Monday, May 27, 2019

The Sturgeon Pond

May 2019

It had been on my radar for a few years now; a "pay to play" sturgeon pond in Parma. For a small fee of $25, anglers have a chance to catch sturgeon in a private pond. For many, this is the best opportunity to cross Idaho's "dinosaur" fish off their bucket list. I myself have little interest in investing in the gear and braving the Snake River to try for wild white sturgeon. But a private pond full of the fish? That I would consider. 

One day my father in-law, Rick, asked me when we were going.
"Let's try it this spring." I responded, intrigued by some of the facebook photos I'd seen recently of the place. 
"If you make the arrangements, I'll go!" Rick said. 
I placed a call to Jim Schwartz and the date was set. I also told Jim we wanted to catch some on the fly rod, a task I assumed would be difficult.
"No problem. I'll give you some tricks to make it happen!" Jim responded over the phone.

The day arrived and Rick, Katie and I drove to Parma. We met with Jim's wife Martha, checked in, borrowed a rod and she showed us where a "good" spot to fish was. 
"Here's where Jim usually feeds them. I'd try here." Martha said, giving us a wink. "It looks like you guys will have the whole pond to yourselves today."
Jim was running some errands so we would be on our own for a little while. 
Rick baited a hook with some pickled herring and threw it out into the murky waters of the small pond. The pond hardly looked large enough to support sturgeon, let alone the hundreds I had heard were in there. Katie was still rigging the fly rods when Rick set the hook on a fish.
"Well that was fast. Does it feel like a sturgeon?" I asked, while baiting a hook.
"It feels large..." Rick responded, "not sure what a sturgeon feels like."
The fish pulled hard but no match for the heavy rod and 30 pound line. A 3 foot sturgeon came thrashing to the surface near the shore.
"Sweet! It's a sturgeon!" I said, wading into the pond to capture it. The fish was quick and energetic, even after I apprehended it's tail. I then flipped the fish onto it's back and it became tranquil. Sturgeon relax when you flip them over onto their backs; hence why you see most photos of sturgeon in this position. Jim had requested we take good care of his fish by keeping the fish in the water and never lifting on their tail. We took some photos and released the beast back into the depths of the pond. 
Rick quickly re-baited his hook and in less than a minute he was fighting another sturgeon; this one 3 feet as well.
After helping Rick with his fish, I was finally able to get my hook in the water. Sure enough, a small tap could be felt just seconds from the bait sitting on the bottom. I heaved back on the heavy rod and felt the weight of a substantial fish. Another 3 footer pulled hard on the end of the line. 
It was becoming obvious that catching these fish on bait would not be a challenge. Katie, however, had more interest in catching one on the fly rod. She stood several feet away casting a large streamer on a 10 weight rod with no success. I convinced her to put the fly rod down and catch one on the bait first. Two minutes later she was pulling in her first sturgeon.
After releasing the fish, a side by side ATV pulled up and Jim Schwartz stepped out. After introductions, Jim grabbed a bucket of fish food and broadcasted it into the pond.
"Let's get you guys some on the fly rod!" Jim said, with an excited smile.
It's common knowledge that sturgeon are bottom feeders, relying on their nose and whiskers to locate food. It was no surprise when Jim said we needed to add some scent to our flies. 
"Dunk your fly in that herring juice!" Jim said, pointing to the pickled herring jar. 
We followed his advice, as "un-pure" as it was, and in a few minutes Rick set the hook on a huge sturgeon. 
It was obvious from the beginning that this fish was no baby. A huge tail came kicking to the surface and Rick's rod doubled over. Seconds turned to minutes as the fish had it's way with Rick. After nearly 30 minutes and 3 attempts at a tail grab, I was able to apprehend the fish.
Jim measured the fish: 6 foot. We sent the fish back on it's way.
"Well that was fun! Back to the regular rod." Rick said, shaking his arm out and giving me the fly rod.
I dunked the fly, and in short order, I felt the mouth of a sturgeon suck my fly in.
This fish was very acrobatic, leaping completely out of the water several times before we landed it. Just under 5 feet, this fish was the largest fish I'd ever landed.

