Editor’s notes: The following blog was written and submitted to Northwest Sportsman by Rick Itami.
By Rick Itami
As most of my fishing buddies know, I am mostly a salmon and steelhead angler who has pursued the fish all over the Northwest, British Columbia and Alaska over a 50-plus-year period. But poor spring steelhead and Chinook salmon seasons in 2017 made me start looking for alternatives.
When I received a group e-mail from Toby Wyatt, owner/operator of Reel Time Fishing guide service (208-790-2128), reporting good fishing for sturgeon in Lake Roosevelt out of Kettle Falls, Washington, I had to give it some thought … for about two seconds. I scheduled a trip for the following Monday on July 17, 2017. with assigned guide, Shane Reynolds. Two other clients joined me — Neal Thompson and his 13-year old grandson Ethan from Spokane.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife announced the opening of the first-ever catch-and-keep sturgeon season in Lake Roosevelt to run from May 27, 2017 through September 17, 2017 [but since closed after July 31]. The daily limit is one white sturgeon and the annual limit is two. A slot limit of 38 inches to 63 inches was also established for the fishery.
Thanks to successful hatchery programs in the State of Washington and British Columbia, the Lake Roosevelt comanagers, consisting of WDFW, the Spokane Tribe and the Colville Confederated Tribes, developed a harvest plan that allows nontribal anglers the opportunity to harvest up to 10,250 sturgeon over the next 10 years. What a remarkable success story that has been quietly in the making since the early 2000s!
When we met Shane at the Kettle Falls launch at 6 a.m., our anticipation was high because he had been so successful on previous trips, sometimes limiting out by 8:30 a.m. But our day started off very slowly. Unlike most fishermen pursuing sturgeon in the area, Shane does not spend more than 15 minutes to half an hour at any location. For the first three hours, he moved at least six times to different way points in his GPS that he had had success at previously. But we didn’t get a single bite at any of the locations.
Fishermen in other boats were having the same lack of success as us and most left the river by 10 a.m. But Shane had confidence that he could get us on fish sooner or later and told us not to lose heart. And sure enough, just before 11 a.m., he cruised over an area where he marked some fish and dropped anchor. Within a couple of minutes after all of the rods were set out, young Ethan’s rod tip bounced up and down and he quickly removed the rod from the holder and set the hook. The fish was obviously a nice one that gave the 13-year-old all he could handle. While Ethan was fighting his fish, I hooked and landed a small “shaker” that was below the slot limit and released. After a tough battle, Ethan finally landed his first-ever sturgeon, measuring 53 inches.
Then it was Neal’s turn. Within 15 minutes of Ethan landing his fish, Neal’s rod buried with a good fish that at first we thought might exceed the 63-inch slot limit. But once landed, it measured out at 59 inches — the biggest of the day. I weighed it for him on my digital scale and it registered just under 44 pounds.
All of us had landed a fish at that point, but I still needed to get a keeper into the boat. I didn’t have to wait long. My rod tip started bouncing and I set the hook into a fish I knew right away wasn’t another shaker. After a good fight, Shane lifted the fish over the gunnel. It measured out at 51 inches. All of us were happy with our catches, and Shane said that we averaged higher overall in size than many of his trips.
So what did we learn on this trip? First and most important is that a knowledgeable and experienced guide is worth every penny you pay him. Shane worked hard to find us some fish and his perseverance paid off. He has learned that sturgeon move around in pods in Lake Roosevelt and you just have to keep moving until you land in the middle of one of them. Once you find a group of fish, the action can be fast and furious, as was our experience towards the end of our trip.
Shane started off using squid on some rods and herring on the others. Once we found out that the fish were hitting the squid and not the herring, he baited all of the rods with squid. We fished depths ranging from 30 feet to 100 feet, but we caught all of the fish between 40 and 50 feet deep that day. This, of course, can vary from day to day. Again, Shane just kept changing locations and depths until he finds fish. And finally, Shane proved to us that we should never lose faith and give up as did other fishermen that day. He had confidence he could get us on fish and he kept changing locations within a huge area until we found success.
Finally, Shane said that if you see sturgeon leaping out of the water, you need to pull up and go quickly to that area, because that’s where biting fish will be. We found this to be true also.
After all of us limited out, we caught and released three more fish before calling it quits for the day. The weather was great with temperatures in the low 80s and winds were light to calm.
As I was finishing up writing this article, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife announced closure of the sturgeon fishery on July 31, 2017. Anglers were apparently too successful and so the co-managers decided on the early closure so that sports fishermen will have the opportunity to fish for sturgeon in Lake Roosevelt in future years.
So if you want to try this new fishery in coming years, I strongly urge you to go out with a good guide before you try it on your own. The area you fish is huge and quite daunting to a first-timer to that portion of the Lake Roosevelt. And don’t do like many do-it-yourselfers and sit in one spot all day. You have to be willing to move every 15 to 30 minutes if you aren’t getting bites.
Shane Reynolds also has his own guiding business separate from Reel Time Fishing and takes clients on salmon, steelhead, walleye and smallmouth bass trips as well as sturgeon trips. He can be reached at (208) 880-2994. I have gone out with dozens of guides in the past and Shane is one of the best.
We have to thank the WDFW, the Spokane Tribe and the Confederated Colville Tribes for making this fishery possible. It gives us salmonid fishermen a great alternative when poor ocean conditions, drought, or whatever results in weak runs of salmon and steelhead.
By the way, I smoked my sturgeon fillets and they turned out to be outstanding in flavor and texture. Some members of a local gourmet club asked if I would sell some to them. Of course, I said “no”, but I was flattered that they asked.
Guide Rick Hedding from Clarkston, Washington, gave me the recipe several years ago. The ingredients are few, the process is a bit long, but the result is the best smoked fish I have ever tasted. Here is the recipe:
– Slice fillets into preferred eating size chunks and place them into large aluminum lasagna pans.
– Mix a 26-ounce carton of iodized salt with 2 pounds of dark brown cane sugar, making sure the mixture is evenly blended without lumps.
– Liberally spread the mixture over the fillets, making sure to cover every part of the meat.
– Place lasagna pans with fillets into the refrigerator for five hours. The salt/brown sugar mix will turn into a thick syrup that soaks nicely into the fillets.
– Put a clean bath towel over a flat surface and cover it with a layer of paper towels.
– Remove the fillets from the refrigerator after five hours, thoroughly rinse them individually with cold tap water and place them on the paper towels covering the bath towel.
– Pat fillets dry with other paper towels.
– Wash the lasagna pans using very hot soap and water and dry thoroughly.
– Place the fillets back in the lasagna pans and place them back into the refrigerator for up to 24 hours.
– Smoke the fillets at 200 degrees F for five to six hours using hickory chips.