Enjoy thy stream, O harmless fish; and when an angler for his dish, through gluttony’s vile sin,
Attempts, the wretch, to pull thee out, God give thee strength, O gentle trout, to pull the rascal in!

~John Wolcot

Despite Mr. Wolcot’s prayer, I stayed out of the water. Anyway, Wolcot’s words don’t really apply to me because I wasn’t there to EAT fish, just catch them. And I was fishing for sturgeon, not trout.

Yup, you heard me: Cynthia went fishing. On purpose. I’m still reeling from the implications…and I caught a fish! Well, three-quarters of a fish, anyway.

You can see it, in the brief moment it was in my possession before diving back into the water to do fishy things, in the picture below. The Resident Carpenter helpfully displayed it so I could get the shot.

I say I caught three-quarters, because I didn’t actually do any of the less desirable parts of fish-catching: Baiting the hook and removing said hook from the fish. That was Nathan’s job.

This sturgeon is a small one, about 2.5-3 feet long (we didn’t actually measure it), and you can see the very sharp “scutes” armoring the top and sides. He was out just long enough to take the picture, then we set him free.

We hadn’t been out on the water in the zodiac for a few months, while Nathan rearranged his work stuff and improved his cartop carrying system for the boat. He’s invented this very cool method for automagically getting a large inflatable boat up on top of an SUV for transport without assistance, saving all the fuss with a trailer and second man to heft the boat and such.* His invention is cool enough that the search and rescue folks want him to do the same for their rescue zodiacs.


The Resident Carpenter has developed a quick-setup winching and storage system for getting a heavy zodiac out of the water and face-down on the top of his SUV. The boat, dry and empty, weighs a couple hundred pounds at least, so it can be challenging for one guy to get it safely strapped onto the car. Nathan’s winching system gets it up and there and locks it into place without anyone needing to assist.

Anyway, Saturday promised to be a gorgeous day and the boat was ready, so…”Wanna go fishing?” he grinned, “And YOU get a fishing license, too, so we can both have poles in the water.”

Nathan is nothing if not a stickler for fish and game rules (“They’re just trying to save native species, and keep the fishing going,” he’ll shrug, carefully reciting the rules). I hadn’t really envisioned myself with a fishing license, given that it implied I would be trying to actually catch fish.

Our previous fishing trips consisted of Nathan fishing like a demon from the back of the boat, anxiously watching the fish radar thingee and monitoring two poles while I perched in front, snapping pictures, passing back sandwiches, and periodically murmuring a word of encouragement.

On this trip, though, I spent $60.75 on an Oregon fishing license so I could, for the first time, become an active participant in not catching our dinner.

Color me just thrilled to bloody death about this.

It’s all part of Nathan’s “make Cynthia athletic” plan after the whole Elmo-busted-femur bit, so I’m inclined to cooperate. Anyway, I love hanging out with The Resident Carpenter when he’s outdoors; he comes fully alive and makes me laugh. That day, we were going out to catch-and-release a few sturgeon.

I find “catch-and-release,” and the regulations surrounding it, fascinating. When I went fishing with my dad as a kid, we didn’t have ANY fishing rules, aside from the obvious “don’t fish with dynamite.”

Most people assume, given my well-known aversion to The Wilderness and its tendency to sting/bite/itch/chew/etc., that I’ve never been fishing. Obviously, they never met my father, who was a fishing fanatic.

Dad always wanted a boy, but when I came along and was CLEARLY of the wrong sex, he shrugged philosophically and bought me a fishing pole. I was his backup when no one else would go fishing, and on weekends we’d hit up Dreischer’s pond or one of the rivers or SOMEwhere that (a) had water and (b) possessed a fish.

However, our fishing objectives were different: He was trying to catch one. I was trying to avoid catching one.

Now, I thought MOST of fishing was fun. I loved being out on the water with Dad, loved casting, was tickled by a tug on my line and the jerk-yank of setting the hook. I enjoyed fighting to keep an unseen denizen coming toward the boat. As far as I was concerned, fishing could end right there, because after that it was all downhill: I hated taking the fish off the hook, fumbling the barbs out of its mouth while it stared at me with wounded, accusing eyes.

