Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 13, 2012
Stripers are only part of the story in the Rio Vista Bass Derby. There is a sturgeon division in the derby. While there are typically several striper caught in every derby that fall exactly on the target length and the striper prize comes down to who caught the heaviest target length fish, only a handful of sturgeon are brought to the measuring tent and of those there is seldom a fish that falls exactly on the target length.
This being the case you have a much better chance to cash a check with a sturgeon, provided you can boat a keeper of any size, than you do going to the scales with a target length bass that will have to out weigh 5 or 6 other bass that also match the target length…If you’d like take the “easy” path to victory, you’ll need to bone up on your sturgeon fishing tactics, so continue reading!
I’ll never forget the first keeper size sturgeon I battled. My wife Gena and I where out for a day of fishing in the West Delta aboard Captain Barry Canevaro’s Fish ‘N’ Fool IV. Generally, Barry takes out 5 or 6 anglers, but on this fine March day the three of us had the entire boat to ourselves.
After dropping the anchor to the bottom, Barry rigged up a pair of rods for striper fishing with filleted shad and tossed them out. Next he broke out a heavier rod, placed a pyramid sinker on the slido, baited the hook with a lamprey eel fillet and casted it out off the starboard corner.
Barry and I passed the first couple hours chatting and watching all manner of flotsam including tree limbs, palm fronds and even an old dresser drift by as the rain swollen current pushed out of the Delta and flowed into Suisun Bay.
Certainly we were relaxed, but our eyes were keeping a close vigil on the rods. When the rod baited with the eel slowly dipped down we were both on our feet instantly. I knew it was a sturgeon bite, but I’d heard they could be difficult to hook and I wasn’t taking any chances. “You set the hook Barry, I want to learn how to do it,” I blurted out. As Barry approached the rod, the tip was on it’s way back up. Picking up the rod gingerly, Barry pointed the tip slightly to the side and waited as I leaned over his shoulder intently watching.
Presently the rod’s sensitive tip started to bend. It didn’t dip or dart. Rather it bent slowly and steadily as if the line was being subjected to ever increasing pressure. “You see that, he’s got the bait in his mouth,” commented Barry a beat before driving the hook home and handing me the rod.
The fish was powerful and instantly charged away with the current, ripping several yards of stout monofilament off the reel. Once the fish stopped I went to work with the rod, gently pumping the tip up and then reeling down to gain line.
I’d been fighting the fish for several minutes and was thinking that it must be in the 50 or 60 pound class, when Barry said something along the lines of, “Heck that might be a keeper”.
“Might be a keeper? From the way this thing is fighting it has to be a monster,” I thought. Two or three minutes later a bubble broke the surface.
“There are the bubbles, he’ll come to the surface now,” Barry related as he grabbed the sturgeon snare. When I finally caught sight of the diamond back it wasn’t nearly as big as I expected it to be, but it was still a sizeable fish. After Barry deployed the snare and hauled the sturgeon over the side, the tape measure revealed that it was 49 inches long, a solid keeper, but nowhere near the 50 or 60 pounds I guessed it to be as I fought it. Such was my introduction to the wonderful world of Delta sturgeon fishing…I’d been lucky!
Consistently successful sturgeon anglers are the ones that effectively blend, patience, skill, execution and plain unadulterated luck. Back in the old days, it was said that an aspiring sturgeon angler could plan on putting in an average of 100 hours on the water, before that first elusive keeper was landed. These days with modern electronics and a more widespread and thorough understanding of sturgeon behavior, the amount of time it takes an angler to land a keeper is significantly shorter…Usually.
As with striper fishing, one of your greatest resources for finding sturgeon is your delta map. Now as I disclosed I prefer to do most of my striper fishing in relatively shallow water because that is where stripers tend to go when they are feeding. This isn’t generally the case with sturgeon. Sure they venture into the shallows and I’ve caught them there, yet overall the water where I’ve encountered my best and most consistent diamondback action is substantially deeper than the water where I seek out stripers.
When you set down the night before your trip with your map to scope out potential sturgeon hotspots, you are looking for several different features. The first thing you want to locate are deep holes. Sturgeon tend to keg up in deep areas. Of course the term “deep hole” is relative. In a slough that averages 10 feet deep a hole that is 20 feet deep is deep. Conversely out on the main Sacramento where the much of the water averages 20 to 30 feet deep, water that is 40 or more feet deep constitutes a deep spot.
Now, while deep holes are great places to find sturgeon they won’t always be feeding. The area off shore of Chain Island just above Pittsburg is a great example. You can pull into the deep water between the island and the ship channel and almost always mark fish, sometimes in big numbers. Yet in all the years I’ve fished there I’ve had few bites and have only landed 1 keeper and 1 shaker, leading me to believe that much of the time, sturgeon you see laying in deep holes are resting rather than feeding.
