Let’s Talk Sturgeon
Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 13, 2012
Okay, I’m going to come right out and say it. Despite what you’ve heard the dead of winter is NOT the best time to catch sturgeon. Sure you can catch them during the winter, but the spring months of March and April and the early fall, late summer months of August and September are hands down the best times of the year for producing sturgeon when you look at it from a time spent, fish hooked perspective.
Having said that, when you look a the spectrum of fishing available during the winter months, the options are much narrower than they are during the summer. For many Norcal anglers winter fishing means, targeting sturgeon in the Delta or bay, trout in a reservoir or steelhead on a North Coast river.
I know that a lot of the folks reading this reside in either the Bay Area or the Sacramento Valley and are within easy driving distance of the California Delta, this being the case let’s review some key points that will put you on tract to fulfilling your Delta diamondback aspirations this winter.
The first thing you’ll need is patience and the proper mindset. I can’t overstress this point too much. The water temperature in the Delta is in the 40’s. The sturgeon are lethargic and typically to get a hook up you are going to have to invest a fair amount of time. You’re not going to be effective if you go for an hour or two with nary a touch and then start second guessing. To catch sturgeon in the dead of winter you’ve got to be in for the long haul and you’ve got to stay focused, so you are ready to execute when the bite comes.
To catch sturgeon you need to locate them and if you don’t have a lot of on the water experience that process should start at home with a good topographic map that shows water depths. When the water is cold the sturgeon will typically keg up in holes that are 30 or more feet deep. Naturally not every hole is going to contain a good concentration of fish, so before hitting the water it’s critical to have a series of perspective holes in mind that you’ll scan with your sonar unit.
If you’ve never looked for sturgeon with your sonar unit, you don’t want the unit in the mode that shows fish symbols. You want the unit in raw data mode that shows fish as arches. Sturgeon arches are unmistakable. Sturgeon are the biggest fish in the river, and when they show on the sonar screen the arches are very large.
The most popular sturgeon fishing area in the Delta is the stretch of the Sacramento River and Suisun Bay that runs from Rio Vista, past Pittsburg, down to the Moth Ball Fleet. There are a lot of deep holes in this stretch that hold lots of sturgeon, but these holes also receive a lot of fishing pressure. I’ve caught keeper sturgeon in this stretch, but in my experience if you can find holes that hold sturgeon in smaller side sloughs that receive less fishing pressure, you’ll have much better luck hooking fish.
Okay you’ve located a hole with a solid concentration of sturgeon, be they in the big water or a backwater, what next? It’s time to drop the anchor and set up.
The fish you see in the deepest part of the hole are almost always inactive and not interested in feeding, so soaking bait in front of those fish likely won’t be productive. You want a fish that has stirred and is exiting the hole to feed to come across your bait. Sturgeon swim with the current when feeding, so you want to position your boat such that your bait is resting on the down current slope leading out of the hole. When the tide changes, reposition your boat on the other side of the hole.
A lot of different rod and reel combinations can be used for sturgeon fishing. Basically you need a fast action rod with a sensitive tip followed up with plenty of backbone. The rod should be capable of tossing weights up to 8 or 10 ounces.
You’ll want to top your rod with a conventional reel capable of holding in the neighborhood of 300 yards of 50 to 65 pound test braided line.
My current sturgeon rig consists of a classic Fenwick Pacific Stick Supreme teamed with an Abu Garcia 9000 Big Game Reel spooled with 65 pound P-Line braid.
End tackle for sturgeon fishing looks like this. Take your braided line and pass it through a good size plastic bead, through a sliding sinker sleeve and through a second bead. Follow this up by knotting on a heavy duty snap swivel.
At this point you are ready to attach a leader. Some guys like wire leaders, others opt for mono. I prefer leaders constructed of 19 inches of 80 or 100 pound mono, tipped with a single premium quality 8/0 octopus hook. Some anglers like to use Kahle style hooks and they work fine. Captain James Smith of California Dawn Sportfishing, who has been in on the catching of more sturgeon than most of us will ever see, uses the same large Owner plastic worm hooks that black bass anglers employ.
After attaching the hook thread a half ounce egg sinker on the leader before tying a loop in the top end or tipping it with a swivel. The egg sinker insures that your bait is on the bottom were sturgeon feed.
Now it’s time for some bait. Sturgeon are bottom feeders and are apt to consume a range of different offerings, including shrimp, marine worms, fish eggs, and dead baitfish. Right now the top baits in the Delta are ghost shrimp, grass shrimp, pile worms and lamprey eel. If you go out over the next month or so, these represent the baits you’ll need to have. Some anglers also like to have shad and uncured salmon roe on hand too. Eel is my all time favorite bait.
Okay you’ve baited up and attached a heavy enough sinker to the slider sleeve to get your bait to the bottom. In general you’ll need a few sinkers, preferably pyramids in the 4 to 10 ounce range. When you cast, remember it’s not a distance contest, just pitch the rig out 40 or 50 feet behind the boat.
Once the rig settles to the bottom, tighten the line and set the rod in a balancer style rod holder. There are two schools of thought on setting the hook when sturgeon fishing. Some guys set the hook on the littlest tap. Others prefer to wait until the rod clearly pumps down in the balancer. I prefer not to set unless I get a solid pump, but I’m sure that I miss a few fish as a result.
When you do set the hook, immediately begin reeling. Don’t hesitate to see if you’ve hooked up. If you feel a fish once you start reeling set the hook a second time to insure that it is driven home.
At that point the fight will be on. Stay cool, enjoy it and wear the fish down. Snares work well for landing keeper size sturgeon, big nets work better.