Law to end Oregon City fishing tradition

OREGON CITY — Most Fridays for the past year, Sonny Nguyen has packed up his wife, kids and fishing gear, backed out of his driveway in Springfield and headed for the Willamette River angling mecca known simply as The Wall.

From the gritty sidewalk 40 feet above the river, Nguyen joins, on any given day, anywhere from tens to hundreds of other bank-bound anglers — casts of thousands — all hoping that their next sling will land a sturgeon big enough to feed their families for three days or more.

"I spend all day out here," said Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam and fished since he was 7 years old. "I love it here."

At the end of this month, however, a tradition stretching back at least six decades will abruptly cease, when new state regulations take effect banning fishing from The Wall. A sturgeon "sanctuary," stretching roughly from the I-205 bridge to Willamette Falls, takes effect April 1.

State fisheries officials cite three factors in the decision: declining numbers of white sturgeon — capable of growing to 20 feet in length, living more than 100 years and listed as the largest freshwater fish in North America; injuries sustained by undersized or oversized fish when they are heaved back into the waters below; and, the unexpected discovery last year that the cool, deep waters beneath the Arch Bridge linking Oregon City and West Linn are sturgeon-spawning grounds.

"It's been a controversial fishing area for many years," said John North, Columbia River Fisheries Manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. "We hate closing down opportunities, especially with limited bank areas.

"But in the end, we really had no other choice."

For the eclectic crowd of anglers who gather at The Wall each day, however, the closure is likely to have serious implications.

"Some guys come down here who can't even afford bait," said Elton Sherman, 45, a retired U.S. Navy veteran now enrolled in classes at Portland Community College. "I'm glad to lend them some sand shrimp, but they are sweating the load of having to catch a fish. They'll say they've got four kids at home and no money until the end of the month. If they don't catch something, their family won't eat."

As he finished his sentence, a splashing in the pea-green waters halfway across the river caught his eye. A sea lion, gripping a large steelhead in its jaws, had just breached the surface, violently shaking its head side-to-side. A cloud of seagulls swooped down from overhead, hoping to snatch some scraps.

"Look at that! Look at that!" Sherman yelled. "He takes a big bite out of the stomach and just throws the rest away. That's the reason we have a fish shortage around here!"

Up and down the walkway, other scenes play out as fishermen gathered from Silverton, Salem, Eugene, Albany, Woodburn and elsewhere cast hooks weighted with 10-ounce sinkers and baited with "Willamette River cigars" — a worm paired with a sand shrimp, bundled together with light-weight nylon string.

With space at a premium, anglers often must stand shoulder-to-shoulder, taking special care not to cross lines. If one fisherman doesn't speak the language of the person next to him, as is often the case, they use hand signals and lip-pursing whistles to make sure everyone is accommodated.

Norberto Jimanez, 27, of Dayton had just run out of bait. Almost on cue, Colleen Coultas, "the bait lady," pulled up in her small white car, its trunk stuffed full of prawns, worms, sand shrimp, smelt and hot-pink coon-striped shrimp.

Jimanez peeled off a couple of dollar bills and, container of worms in hand, headed back for another cast.

"A lot of us are going to be affected by this closure," said Coultas, 54, an Oregon City native who grew up fishing from log rafts that once dotted the river's edge. "It's sad that little kids growing up now won't ever get to experience this."

State fisheries' officials hope to compensate for the loss by building a new dock on the West Linn side of the river. Construction is scheduled to start later this year.

"We've actually gotten a lot more calls from people who are supportive of expanding the sanctuary," ODFW's North said. "People understand just what a valuable resource we have here."

Mark Loveland, 44, of Oregon City, a five-year veteran of Wall fishing, said he understands needing to protect a valued species.

"But the truth is," he said, "most of these guys can't afford boats. It shuts a lot of people out. I have no idea what they are going to do now."

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