While deep holes may not be the best areas to locate feeding sturgeon, they are areas that attract and concentrate sturgeon and that is important. Since, when those fish become active and move out of the hole to eat, you can put yourself in a position to ambush them. The areas where I’ve had the most luck hooking sturgeon are the flat, relatively deep areas above and below deep holes, in and around deep holes that occur on bends in the river or sloughs and on the deepwater edge of clam beds. To illustrate what I’m talking about let me describe my all time favorite sturgeon spot. I’m not going to give you any clue as to where it is, since I don’t want to burn the spot, but I do want to establish what a hot spot looks like, so you can seek out one or more of your own.
The spot is in a small slough that is no more than 100 yards wide. The water in the slough averages 12 to 15 feet deep, but on one particular bend there is a 200-yard long hole that reaches a maximum depth of 45 to 50 feet. I’ve seldom cruised the hole when it didn’t hold sturgeon, yet over the years I’ve only encountered a handful of other boats fishing the spot. The deepest part of the hole is on the outside of the sharpest part of the bend. On the inside of the bend a large mass of tules marks the shallow edge of a clam bed that gradually, drops into the hole.
On days when the current is moderate and I mark fish in the hole I anchor my boat either above or below the apex of the bend such that I can drop my baits on the slope that descends into the main hole. If the current is ripping, I often set up on the clam bed itself in about 20 feet of water. On days when the current is weak, I’ll set the boat so I can drop my bait right in the hole, where the current will be at it’s strongest.
Okay so you’ve done your homework, marked several potential spots to explore, know what times the tide will be high and low and you’re approaching the first spot in your boat. You want to slow the boat down to an idle well before you get to the spot to avoid spooking fish.
When I’m hunting for fish I want the best look at the bottom I can get so I don’t drive the boat in a straight line. Instead I zig zag so I can see as much of the terrain as possible. When you mark a sturgeon on the sonar, there is no mistaking it. They show up as a magnum size arch. Many times you’ll mark sturgeon cruising it the middle depths. I ignore these fish. They are traveling and not feeding. What I look for is one or more sturgeon that are holding on or just off the bottom indicating that they are likely feeding.
All right let’s say you check out a spot and there is a sturgeon or two holding along the bottom. They might be feeding or they might be resting. If they are up on a flat I would assume they were feeding if they were in the deepest part of a hole I would figure they were resting. At any rate, it is time to drop the anchor.
Feeding sturgeon do a couple of things pretty consistently. First they move with the current instead of swimming into it like a striper or salmon would. Secondly they use both bottom contours and current seams as travel corridors. This is how you use this information to your advantage…You spot a suspected feeder on a flat in 28 feet of water. Since you know what the tide is doing you motor about 100 yards down current of the mark and QUICKLY scan both the bottom terrain and the surface to establish what “lane” the fish is likely to take.
If you note any depth change on the bottom, even if it is only foot of difference that is a good place to drop your bait. Also if you can spot any surface disturbance that indicates where faster current is meeting slower water that too is a great place to put your bait. If neither of these features is present, assume the fish will travel in a straight line and anchor accordingly.
When you put out the anchor don’t pitch it out and make a big splash. Instead lower it to the bottom quietly, pay out some line, tie it off, kill the motor and get your baits into the water. At that point put your game face on and be ready. If luck is with you that fish just might come right up and nail one of your baits.
Speaking of baits there are two schools of thought when it comes to sturgeon baits. There is one contingent of anglers that believe sturgeon are opportunistic bottom feeders. These guys feel that the trick to catching sturgeon is to find actively feeding fish. When such fish are found they are of the opinion that a variety of different baits can be used to tempt them and as a result they only employ one or two different baits no matter where or when they are fishing.
The other contingent of sturgeon anglers also believe that the most important factor in hooking sturgeon is locating feeding fish, but they also believe that sturgeon are highly selective feeders that will turn down one morsel in favor of another. These anglers are convinced that using a variety of different offerings is the key to matching the fickle appetite of sturgeon. When these anglers hit the water, they’ll often be packing 4 or 5 different types of baits and they’ll use them all.
At times I tend to dabble with a variety of different baits, but when all is said and done, I have a couple favorites that I won’t go fishing without. Right about now you are probably wondering what the best sturgeon baits are. This being the case, I’ll cut right to the chase and tell you.
Mature 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 today. Back in the 1960’s, 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 90’s somebody somewhere go their hands on a lamprey eel, cut a fillet from it, pinned it on a hook and learned that sturgeon were fond of the eel’s tough flesh. Still more recently, around the start of the new millenuim, an enterprising angler discovered that sturgeon enjoy globs of juicy salmon roe. In addition to these baits, shad also have loyal following, mainly in the form of stripers anglers that were surprised when a good sized sturgeon scarfed down one of their striper baits.
