Wrestling a river monster: 1 avid fisherman’s quest to rumble with a wild Idaho sturgeon

It takes patience, teamwork and a little bit of luck, but landing a big Snake River sturgeon is a one-of-a-kind fishing experience.
It takes patience, teamwork and a little bit of luck, but landing a big Snake River sturgeon is a one-of-a-kind fishing experience. Courtesy of Jordan Rodriguez

For anyone thinking about taking up sturgeon fishing, let me issue a ringing endorsement and a word of caution, all wrapped into one: Catching Idaho’s dinosaurs of the deep is equal parts difficult, awesome and addicting.

So, DO IT. Just know that it might take time to find success, and that once you do, fishing might never be the same.

I’ve always been fascinated by sturgeon. It seems unnatural that something so big makes its home in the Snake River.

And it’s awesome to think that these prehistoric relics can live for more than 100 years — which means the true giants are often older than the people who catch them.

I caught my first sturgeon two years ago, when the cold snap of 2016 allowed for a rare opportunity to ice fish for dinos at Jim Schwartz’s private lake near Parma. But lately, I’ve felt the itch to catch a wild Snake River giant.

Lucky for me, my buddy Bryce has been on a sturgeon kick, and he has an extra rod. I happily joined two of his recent expeditions.

Our first trip was relatively uneventful. We put in a solid effort, but apart from one big catfish, we didn’t see much action.

One week later, we were back at it, this time joined by our friend Big Mike. Using stout rods outfitted with heavy line and sinkers, we dropped squid, herring and smelt to the deepest holes we could find.

Then, we waited. And waited. And moved. And waited. And moved and waited some more.

Sturgeon feed primarily by scent and feel, so it can take them a while to find your bait. When they do, you’d be amazed how subtle the bite can be.

Did a 150-pound fish really just steal our bait without us noticing? Unbelievable! We fished into the afternoon with only a couple bites to show for it.

We were fishing our last hole when I noticed some irregular movement on my line. Could it be? Maybe. But it might just be weeds. I grabbed the rod, took a few cautious reels to investigate and, finally, felt something move.

“Fish!” I yelled. “That’s a fish!” I took five hard cranks to set the circle hook. Line started peeling off my reel as pandemonium broke loose.

Big Mike’s rig was stuck in some rocks, so priority one was to get him unstuck and avoid a tangle. Priority two was to keep my fish from reaching a nearby bridge pillar, where it could easily break us off.

Thanks to some expert maneuvering by Bryce, we managed to do both. Now the fight was on. I’ve battled some big fish, but nothing matches the power of a paddle-tailed sturgeon that just might outweigh you. My fish never jumped, but another sturgeon breached nearby.

“Wow!” Bryce yelled. “That one looked like a seven-footer!”

Our sturgeon continued to wage a physical battle. Bryce positioned the boat to keep the pressure on the fish, but I still got sweaty enough to shed my winter coat. A car passing over the bridge stopped to watch, giving us an encouraging thumbs-up through the window. After some more tug-of-war, Big Mike finally caught a glimpse of our quarry.

“Yeah buddy, it’s a big one!” he confirmed.

It was time to finish the job. With the fish tiring, Bryce motored to shore and pulled on his waders. After two final runs and one giant head shake, I guided the sturgeon into his waiting arms. Out of breath, I joined Bryce in the shallows for a quick picture.

Our sturgeon was a healthy, 6-foot specimen — definitely respectable for a first catch. I thanked Bryce and Big Mike for their help. Catching a 100-pound fish truly is a team effort.

After a round of high-fives, we shoved off shore and motored back to our hole. “Alright, boys,” I huffed. “Let’s go get another one.”

Tight lines!