Katie hooked a couple fish momentarily, but lost them. The action slowed a bit, likely from most of the fish food being consumed. Katie stuck with it though, determined to say she landed a sturgeon on the fly rod. 
Jim went across the pond to feed in another location. He called us over as large koi sipped floating food off the surface. We relocated to the other side to try there.
I re-rigged the fly rod to a black wooly bugger suspended under a strike indicator; a set-up proven to take carp. The carp/koi showed little interest in the fly, but something else did. My indicator took a dive and line screamed off my reel. The fish fought in a similar fashion to another uncommon species on the fly rod: the catfish. After finally gaining some line on the fish, a dark shape rolled at the surface.
"It's a catfish!" I shouted to Rick, Katie and Jim.
Jim brought out his camera as I wrestled the fish to hand.
This was probably the heaviest catfish I've ever landed. Back to the depths it swam. I tried for some time longer to catch some of the koi and Katie continued for the sturgeon, neither with any luck. 

We moved back over to the other side of the pond, where we'd been earlier in the morning. Rick and I went with the spinning rods and Katie stuck with the fly rod.
"I'm catching one, darn-it!" Katie said, casting her large streamer into the pond.
"Okay." I replied. "I think you've got one!"
Just then, Katie's line slowly swam off. She set the hook, but that did nothing. Her line continued to peel off the reel until the fish was all the way on the other side of the pond and 100 feet of backing was out of the rod. 
"Holy cow! I can't do a thing." Katie said, heaving on the rod.
Thus began a long and tiring battle. Several times Katie would re-gain her backing and fly line, only to loose it all, and the fish would be on the other side of the pond again. After nearly an hour, we saw the beast, and a beast it was. But this fish was not done. Again, the fish swam to the other side of the pond. We worked our way around the bank to other side of the pond, since apparently this was where the fish wanted to be. 

A couple of times Katie handed me the rod so her arms could take a break. We danced with the fish in the shallows for some time longer before I was finally able to grab it's tail. 
Jim came over with his tape measure; 6 foot 8 inches.
"There's only 2 other sturgeon larger than this in the pond," said Jim.
"Ok, now I'm satisfied!" Katie exclaimed as we sent the large fish off. "That was a lot of work. An hour and a half? No thanks."

The rest of the afternoon consisted of sitting on the edge of the pond in our waders, baiting hooks and reeling in sturgeon. Jim would come by periodically to check on how we were doing.
The frustrating part was how soft the pickled herring was and how frequently you had to rebait. The jar of herring also had onion pieces in it. Jim said to try those. Sure enough, the onions worked.
I even tried some of the casing on a pepperoni stick I was eating. It worked too! 
By 4 pm we were exhausted from catching sturgeon. 
"I bet the water would fall 3 feet if you removed all the fish out of this pond." Jim had said earlier in the day.
I almost believe him now. It had been a very fun day and I suspect we landed at least 50 sturgeon. For $25 dollars, I can't think of a better way to spend the day fishing for Idaho's elusive white sturgeon. Call Jim to book your day on the water at Schwartz Sturgeon Pond!

Thursday, May 16, 2019

North Idaho Anniversary Adventure

May 2019
Seven years ago, my wife and I made a trip to northern Idaho to fish for northern pike. Our timing was late, and although we caught a few northerns, we were determined to return another year when the fishing was prime. This year, for our anniversary, Katie suggested we make a trip North again to catch the hot northern pike bite. Married well, I did!
From my research, early to mid-May was supposed to be the best time. We planned our trip for the first week of May, hoping to catch the big pike in the shallows just after they spawn. The weather forecast took a turn for the worse a few days before we left; daytime highs in the 50's and nighttime lows at freezing! Not ideal, however some plans are not flexible to change, so we were going regardless!
With the boat loaded and all of our stuff crammed in my truck, there was little room for anything else, except one last item: my shotgun. 
"Honey, how upset would you be if I happen to stumble upon some turkeys and maybe, just maybe went after them for like, 20 minutes?" I asked delicately. 
"That would be fine." Katie responded with a smile.
"Sweet, because I packed the shotgun." I chuckled.

