My early professional career was spent monitoring fish populations in the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River. Back then the general public was denied access which led to me having free rein on 40 miles of largely undisturbed river. Of the 50 or so species of fish studied, white sturgeons were the most interesting. They breached with an explosive splash, tore panels loose from gill nets, and made off with trot-lines. On one memorable occasion, a large sturgeon rolled and “basked” on the water’s surface near my boat for several minutes.

The latter observation led to me wondering: Could a fish as long as a canoe, having a long, pointed snout, bewhiskered mouth, beady eyes, and a body armored with plate-like scales be mistaken for a water dragon?

The legend of “Ogopogo” the serpent monster goes back centuries. Settlers of the Lake Chelan area tell stories of a creature living in the lake for the last 150 years. Observers in Lake Okanagan regularly report suspicious “wakes” and “strange moving objects,” among other mysterious sightings.

Also firmly cemented in regional lore is the monster or “sea cow” of Wallowa Lake. According to an 1885 account from a supposedly sober prospector, the animal’s body was said to be one hundred feet long, have a head like a hippopotamus, and bellow like a cow. This tale comports closely with a Nez Perce legend that tells of a “monstrous serpent” in Wallowa Lake.

It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that white sturgeons, the largest freshwater fish in North America, are the source of unexplained observations. These prehistoric fishes once grow to lengths of 20 feet and weighed up to a ton. The oldest white sturgeon on record was purported to be around for more than a century.

An 1892 report by ichthyologists Charles Gilbert and Burton Evermann documented that sturgeon ascended the Snake River to “above upper Salmon Falls.” It follows that sturgeons may have once migrated to headwater lakes that include Wallowa Lake and Lake Chelan, found sanctuary in deep water, and grown to a large size. Hence, legends are born.

The Sahaptin-speaking tribes of the Mid-Columbia had limited use for white sturgeon, reserving for this large fish the name “swallowing monsters pet.” Their fear may have been based on seeing sturgeons feed on small mammals that fell in the water. Whether due to parental concern or sage wisdom, tribal elders would caution young children a sturgeon might swallow them if they ventured out too far in the river.

In their informative book, Salmon and the People, Fish & Fishing in Nez Perce Culture, authors Dan Landeen and Allen Pinkham describe friendly encounters with white sturgeon in Snake River country. One oral history account tells how young tribal men would occasionally dive down, grab onto the fin of a sturgeon, and get pulled through the water. A tribal elder shared “it was not uncommon for people to be saved from drowning by large sturgeon that would rise up from the depths and give people something to hang onto.”

Columbia Basin sturgeon populations were decimated by overharvest by 1900, but rebounded after strict size limits were enacted in 1950. Sturgeon can no longer migrate freely throughout Columbia and Snake Rivers, as done prior to construction of hydroelectric dams, leaving populations upstream of Bonneville Dam largely isolated and depressed in number.

Sturgeons require fast-flowing water to reproduce, such as that found in tailwater environments immediately downstream of mainstem dams and in the Hells Canyon and Hanford Reaches. They don’t mature until they reach 15 to 25 years of age and not all mature fish will spawn in a given year.  Slow growth due to declining food resources, lost habitat, and spawning failure limit population size. Some headwater populations are listed by the United States or Canada as “threatened” or “endangered.”

Experiencing the power of a large white sturgeon on the end of your line is an amazing experience. Reel screeching, boat towing, and rod bending fights can last for an hour or more. The largest population of catchable white sturgeons exists downstream of Bonneville Dam where as many as one million reside. According to a recent report, however, only about one percent of the population is believed to be spawning-age adults. A decrease in the number of juvenile sturgeons has led to a harvest closure for 2023.

White sturgeons are subject to legal harvest between Bonneville and McNary Dams when seasonal retention is allowed. Emergency Rules also provide for tribal and sport fishing harvest in Lake Roosevelt and mid-Columbia River reservoirs where populations are supplemented with hatchery-reared fish.

Sturgeon angling in Idaho is restricted to catch-and-release in the Snake and lower Salmon Rivers. A record-breaking 124-inch-long sturgeon was caught in CJ Strike Reservoir in the summer of 2022. While ten-footers are considered rare, three of that size were caught during fisheries surveys of the Hells Canyon Reach in 2021.

You don’t have to go fishing to view these ancient denizens of the deep. The Bonneville Dam hatchery, located 40 miles east of Portland, Oregon has an outdoor pond with young sturgeon in it.  “Herman the Sturgeon” can be admired safe from vandals in the indoor Sturgeon Viewing Center. Herman is approximately 10 feet long, weighs 500 pounds, and is over 80 years old.

Whether you consider sturgeons to be a swallowing monster’s pet or a friend in the water, these remarkable fish are an important part of this region’s natural history and lore. Populations deserve protection to ensures future generations benefit from their existence.