Before we discuss how to rig these various baits, I’d like to take a moment to point out some facts about each of these baits as well as some of their pros and cons. Lets start out with the shrimp 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.
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. They are also the hardest to find the most expensive. Back in the late 80’s mud shrimp were the bait of choice for anglers interested in catching truly massive diamond backs.
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. 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 8 inch worms are a far better value than a dozen 3 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. Now, to the uninitiated that sounds pretty expensive, but when you factor in the longevity of lamprey it is probably the cheapest of all first line sturgeon baits. Lamprey can be thawed out and refrozen over and over without loosing effectiveness. In an average year of fishing I typically buy one or at the most two lampreys and have effective bait all season long.
Uncurred 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 rod, but it has one overriding positive attribute….STURGEON LOVE IT!
Now that we’ve got a handle on the types of baits used to tempt diamondbacks, let’s go over how to rig them. Of course the first step in rigging baits is setting up a leader. I prefer a monofilament leaders over wire for a variety of reasons.
To start out I cut off a section of 80 pound mono that is about 30 inches long. If I’m tying a leader using an octopus hook I attach it to the line using the same bumper snell knot I use on a striper leader. If I happen to be using a Kahle hook I connect it using a perfection loop knot.
With the hook in place I slide a bead on the leader followed by an egg sinker. To the far end of the leader I attach a swivel using a Palomar knot such that the finished leader is about 22 inches long. The final step is to take a toothpick and peg the bead 3 to 4 inches above the hook where it will act as stop for the egg sinker. The purpose of having the egg sinker on the leader is that it ensures that the bait stays right on the bottom in even the strongest current.
Since I don’t want the egg sinker tight against the bait where it might cause a biting sturgeon to drop the bait, the pegged bead is an important part of the rig. With this set up when a sturgeon comes along and picks up the bait, the egg sinker will slid up the leader and the diamondback won’t feel a thing.
When using shrimp baits, I always employ Kahle hooks, since they allow the baits to maintain a shrimp like shape. In addition they seem to be better than octopus hooks for hooking fish that are lightly nibbling the bait, which is often the way sturgeon bite shrimp baits. In terms of size I lean toward a 3/0 when using grass shrimp or small ghost shrimp and break out the 4/0s when using large ghost shrimp and mud shrimp.
To bait up with eel I remove a piece from the bag and pin it on a 9/0 octopus hook. I start by pinning it from the flesh side out through the skin side about an inch from either end. Next I rotate the hook and pass it back through the bait moving from the skin side out through the flesh side. Finally I slide the bait up to the eye of the hook, securing it in place with a few wraps of Magic thread. For salmon roe I like to employ an 8/0 octopus hook. To rig the bait I select one of my precut golf ball size roe balls, pass the hook through the center of it and slide the hole mass of roe up the shank of the hook until the hook eye is setting right in the middle of it.
Next I grab the Magic Thread and wrap the roe a dozen or more times and finish it off by making a series of half hitches both about and below the bait. When the roe is rigged this way with an exposed hook, the first thing to go into the sturgeon’s mouth when it begins to bite is the hook.
Locating fish, setting up on them properly, rigging and baiting and having the patience to wait them out until they bite are all critical components of success, but when a bite comes it’s time for execution.
When you cast out your line be sure to set the drag at the level you’ll want it for fighting a fish and place the rod in the balancer with the reel in gear.
The classic sturgeon bite is called a “pump”. This is because your rod will pump steadily down in the balancer anywhere from 6 inches to 2 feet or more. A typical bite will result in two or three pumps before the fish realizes something is wrong and drops the bait.
When you see a pump, quickly pick up the rod, being careful not to tug the line against the fish, as this will spook it. The best course of action is to move the rod tip toward the fish, allowing a slight amount of slack to form in the line and then move the tip to the side until you feel the slightest resistance. At that point stay statue still with your thumb locked against the reel’s spool to prevent the drag from slipping during the hook set.
The second pump will start as a feeling of pressure that builds in strength when you feel this, move the rod tip toward the fish 3 or 4 inches allowing the fish to draw in the bait and hold the rod stationary again. At this point you should be feeling a decent amount of resistance, almost as if a big clump of weeds have hung on the line. This is the time to hammer the hook home by sweeping the rod upward. If you are using monofilament line, you should set the hook hard. If you are using braid you don’t have to set it as hard as you do with mono, but you don’t want to limp wrist the hook set either.
A lot of guys make the mistake of freezing after hook set. Don’t do that, start reeling immediately. A hooked sturgeon will often head right at the boat and if you don’t pick up line with the reel, slack will develop and the fish will have a great opportunity to toss the hook or roll in your line.