Catching river giants on Idaho's Snake River - East Idaho News

Catching river giants on Idaho’s Snake River

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SALT LAKE CITY ( — The largest gamefish in Utah waters are typically tiger muskies, northern pike, lake trout and striped bass — some of which can exceed 50 inches in length and tip the scales at nearly 50 pounds. Many other states in the region boast similar fish species that fall within those same general size ranges (give or take a few inches and pounds).

Idaho is in a league of its own.

North America’s largest freshwater fish species, the white sturgeon, lives in some of the Gem State’s rivers and they almost make a full-grown tiger musky look like a sardine. Just how big do these sturgeon get? The current catch-and-release record, set by Utah angler Greg Poulsen in 2022, measured 10 feet, 4 inches. Since the fish wasn’t removed from the water, it’s impossible to know its exact weight. But historical catch records indicate some white sturgeon have exceeded 1,500 pounds.

That’s right … sturgeon can weigh more than a grand piano.

As a trout angler who rarely catches anything bigger than three pounds, I recently decided it was time to experience sturgeon fishing firsthand. The Snake River holds the healthiest population, so I headed up to spend a couple days with my friend, Zach Bush, a diehard fanatic who has landed more than a thousand sturgeon and posts about his exploits on Instagram. He spends countless days on the river and enjoys sharing his knowledge. And speaking of sharing, he was even kind enough to let me use one of his sturgeon rods (turns out the ultralight combo I use in the Uintas wouldn’t quite pass muster).

Right out of the gate, my friend explained some of the special rules of the sport. For example, your hooks need to be barbless and your sinker must have a sliding rig. These regulations were put in place by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to help sturgeon rebound after a brutal period of time from the early 1900s to the 1970s, when factors like the construction of hydroelectric dams, pollution and over-harvesting caused sturgeon numbers to plummet.

The state agency also introduced the catch-and-release policy in 1971, which still stands. And, it partners with Idaho Power on conservation efforts that are making a major impact. While out on the river, Bush and I actually saw a boat full of the program’s biologists traveling upriver for a project.

In order to hook into a sturgeon, we used heavy weights and large baits. White sturgeon live in deep pools and use their whiskers to find food. While their diet historically included salmon, steelhead and freshwater mussels, the presence of modern dams has forced sturgeon to adapt to their more limited environments and find new food sources.

For the first few hours of our trip, we hooked nothing but northern pikeminnows. These fish are native to the river and share a love for many of the baits we were throwing out for the sturgeon. The largest pikeminnow we caught was probably four pounds, which would’ve been a thrill in most other settings. Instead, we considered it a nuisance, keeping us from the ultimate prize.

As night fell over the river, we began to see sturgeon jumping in the water. At one point, we watched in awe as an 8-footer swam right past us.

Well past midnight, my rod bent over like a candy cane. After setting the hook, the battle was on. The sturgeon headed downstream in the strong current, ripping line off my reel. We carefully added more drag, because having a sturgeon “spool” you doesn’t just mean you’ll lose the fish. It also leaves the fish trailing hundreds of feet of line, which can be disastrous to its health.

We eventually brought the fish close to shore and Bush instructed me to guide it into a muddy area below us. Dragging a sturgeon over rocks is an easy way to injure it, so we carefully avoided any rough terrain.

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Grant Olsen poses with his first-ever sturgeon from the Snake River. | (Photo: Zach Bush)

My fish measured about 6 feet long, a modest-sized sturgeon for that stretch of the Snake River. But it was a marvel to me. Powerful and prehistoric looking, it was honestly one of the most incredible creatures I’ve ever seen.

After a few quick photos, we nudged the sturgeon back into the river. With a flick of its tail, it disappeared into the dark water.

There have been plenty of 9-foot sturgeons caught in the area where we fished. And 10-footers have been landed not too far away. So, the question is, where is the more-than-10-foot giant that will break the current Idaho record? Perhaps it’s swimming in C.J. Strike Reservoir. Or it might be lurking in Hells Canyon.

With the Idaho Fish and Game and Idaho Power running conservation programs and anglers taking extra care in landing and releasing their fish, the future is bright for these sturgeon.

And it’s only a matter of time before a new record rises up from the deep.

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