There are two kinds of anglers residing in northern California, those that HAVE landed a sturgeon and those that SHOULD land a sturgeon.
With good sturgeon action now underway in the West Delta this is a perfect time to contemplate how to catch sturgeon during the late fall and winter months.
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.
One of your greatest resources for finding sturgeon is your delta map. When you unfold the map to look for potential sturgeon fishing spots, 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 the sturgeon you find holding along the bottom of deep holes often won’t be feeding, but deep areas do 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.
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.
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.
Okay, at this point it’s time to bait up and pitch out the lines, so let’s take a look at the end tackle required. I’m going to assume that you’ve got a sturgeon rod that measures 7 to 8 feet in length heavy enough to handle 8 ounce sinkers, with a sensitive tip and ample backbone.
Your rod should be topped with a conventional reel spooled with a minimum of 200 yards of 50 to 65 pound braided line.
After exiting the eyes on the rod, you’ll want to pass your main line throughout a plastic sliding sinker sleeve and then attach a large snap or snap swivel to the line. This is where you’ll connect your leader.
When constructing leaders I use 80 pound Trilene Big Game line and either a barbless octopus or Kahle style hook. I connect the hook using an egg loop snell in most cases. With the hook in place I slide a bead on the leader followed by an egg sinker. The egg sinker insures that the bait will stay right on the bottom where the sturgeon feed.
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.
What about bait? Sturgeon will hit a long list of different baits including anchovies, shad, and various types of shrimp, pile worms, salmon roe, eel meat and more.
For late fall and winter fishing in the upper reaches of Suisun Bay and throughout the lower Delta, lamprey eel and salmon roe are the two baits you always want to have on hand.
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 losing effectiveness. In an average year of fishing I typically buy one or at the most two lampreys and have effective bait all season long.
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 rod, but it has one overriding positive attribute…Sturgeon gobble it up with gusto!
Baiting up with eel is easy. Cut a 2 inch long fillet off the side or your eel, pin an 8/0 octopus hook through the end of the fillet once and then pin a Bait Button on the hook to keep the eel from working off the barbless hook.
With salmon roe you want to use a chunk that is between the size of a golf ball and a smallish lemon. Pass your hook through the center of roe and slide the entire mass up the shank of the hook until the hook eye is sitting 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 above 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.
The classic sturgeon bite is called a “pump”. This is because your rod tip will pump steadily down. 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. When you feel firm weight on the other end of the line set the hook hard.
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.