By 6 pm we were pulling into the campground at the southern end of Coeur d'Alene Lake. We set camp, ate dinner and launched the boat. Tomorrow we planned to fish Chatcolet lake, Benewah lake and go for a bike ride on the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes. 
I woke early the next morning to pre-fish Chatcolet Lake. Water temps in the shallows were in the mid 40's! I fished hard for a couple hours, talked to some turkeys on private land and returned back to camp skunked. When Katie woke, we went for a bike ride on the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes.
An old railroad converted to a bike path, the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes is spectacular and long. It starts at the south end of the lake and follows the Coeur d'Alene river past Kellogg. The path is super smooth and very scenic. 

Benewah Lake produced nothing that afternoon as well, giving Katie and I the first "skunked" day in years. That evening we drove into town for a delicious pizza dinner.
The following day we headed to Harrison, where we had access to another section of the bike trail, Harrison bay, the Coeur d'Alene River and Anderson Lake. By 10 am we were riding the scenic bike trail where we spotted a young moose and an otter.
The water we passed was gorgeous and calm; I couldn't wait to launch the boat and fish! Mother Nature had slightly different plans though. As soon as the boat touched the water, a blast of wind hit us. I looked up to the sky and cursed that blasted thing called wind.  That was the start of a very windy afternoon. We fish hard with one fish to the boat; a pike! Although small, it was a start.
We returned back to the truck for dinner before returning to the wind swept waters. This time we drove up the river and entered Anderson Lake. We headed straight for a fallen tree that surely held some fish. We weren't disappointed, for this tree held some big crappie!
Katie also managed to rope in a large sucker on her balanced minnow. 
As the evening progressed, the waters calmed and more fish were caught, including a very nice largemouth and more crappie.
The next morning we packed up camp and had a great breakfast in Coeur d'Alene. We also stopped at the local fly shop, Northwest Outfitters, for the latest reports. This shop has always been friendly and helpful to me. 
"Yep, water is cold. You're early. You should try for some trout in some of the streams." Mike told us.
We were given good intel on some hot trout bites, but we had hauled the boat all the way up there and were determined to catch some more pike.
By 3 pm we were launching the boat on Rose Lake. Rose produced some bass, bluegill and crappie, but no pike. 
We camped that night at a new campground. By 6 am the next morning I was solo on the water of another chain lake, casting to the bank in search of pike. As the sun rose, I heard a turkey gobble on a hillside near me. Another bird responded, followed by another. Three different gobblers could be heard on the same hill, likely checking in on each other and their hens as they prepared to fly down from the roost. I motored the boat closer and started gobbling back to them. All 3 birds eagerly challenged my gobbles. A huge smile formed on my face as I checked my map, finding this hillside to be public land. I raced the boat back to the ramp, grabbed my shotgun, peaked in on Katie sound asleep and took off toward the turkeys. I was ill prepared for serious turkey hunting; all I had was a Simms digital-camo hoody, white quick-dry pants and a grey ball cap. Regardless, I had 3 gobblers excited about the day and I had an hour to make something happen. 
I began to hike up the hill and crept within a couple hundred yards of the last location I heard a gobble and started calling. The birds responded, only this time they had traveled a few hundreds further away and higher up the hill. I slowly walked uphill and closer to their gobbles. Each time I would stop and call, they sounded the same distance away. Eventually I realized I must have passed one of the gobblers. Then I heard it; a loud chest reverberating gobble directly behind me. Oh yeah! I yelped back at him with my mouth and he gobbled loud and long in response. This bird wants to play! I crawled on my hands and knees to a downed log and slowly crested my shotgun over the top, peering down the barrel. Sixty yards