Updated: May 15
By David Graham: April 3, 2023
Last week I was able to check off a major bucket-list fish of mine in emphatic fashion. With some carried over vacation hours I had to burn before April, I decided now was the time to chase the mighty white sturgeon. In the category of North America's giant freshwater fish, the white sturgeon and the alligator gar sit at the top shelf... and I had long since tackled the latter.
The opportunity was only possible through honest networking with other passionate anglers. My buddy Josh Dolin, whom I met years ago around the topic of alligator gar - an avid kayak angler - forged a bond with our host, Steve Carroll a few years back. Steve specializes in the pursuit of white sturgeon on shore, and by kayak around Idaho. His talents are well recognized in the sturgeon community, and thanks in part to a viral video of a giant sturgeon breaching dangerously close to a kayak, he's received some well deserved notoriety for it.
Steve is not a 'guide' but he did serve as the local expert for this expedition. What he IS, is a very talented fabricator and builder... he has a very acute sense of detail and this is reflective in the products he builds, as well as his attentive nature on the river. Steve is the owner of 'Snake River Lockers'. He custom builds and fabricates these incredibly bad ass rod boxes/rod lockers to mount to kayak and boat trailers (which he also builds).
I am eager to add one of these bad boys to my roof rack on the jeep in the future - I could see these things looking SLICK in fatigued green up on the jeep. What is so impressive to me is, Steve actually BUILT and welded the entire 3 kayak trailer we used for this specific trip himself. Insanely talented guy who really deserves a ton of respect for his craftsmanship. I cannot get over how cool the rod lockers are.
On day one we hit a stretch of river for a five-mile float or so that would offer opportunity to drift by various riffles and areas to catch trout and smallmouth bass.. and just harvest fish for sturgeon bait. The trout were hard to come by (I didn't personally land any), but the smallies were willing to play and a lot of fun to pass time with. I am by no means a smallmouth guy, but I can now say I have caught them in Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Idaho... makes me sound well traveled and well versed in a species I really am a novice to!
Josh, never the stranger to big fish, couldn't have come along on the trip without catching some sort of world record... managed to catch several of these very large sucker fish. We came to find out they were 'large scale suckers' and one of them was absolutely massive. About eight pounds.... utterly smashing the standing IGFA world record for the species (3lb 11oz). We wouldn't be harvesting that one for bait... rather, we set it aside as a side mission to get the fish properly documented and registered.
A ways down the river we pulled into a deep pocket in the river Steve was familiar with... here we would have a decent chance at catching any sturgeon that might be settled in the calm eddy. I chunked up a trout (strange feeling!) and we set lines out. It wasn't a long wait before my rod went down and this fish wasn't playing around. I was tied to my first ever white sturgeon quickly, and it made an immediate impression with tremendous power. The fish came to bank after a nice fight... a typical fish for this stretch at about six feet in length. It was no monster by white sturgeon standards, but I couldn't have been happier!
After a few shots the fish was released and for me, the trip was basically a success. We continued down river, trying a few more 'sturgeon holes' without any additional luck. The weather the entire time was chilly, windy, and wet. Between the rain, sporadic snow, and just ambient moisture in the air... everything was just wet and cold at all times.
The next day conditions had gotten a bit worse. More wind, more ice... not optimal or even safe conditions to launch the kayaks. Rather, we decided to go about it on foot. Steve drove us way out to a more remote section of river that was harder to reach, had less fish, but a better chance at a real giant. From the very start it had all the feels of a 'big fish' day. Snow and ice on the roads made things especially dangerous. We had a near catastrophe on the interstate that saw us skid off the the road and into the snowy median at about 60mph to avoid certain death collision with a semi. No idea how Steve maintained control, but he wisely stayed on the gas as we skated what seemed like a half mile across the median and back onto asphalt. A LOT had to go right in all that wrong for him to pull that off...
We made a lot of jokes out of what could've been a very bad thing, and proclaimed these terrible conditions could only mean a big fish was waiting for us. This has been a common theme, particularly in any trip Josh and I have been on. That the trophy fish always start or finish with some sort of 'payment' or suffering. We finally made it to the 'road' we were to take along the gorge we intended to fish. The 'road' is a term I'd use loosely, was a muddy tract along a narrow edge to certain death off of a sheer cliff.
