White sturgeon are the largest gamefish found in Oregon, and one of the largest anywhere in the world. Anglers frequently catch and release sturgeon of 10 feet or more on the Columbia River.
A sturgeon's diet includes fish, clams, eels, worms and other foods. Common baits include smelt, shad, sand shrimp and squid, among others. Sturgeon seldom move through fish ladders and over waterfalls, unlike salmon and steelhead. But sturgeon with clear access to the ocean move between fresh and salt water, often moving out of the Columbia in the search for food and back to spawn.
Lately white sturgeon numbers have been on the decline, due to factors that include diminished food supplies and increased predation by sea lions. But there still are active (and often excellent) fisheries in the Columbia and Willamette rivers and in a number of coastal estuaries, although retention of these fish has been scaled back and at this update (2014) is catch and release only except in select areas of the upper Columbia and Willamette rivers. Green sturgeon, a less common species in most waters, already were off-limits to harvest. Our best advice: Check your state's regulations before keeping any sturgeon.
Also new in 2014 is the Columbia River Basin endorsement, required to fish for sturgeon, salmon and steelhead in the main river and all of its tributaries. You'll also need the appropriate license and tag.
The Columbia and Willamette sturgeon fisheries are managed on a quota system, and different sections of the Columbia (including reservoirs) have different open dates and quotas. Fork length requirements also can vary. Check the ODFW website for current regulations before sturgeon fishing.
There also are green sturgeon in Oregon, especially in coastal estuaries, but populations are depressed and green sturgeon of any size must be released unharmed.
Here are the state's best white sturgeon fishing spots:
The Columbia is far and away Oregon's largest sturgeon fishery, or we should say "fisheries," because there are many.
The estuary and river below Portland offer abundant clams and other food for sturgeon, which are found here in the highest numbers starting in about May or June. Catches continue well into July.
The Columbia above Portland, including the Columbia River gorge, offer very good spring fishing. Many of the river's largest sturgeon spawn below Bonneville Dam. Catch and release fishing for those "oversized" fish as well as for keepers gets going in March or April, with good fishing continuing into early summer. October can also offer good fishing here. The gorge offers some of the Portland area's better bank angling for sturgeon.
Please check regulations before fishing, as sturgeon retention is currently off-limits below Bonneville Dam.
The reservoirs upriver still have retention allowed on annual quotas that apply to each pool. The Bonneville Pool, in the gorge area, has a stable sturgeon popular and has become very popular in recent years. (These fish are largely separated from the lower river populations, but they also don't generally get gobbled up by sea lions.) Due to increased pressure, the quota disappears quickly. In recent years, ODFW split the quota by allowing some of the fish to be caught at the beginning of the year, when the concentrate in the lower pool, and then saving the remainder of the quota for June, when many of these fish are farther upstream in this pool (near The Dalles).
The Dalles and John Day pools have smaller quotas. In recent years, the keepers have been taken during the first half of the year or so.
This largest tributary of the lower Columbia River offers abundant sturgeon habitat in its deep lower reaches, a roughly 26-mile stretch from the mouth near Portland and Vancouver upriver to Willamette Falls between Oregon City and West Linn.
There are sturgeon in the Willamette year-round, but the highest numbers are found here from fall through early spring.
Recent regulation changes have made the Willamette River below Willamette Falls strictly a catch and release fishery for at least 2014. Also note that recently ODFW closed all sturgeon fishing (even catch and release) for the river between the falls and downriver more than five miles to the rail bridge between Lake Oswego and Milwaukie during the months from May through August. This area is protected as a sturgeon spawning sanctuary.
Catch and release fishing is often very good, with lots of action and hard battles, when keeper fishing isn't allowed.
The Willamette above the falls has at times been planted with sturgeon, and they can still be caught in a few of the deeper holes. The catch here is modest, but retention will be allowed in 2014, unlike the regulations below the falls.
Sturgeon likely visit almost every Oregon estuary in search of clams, shrimp and other foods. The numbers of fish are often best during the winter through early spring, although sturgeon may be found here anytime of the year. As with much of Oregon, this area went to catch and release regulations in 2014.
Here are some of the most popularly fished spots, listed north to south:
- Nehalem Bay: This is a relatively small fishery that the locals like to keep on the hush-hush, but you can catch sturgeon in the bay proper and up into tidewater stretch above the town of Nehalem to where the North Fork Nehalem comes in, and also up farther in the Barn Hole.
- Tillamook Bay: The northern Oregon Coast's largest bay often produces the most reliable sturgeon fishing outside of the Columbia system. Sturgeon are found throughout the bay, with the West Channel a popular spot. Beware of getting caught on the sand flats at low tide. Into summer, when the river flows decrease and the bay is saltier and full of crabs, anglers in the know move into the lower Tillamook River. There's a dock above Bay Ocean Road and also bank access along Frazier Road.
- Yaquina Bay: The tidewater above Newport, including the Toledo area, are increasingly popular among sturgeon anglers.
- Siuslaw Bay: This is a modest sturgeon fishery, and often ignored. In fact, most sturgeon caught here in the Florence area some years come when the bay's great chinook run is going strong in September and October.
- Winchester Bay: The Umpqua River estuary can be among the best fisheries on the Oregon Coast, although catches vary widely year to year. There can be large numbers of green sturgeon closer to the ocean, which have for several years been off-limits to retention.
- Coos Bay: Oregon's largest bay doesn't get a ton of attention among sturgeon anglers, but those who work at it have a fair shot at them.
For current regulations, consult the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's annual regulations booklet or website.