away on the opposite hillside, strutted a red-headed, bearded gobbler. The bird slowly worked his way closer, stopping here and there to check his surroundings. I couldn't believe this was happening. Was I going to get a turkey on my anniversary trip? No sooner had the thought popped in my head, the bird stopped at 45 yards, perked up and made an alarmed yelp. Perhaps it was the strange gray ball cap sky-lined on the hill in front of him or he had seen me move. Afraid this was my only chance, I aimed for the base of his head and pulled the trigger. The bird fluttered for a moment and then took off in flight. Not good! I cycled the empty shell out of my gun as the obviously not dead gobbler glided out of sight. I blew it! Instant depression set in. As I walked back to camp, I thought of all the different things I did wrong: I was impatient, I should have stayed further back and let the bird sky-line himself, I should have tried to call the bird closer, I should have patterned this choke tube with these shells prior, I'm a pitiful hunter. 
I moped into camp and woke Katie up, telling her what had happened.
"Maybe you'll find him later this afternoon. Sounds like you probably hit him, just not a lethal shot." Katie consoled.
"Perhaps. If I did hit him, he'll probably hide somewhere and become coyote food. Darn it, I suck," I said with a huge frown.
"Maybe you can look for him later today?"
"Let's go fishing and when we come back to camp tonight I'll go look for him. I seriously doubt I even hit him."
We headed to Hayden Lake for the day. Hayden Lake was gorgeous and loaded with great pike water, except no pike wanted to play this day. We did however, get into a mess of large crappie! 
All day I thought about that turkey. Guilt and disappointment filled my conscious until I couldn't take it anymore. With 12 crappie in the cooler, we headed back to camp, hoping to also add a turkey to the spoils.
I headed up the hill behind camp in search of my bird. I doubted I would find any evidence of a wounded turkey. I didn't even know for sure if I had hit the bird! Once you pull the trigger, you owe it to any animal to confirm if your shot was a hit. I made it all the way up to the spot where the bird had stood when I shot. Not even a feather lay where the bird had been. I slowly made my way in the direction the bird had flown; back towards camp. I had almost made it back to camp when a turkey feather caught my eye on the ground. I gazed into the woods to the right and then to the left. A small red object caught my attention only 30 yards away: a turkey head! Crouched next to a burnt stump was a turkey! As soon as we made eye contact, the bird stood and took off running down the hill. That's got to be my bird! The turkey took flight and headed straight for a large ponderosa pine. Below me, through the gaps in the trees, I could see the turkey flapping as he tried to land in the tree. Then, as if he hit a brick wall, I saw him fall straight from the sky and hit the ground. Great, he's going to take off running again. I'm never going to get this bird! I took off down the hill, hoping to catch the bird as he ran off. As I neared the tree, I saw a dark object laying on the ground. Great, he's probably crouched and hiding again and going to take off like a bat out of hell when I get close. I approached slowly, ready for battle with the 10 pound tom. But a battle was not necessary, the bird lay limp and clearly dead. What just happened? Had this bird had a heart attack? That last flight and rush of adrenalin had done him in. I was happy and relieved that I was able to apprehend my bird. I had seriously doubted I would find this bird again. There was absolutely no evidence this bird had even been shot, but dead he was and I was thankful. I notched my tag and hauled him back to camp. From pure depression to thankful relief, it had been a roller coaster day.
The bird was a middle-aged tom with a 7 inch beard. I breasted and de-legged the bird, leaving the feet with spurs to show evidence of sex for transport. I still found no pellets or signs that this bird had been shot, but I figured he was somehow my tom. 
The following day we would be leaving for home. It had been a great camping, biking, dining and fishing trip in new waters. The pike had once again eluded us. Perhaps in another 7 years we'll return hoping, "the third time's a charm"!