By Collin Dalley

The Columbia River can offer one of the greatest thrills a fisherman will ever experience.  Much of this massive river divides the state of Washington and Oregon and holds some of the largest fish in North America. Strangely enough, most outdoor enthusiasts have never taken full advantage of all the opportunities this gem of a river offers fisherman. The Columbia River has made a name for itself with its beautiful location and outstanding salmon fishing, with over one million silvers running up the Columbia annually; however, when it comes to the largest freshwater fish in North America, not many people truly understand the incredible experience that awaits.

JD Ponciano holds up another great fish taken from the Columbia River.

JD Ponciano holds up another great fish taken from the Columbia River.

We are talking about a fishing trip of a lifetime for White Sturgeon that can be easily accessed by car or plane with a major airport only minutes away in Portland, Oregon. The White Sturgeon is truly a prehistoric fish that has remained similar in its appearance for the past 200 million years or more. These prehistoric fish or as some refer to them, “The dinosaurs of the deep”, live their lives as hunters and scavengers.  They primarily spend their time feeding on fish smaller than themselves, such as shellfish, crayfish and various other aquatic invertebrates (clams, amphipods and mussels).

These living fossils are interesting fish with an extraordinarily long life. The White Sturgeon is slow growing and can live 100 years or more.   It has been known to reach lengths up to the 20ft mark, while topping the scale around 1,800-pounds.  They have also been known to travel great distances, migrating to follow food supplies from fresh to salt water and back, adapting easily.  These ancient species are commonly found in large rivers, estuaries and marine environments.

With many variety of sturgeon in the world, it’s surprising how few people know about the remarkable game fish found in the Columbia River, the White Sturgeon. These are hard fighting, acrobatic fish that love to leap in the air and dive deep, making the reel sing as your line rips off with a strong burst of speed. With armor-like skin instead of scales, these torpedo shaped fish are extremely powerful and will put any tackle to the test.

While on the Columbia River out of Vancouver, Washington, I was able to learn more about these quality game fish through Dan Ponciano, who gave me the opportunity for a live, hard fighting experience. Dan is the owner of Dan Ponciano Guide Service and has a passion for sturgeon.  They are the fish he cut his teeth on when he began fishing the Columbia over 30 years ago. Since this is the first season that sturgeon fishing has gone completely to catch-and-release below the Bonneville Dam, most fishermen are having trouble accepting the new regulations.  We decided to head out and experience these spectacular sport fish and help bring the excitement of catch-and-release to light. The hope was to encourage everyone to look into the affordable options available with guides, such as Dan Ponciano.

As good as eating sturgeon may be, it’s important to take an interest in the conservation for the future of the White Sturgeon. Catch and release is the only way to ensure that this fishery will continue to thrive for many generations to come. These dinosaurs of the deep, offer fast action for everyone from first timers to experienced anglers.

As we met in front of our hotel on the first day, Ashley, my wife and I were greeted by our guides, Dan Ponciano and his son JD. Upon arrival, Dan and JD professionally introduced themselves and we were off. Being excited would be an understatement. Our short drive towards the town of Astoria, OR provided some of the most beautiful scenery the Columbia River has to offer.

Dan & JD informed us that this area has more to offer than just fishing. The long list of outdoor activities available in this area, along with ease of access to Portland, make it the perfect getaway for the whole family to enjoy.

The drive to our location was an experience in itself with greenery that one would only imagine in a tropical paradise. As we made our way towards the Columbia River we enjoyed the majestic scenery. Driving under a canopy of tall jungle-like trees revealed some great lookout points for breathtaking views of the river below. Arriving at our destination, a light fog hazed the skyline and bright green moss covered the trees revealing rocks along the banks that had us standing in awe at the beauty. Suddenly I realized we had the marina to ourselves on this peaceful morning in Astoria.

Dan Ponciano Guide Service getting the boat ready for a day of fishing on the scenic Columbia River.

Dan Ponciano Guide Service getting the boat ready for a day of fishing on the scenic Columbia River.