The path, a historical route of the infamous 'Oregon Trail' was just dirt. And that dirt had turned to mud thanks to the constant rain, and thawing of ice. We creeped along the edges of the trail, at times sliding more than rolling... but things were just getting too dicey. We finally concluded that going any further was just too big of a risk, and we pulled the vehicle around... about a 13 point turn... and opted to hike it the rest of the way.
Lugging all of our gear, we hiked down this mountain... the muddied road littered with the prints of mule deer and some sort of big cat. Enough to have you watching the hills, because clearly these hills have eyes. We made it down to the base of the gorge where a deep and powerful river cut through... resting on a narrow rocky embankment over a hole roughly 40 feet deep.
Steve used a mallet to smack three rod-holders forged out of rebar and pipe into the mud and rocks, and we got lines in the water. We waited through wind and rain for all of about 10 minutes before Josh's rod arched over. He retrieved the rod and struggled to get the tip up, we knew he was on a big fish!
As Josh started emptying his pockets (anticipating a swim), Steve and I mentioned the possibility to bringing in the other lines to avoid a tangle up. No time... I looked over in enough time to watch my 12 foot ugly stick bounce 2-3 times before taking a slow and ominous bow towards the water... I was on!
I took off running as fast as I safely could... the rebar of the rod holder bore through the ground and the rod was completely parallel to the ground. I had apparently forgotten to turn on the live liner on my reel and the drag was all but locked down. It is a flat out miracle I made it to the rod before it went flying into the river. When I engaged the fish, much like Josh, I flat out could not get the rod tip up. I had to loosen the drag considerably to get the rod high and try to stop this fish from freight training me out to the high current.
The fish ran with unimaginable power. Not comparable by ANY freshwater fish I have ever encountered. Not any of the alligator gar I have caught over 7 feet, not the gulf sturgeon... nothing even close. The sturgeon ran in a way that rivaled some sharks I have caught on spinning gear. I battled the fish for about 30 minutes continuously. Josh and I were having to skate along the edges of slippery rocks, dancing around one another as our fish kept threatening to cross one another time and time again.
It was as close as I've ever been to literally having to ask another person to help me on the rod. Eventually I had to sit down on a rock, plant the but of the rod into the base of the rock and use it as a fulcrum to pump the fish in. This was a total game changer... like sitting in a gimbal chair, I wish I had done it the entire time. I was finally able to crank the behemoth up from the depths shortly after Josh got his fish subdued.
We had a total of 17 feet, 8 inches of fish to shore! Josh's sturgeon taped out at 8'6, with mine coming in at 110 inches (9'2)! A remarkable feat... At the risk of hypothermia, we both climbed into the frigid waters to get proper photos with the fish. It was all I could muster of what strength I had left to haul the roughly 400lb monster into my lap.
When the fish were freed, we knew we needed to get the hell out of there. It was not a safe place to sit totally covered in freezing water... my chest waders totally filled. We immediately packed up and headed out. Keep in mind, the hike IN to this place was from elevation, down hill. We had to basically CLIMB out of there. If not for riding a high of adrenaline, it would have probably sucked a lot worse than it sounds.... climbing out of this place completely wet, lugging all of our gear in the cold.
Something about that element of suck... the work, the minimalist approach with an element of adversity really makes this kind of experience worth it. You sort-of NEED that challenge, that arc to your story where you have options to turn around and quit... and yet there always seems to be a real giant on the other side of that option or that 'hill'. I've come to embrace the suck, because you're often rewarded for it.
The next day we kicked around our options for either new areas... smaller fish easier to come by... but we ultimately decided to send it one last time in the same spot we got our giants. We made the same hike in, only to crest the hill and find a boat had anchored over the hole we wanted to fish. We tried our luck down river for a period of several hours with absolutely no action.... this essentially was the end of my time in Idaho.
I cant thank 'Sturgeon Steve' Carroll enough for his incredible hospitality. Steve opened his home to me and for that I am grateful. His wife Ashly was a tremendous hostess, keeping us comfortable, fueled up and encouraged each day! I am certainly in his debt, and always willing to reciprocate on any Florida endeavors he may have... and this is fishing. This is the purity of the sport and the bond it can forge. When deeply passionate anglers share knowledge, form bonds and teams.... you can make incredible dream trips happen without breaking the bank. Nothing spent but time, nothing earned but relationships and memories.