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Some of those Willamette sturgeon might be ready to reel in.

Byline: Mike Stahlberg / The Register-Guard

TODAY IS Independence Day, which makes me think of Harrisburg, home to this area's best old-time Fourth of July celebrations, complete with parade, picnic and fireworks.

As much as I like Old Glory, barbecued chicken, ice cream and apple pie, I can't think of Harrisburg without being reminded of sturgeon, an old-time fish often described as "prehistoric."

The connection between Harrisburg and sturgeon is simple: Every year since 1989, a hatchery truck has backed down the Harrisburg boat ramp and dumped juvenile white sturgeon into the Willamette River.

The sturgeon-stocking program is run by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) in cooperation with a private sturgeon hatchery on the Columbia River. In return for being allowed to take eggs from Columbia sturgeon, the private hatchery gives the state half of its production. All go into the Willamette.

By my reckoning, many of those miniature prehistoric monsters of the deep ought to be reaching legal size by now. For the uninitiated, legal size for a sturgeon is anywhere between 3 1/2 and 5 feet in length.

Big enough, in other words, to provide some real fishing fireworks.

Owing to the impassable waterfalls at Oregon City, the upper Willamette does not naturally share in the exciting sturgeon fishery on the Columbia River.

After Europeans arrived in Oregon, a few white sturgeon moved into the upper Willamette through the shipping locks built at Willamette Falls. And the state Fish Commission transplanted about 850 juvenile sturgeon into the upper river in 1950-51.

Until 1989, those were the sole sources of sturgeon in the Willamette Valley.

Sturgeon are very long-lived, so some of those 1950s transplants are still hanging around in the deeper holes.

A handful of anglers target them on a catch-and-release basis. One Salem angler, for example, told me he has caught sturgeon as large as 9 1/2 feet in the Willamette.

Most anglers, however, are simply unaware that 62,835 sturgeon have been released in the Willamette over the past 13 years.

So they don't fish the bottoms of the deepest holes where sturgeon are likely to lurk. Or rig up gear stout enough to hold a sturgeon should one take their bait.

By my reckoning, that will be changing soon enough.

Over the next few years, more and more of the stocked sturgeon will grow to legal size.

Unfortunately, no recent data is available on how the Willamette's sturgeon population is faring.

In August 1999, I accompanied ODFW warmwater fish biologist Ken Daily as he conducted one of his annual samplings of the sturgeon population in the Willamette near Albany.

Daily and an assistant, Marc Nusom, set up "long-lines" and left them out overnight. Each had 180 hooks, spaced at 10-foot intervals, baited with squid. In 1999, Daily caught 27 sturgeon with the set-up. Each fish was weighed, measured, tagged and released.

The biggest sturgeon he caught that summer was 41.5 inches long, just a half-inch shy of "legal." But Daily also found that several of his huge hooks had been "straightened," an indication, perhaps, of bigger ones that got away.

Half the fish caught were over 31 inches long. Just two years earlier, in 1997, the halfway point on the list of sturgeon sizes was 26 inches.

How much have the sturgeon grown in the three years since that sampling?

Nobody knows for sure.

Daily retired and the budget-strapped ODFW decided not to refill his position.

But Rick Boatner, an ODFW biologist who works with sturgeon in the Columbia River, says he's confident many of the fish tagged by Daily "would be legal-size now."

Nusom, who assisted Daily with the sturgeon research, said anglers who used to provide him reports on their sturgeon catches have grown strangely "tight-lipped," as though keeping a secret. And he's heard a report of anglers catching "40-some sturgeon in one day" from a hole north of Albany. "I don't know if any of those were legal-size, but still, that's a lot of little guys to catch in one day," Nusom said.

Anglers interested in doing their own test-fishing for white sturgeon can try just about any deep hole with moderate current in the Willamette. Daily's test-fishing produced the largest number of fish in the Newberg-Wilsonville area, but he also caught them north of Albany and near Salem.

Sturgeon tend to move around in a river. In fact, there are reports of a couple of small sturgeon being found in the Leaburg power canal above where it empties into the McKenzie River, a tributary to the Willamette.

One of the likeliest hangouts for sturgeon in the upper Willamette Valley is an area of deep water near the Willamette's confluence with the Long Tom River, just downstream from Harrisburg.

Which reminds me - sturgeon would make a tasty addition to the Fourth of July barbecue menu.

Mike Stahlberg is the Register-Guard's outdoor writer. He can be reached at
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Title Annotation:Recreation
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 4, 2002
Previous Article:Outdoor Digest.
Next Article:A tale of two species.

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