Worse, I was frankly terrified of EATING the thing; Mom regaled us with stories of fishbones, carelessly consumed, strangling small children to death right at the dinner table. Dad would proudly set a mess of panfried, fresh trout on the table and grumble when his eldest daughter only poked and shuddered at the plate. I just couldn’t understand why anyone would execute a poor little fish when the supermarket offered cans of safe, bone-free tuna.

My prime objective on a fishing trip, therefore, was to prevent fish from happening. If I failed, and a fish actually hooked itself on my line, I’d quietly bring it to the boat, hoping that I could silently grab the fish, unhook it and let it swim away before Dad found out.

I wasn’t very successful. “What are you DOing?” he’d yell, “If you hold that fish like that it’s going to get away!” Then he’d snatch up my catch, complete the hook removal process, and add the poor fish to our string of dinner-worthy pisceans. I’d glumly rebait and recast, a fishy Benedict Arnold.

The point, though, is that our fishing trips had a single objective: Catch and eat fish. These days, in Oregon, we apparently have a different objective: Catch all the fish you want, but maybe don’t keep them…possibly. It’s hard to tell, because Oregon fish and game rules are more convoluted than IRS tax laws and just as expensive.

Sturgeon, what we were seeking, are a prime example: In Oregon, you can catch all the sturgeon you want as long as you release them unharmed back into the water… except for the 11 days between May 13 to June 5 but only in certain areas. At those times, you can keep and eat any sturgeon you catch as long as it’s between 44 and 50 inches long from the nose to the fork in the caudal tip (huh?). And you can only keep one sturgeon per day or a total of two for the entire year.

Moreover, these catches-and-keeps are only allowed on Mondays, Wednesdays, or Saturdays before 2pm. Catch the sturgeon of a lifetime on Thursday at 4pm, and you are in BIIIIIIIIG trouble. No matter when you catch it, though, you can’t troll (i.e., run your boat up and down the river slowly, as if you’ve lost a diamond earring in the water, with your baited fishing line trailing behind). You can only drop the hook down to the bottom of the river and wait. And you can use only one barbless hook per line, only one line per fisherman, and you’d bloody well better not hook them anywhere but in the mouth.

How, exactly, do you explain these rules to the sturgeon? 

Further, you can only do this in approved sturgeon “catch areas.” One small section of a river or coastline (or even one SIDE of the river) may be off-limits to ANY sturgeon-catching, while another allows you to catch, keep, and eat whatever white sturgeon you find. You can’t just read the rules for, say, the Columbia river and figure you’re safe if you only fish that river. You must figure out exactly WHERE you are on the Columbia, and then see if there are addenda to the rules that alter the law for that particular location and time.

I guarantee there will be multiple rules for this, scattered in different locations throughout Oregon’s Book of Regulations, with no way to tell if you’ve read ALL of them. You must also check online to see if there are any updates to those rules. If you simply rely on the section listed in the table of contents for your particular fish/location/time, you’ll probably wind up with a $1,500 fine for illegal fishing. And I’m not kidding when I say that the game wardens, at least in the Portland area, hide in the bushes just waiting for signs of fishy lawlessness.

Worse, ODFW (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife) changes the rules regularly, apparently based on feedback from the fish. Just when you think you FINALLY understand the rules pertaining to your particular fishing expedition, ODFW issues a new “action” that changes everything.

Makes you wonder how anyone fishes without a law degree.

But let’s say you’ve gotten this far with planning your sturgeon capturing expedition: You’ll discover that all the above rules apply ONLY to WHITE sturgeon (acipenser transmontanus). Don’t even TOUCH a green sturgeon (acipenser medirostris), an endangered species. ODFW posts these helpful photos so you can easily tell them apart:

See the difference? Me neither. And it’s even more difficult to tell the difference when the fish is 75 feet underwater…

The RC says that the whole green/white sturgeon dilemma is moot; green sturgeon are so rare that you’ll probably never see one. OTOH, what happens if a green sturgeon and a white sturgeon meet, fall in love, and raise a family? Are their kids green sturgeon? White sturgeon? Interesting shade of mint sturgeon?

Who knows? I looked up sturgeon in Wikipedia and discovered that it is a “bony” fish that can live for a century or more. It is considered the largest freshwater fish species in North America. It can grow to 20 feet, but more usually is 10 feet long or less.

Just as an aside, our boat is 9 feet long. We are talking about catching a fish that is BIGGER THAN THE BOAT.