The four of us made our way to the dock where fellow guide, Rayhan Higgins had the fishing boat outfitted and waiting for us. As we boarded the boat we discussed the unique tackle set up we would be using, along with the best way to set the hook on the giant fish we were going after. Now setting the hook was something I found very interesting. As they explained,  “when you see or feel a hit, wait for the ‘tap-tap-tap-bam!’ After you feel the ‘Bam!’ it’s a hard pull, so quickly grip the rod and set the hook as hard as you can with everything you have.”

Laughing out loud, I asked, “You want me to set the hook as hard as I can? Well alright, bring it on!” As stories of past trips were told about trophy fish being caught by clients, we couldn’t wait to experience this first hand for ourselves. With smooth water as far as the eye could see, the sunlight settled on us as we set out for the day.

The weather was perfect as we made our way out on the river to our first spot. Our guides got right to work setting up our rods, using sardines and shrimp as bait. Strategically wrapping them and yet making it seem so effortless, they ensured the baits would stay secured on the hook while casting. All set up, we cast our lines out and waited.  With our rods securely placed in the rod holders, I thought to myself, “this could take a little while to catch our first fish” but to my surprise I didn’t take more than three steps before hearing everyone yell, “We’ve got a fish on!”

I made my way to the rod and carefully lifted it out of the holder. I felt exactly what our guides had said, tap-tap-tap-BAM! The rod practically ripped out of my hand and I set the hook as hard as I could! As I put everything into setting the hook, it was game on! Taking off like a jet, the line was ripping off the reel. Instantly realizing I was in for an exhilarating fight, positioning the bottom of the rod near my hip for added leverage as I started working the fish in a routine of pulling up on the rod and reeling in as I lowered the rod. Using medium tackle, I could feel every burst of speed from the big sturgeon on my line.

After five minutes, the fish wasn’t showing any sign of letting up, as it continued ripping line off the reel with its acrobatic performance. Anyone that has fished for tarpon will tell you it’s exciting to see them jump and White Sturgeon are every bit as acrobatic. After fighting this monster for what seemed like 30 minutes, I found myself finally gaining line in my quest to get this magnificent sport fish to the boat. It was just under the 54-inch mark, allowing me to remove it from the water for a picture to remember my first sturgeon forever. Make no mistake, these fish are strong, and taking them out of the water for a picture does not affect them. Soon we had my trophy swimming off in good health while still displaying incredible power.

The new regulations state that anything over 54 inches to the fork of the tail needs to remain in the water and be released. As you can imagine, picking up a fish weighing over 100 plus pounds could be difficult and might increase the chance of injury for the fisherman too. The sheer power of these fish has proven it is best to keep them in the water for a quick and easy release, ensuring any fish of breeding age is unharmed.

Ashley Dalley showing the guys how it’s done with her incredible Dinosaur of the deep.

Ashley Dalley showing the guys how it’s done with her incredible Dinosaur of the deep.

Just as I let my fish go, Ashley set the hook on another good sized fish. The fight was on again as the line ripped off the reel. Smiling from ear to ear, she was ready for battle! It seemed with every five feet of line gained, another 10 feet would rip off the reel – but she stayed with it. I watched my diminutive, but very strong spouse working the fish by pulling the rod tip up and reeling up the slack as she lowered the rod tip. Repeating this over and over she gained line, but the fish wasn’t ready to give up.  Its next jump had it flying at least four feet out of the water! Ashley stayed with it and won the battle, revealing another fish just under the 54-inch mark.

On this day, we landed over 40 fish by 2pm, with a few trophy sized fish that we, of course, immediately released. This trip really reinforced the fact of how important it is to have a guide that knows the area and how to fish it. We had other boats around us that seemed to be catching no more than one fish for every five we caught, proving our point that there are good guides and then there are great guides. If you’re looking for an action packed day, perfect for every type of fisherman or fisherwoman, make sure you get in touch with Dan Ponciano Guide Service. He is one of our newest Platinum Approved Outfitters and he provides a premium guide service. We had the trip of a lifetime and can’t wait to do it again.

Contact Dan Ponciano Guide Service by phone: 360-573-7211 or by email at dan@columbiariverfishing.com.  You can also visit them online at www.columbiariverfishing.com. Don’t wait—book your trip today!