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Waiting with baited breath

Fishing guide Eric Linde has some tales to tell. Like when one of his sponsors sued him. Or the story about the new $2,000 fish sonar he's getting that will enable him to see what lies beneath, in color. Then there's the time he brought out a group of investment bankers É yada yada.

His 24-foot aluminum North River boat looks like a NASCAR entry with its Pabst Blue Ribbon decals. As he fishes, he takes calls on his cell phone: his daughter's sleepover, legal wranglings, work.

But Linde's big thing is the Original Invitational Sturgeon Derby. He rents a huge barge and moors it in the Columbia River between the M. James Gleason and Marine Park boat ramps. He then decks it out with flashing lights in the predawn gloom. This is rock 'n' roll fishing. On a signal, boats in groups of 85 race off to find the best spots to hook sturgeon, those gloomy creatures that still have one fin in the prehistoric era.

People come from all over the Northwest, lured by marketing materials that promise the chance to 'hook a monster sturgeon.'

As for the actual fish, they are bottom feeders with whiskers and a keen sense of smell. Sturgeon are so old school, they still have an exoskeleton. They slurp up dead anchovies, shrimp, smelt and herring off the river bed with their round, sloppy mouths. Fishermen say they have a very light bite that's hard to feel.

And they like to hang out in deep pools. By way of demonstration, Linde anchored above a 60-foot-deep Willamette River hole just south of the St. Johns Bridge. Linde had fishing permits for two lines, so he and Bob Leis, the general manager of G.I. Joe's Delta Park store, cast their lines and waited. And talked.

Sturgeon can live to be 75 years old and weigh up to 2,000 pounds. (Yes, real Hemingway action right here in our Superfund stream!) After catching one 24-inch baby (in fishing parlance, a 'shaker') and one 36-inch stick Ñ both of which had to be thrown back, as legal keeps must be 42 to 60 inches Ñ we moved to just off Kelley Point Park. After 15 minutes there, and nothing on the sonar, we bagged it.

Not all bearded men dressed in camo sitting in the drizzle on the water are loners. They love a competition. As an added touch, Linde employs people to weigh and tag every catch so that the fishermen are free to enjoy themselves at the banquet, which is held after the conclusion of the fishing at the Portland Expo Center. Proceeds go to the Northwest Sport Fishing Industry Association.

The fish, they say, tastes like halibut. At the banquet, they eat beef.