Aside: Sorry, Wiki, I’m not sure I buy the “largest fish” bit. I’ve scuba’d in lakes with hellaciously huge catfish and I’d bet they would give any sturgeon a run for its money. My divemaster mischievously mentioned that catfish (a) had poisonous spines, (b) could shock you like an electric eel, and (c) ate anything that didn’t eat them first. Kinda like JAWS with whiskers, something I had no trouble believing when I encountered them at the bottom of the dam. I could measure those bloody fish in lengths of me and they had big, big gaping, hungry mouths.

I stopped swimming in lakes.

Apparently sturgeon stay at the bottoms of rivers and lakes, scavenging on dead critters. They sport sharp, shark-tooth protuberances on their backs and down their sides, which turn them into the fishy equivalent of a garbage disposer. They roll around on decaying fish that have sunk to the bottom, and those sharp edges break the corpses into manageable, edible chunks. Then they suck the chunks up with extensible, vacuum-cleaner-hose-like mouthparts.


“The pointy fins are called ‘scutes,'” Nathan warned, “They’re sharp as razors in the small ones–the big old fish have had time to wear them down. Always grab a sturgeon by the head, fins, or tail. Do NOT try to hold the body or it will slice your fingers to shreds.”

I suppose this is nature’s way of evening the odds: There’s something extra sporting about dinner that can bite you back.

Anyway, sturgeon also produce a highly prized caviar. And if you can weave through the labyrinthine rules to actually take one home for dinner, The RC says they’re one of the most delicious of white fishes out there. Knowing that the Willamette is one of the US’ biggest superfund sites kinda kills my appetite on that score, but apparently most people don’t balk at the notion.

Mostly, though, sturgeon are great fighters when they’re on your pole, especially at the five-foot-and-above range, and so sturgeon fishing is considered fun.

The first time a sturgeon hit my line, it was a bit of a shock. I expertly (to Nathan’s surprise) set the hook and began reeling it in. It put up a huge battle, mostly expressed by trying to yank the bloody pole out of my hands. One moment of inattention, however, and the fish took off, leaving me with a baitless hook.

This, too, is fishing, and it’s kind of a letdown. The next time one hit the hook, though, Nathan set it, and handed the pole over to me. I reeled in the line for maybe 30 days (seemed that long, anyway) and was finally rewarded with the sight of a giant fish breaking the surface of the river.

It fought like crazy until it came to the boat, then suddenly turned upside down and lay in the water, absolutely still. “They do that,” Nathan said, calming my fears that I just murdered a fish and would go to jail, “They just go catatonic when they’re upside down, like alligators sharks.”

Correction: The Resident Carpenter finally read a blogpost (this one), and took me to task over that last sentence. “I didn’t say ALLIGATORS,” he said, with wounded dignity, “I said SHARKS.” Not arguing, so…sharks.

“Hi, fish,” I said, and before I could start feeling sorry for my hapless sturgeon, Nathan had dexterously removed the hook, raised my catch out of the water just long enough for me to grab a picture, and then set it free. The sturgeon never looked back but dove for the depths, where it will hopefully think twice before plucking strange dangling herring snacks.

I gotta admit, it was kind of exhilarating. Maybe there’s something to this catch-and-release after all.

*While I am thrilled to be walking and standing and doing all that seemingly normal stuff now that Elmo’s much better, I’m still not much assistance on a fishing trip. The Resident Carpenter will politely find something for me to do to get the boat in the water or ready it for the trip home, if I insist, but mostly he’d rather I just sat in the car, waiting for his signal to roll into the boat.**

**The Leg isn’t steady enough–or strong enough–to help me leap into the boat like your average sailor guy, and provides even less assistance to exit a boat. Climbing UP onto a dock without handrails or anything has become my most dreaded task: I roll onto the inflatable pontoon and from there face-down onto the dock, then begin the long and arduous task of fumbling to an upright position. 

At home I can grunny across the floor on my belly until I reach the top of a staircase, where I can swivel around, put my legs on the steps, and stand. On a dock, however, there are no convenient lower steps or handrails to help me, so I lie facedown, press down with my hands and toes, and literally walk my arms back to my feet until I can stand. Passersby see nothing but Cynthia’s bottom for an extended period of time, but I do eventually manage to get upright.