know if this is due to lampreys’ rubbery toughness or the fact that it is a type of fish, and I really don’t care. All I know is that the hits I get on lamprey are a great contrast to the light nibbles that often signal sturgeon bites when using other baits.
Uncured salmon roe is one of yuckiest, messiest baits you can imagine. It will coat your hands, stick to your boat and gum up the grips on your rods, but it has one overriding positive attribute: STURGEON LOVE IT!
Salmon roe probably appeals to sturgeon for a few different reasons. First of all salmon are native to Delta waters, so sturgeon have been happily munching on it for thousands of years. Secondly, roe puts off a lot of scent, creating a distinct scent trail that leads the fish back to your bait. Finally, roe provides sturgeon with a large, calorie-dense meal that they can gulp down while expending minimal energy.
This brings us to shad. Shad are not really a mainstream sturgeon bait, but since shad are the primary forage fish in the delta they are definitely a part of the sturgeons’ diet. They won’t draw as many strikes as most of the other baits we’ve discussed, but scores of keepers and some real monsters are hooked by anglers soaking shad every year. Fresh-brined shad is best, but if frozen is all you can get, by all means throw it on a hook and toss it out.
If you’d like to get out and enjoy an exciting day of fall sturgeon action in the West Delta. Give Captain David Hammond of Delta Pro Fishing a call at (916) 479-3492. He’s got a ton of quality roe and he’s booking spots right now!
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