Herman is an (approximately) 11 foot long, 500 pound, 70 year old white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) who resides at the Bonneville Fish Hatchery at the mouth of Tanner Creek on the Oregon side of the Columbia River.
Just as there was more than one Lassie the collie, this is not the first Herman. The original Herman was taken to state fairs by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife for about 50 years and was kept in a small pond at Bonneville the remainder of the year. There are local myths about someone stealing the original Herman many years ago. Apparently those stories are rooted in an incident 30 years ago in which someone broke into the hatchery grounds and injured one of the sturgeon. Fortunately, the injured fish survived the attack.The ODFW replaced Herman I with a river-caught fish in 1998. That year the ODFW and the Oregon Wildlife Heritage Foundation built a new and very natural looking pond with an underwater viewing window for Herman II. That is where this picture was taken.
The Columbia River is home to both white and green sturgeon. White sturgeon are more abundant in the Columbia and and grow larger than green sturgeon. White sturgeon are the largest freshwater fish in North America and can grow to almost 20 feet long, weigh over 1000 pounds, and live for more than 100 years. Sturgeon have existed for 175 million years according to fossil records, and have changed very little during that time. Like another ancient fish family, the sharks, sturgeon have a cartilaginous (rather than bony) skeleton.
Sturgeon are usually found in deeper holes in the rivers that they inhabit. They are primarily bottom feeders. Their mouth is on the underside of the head, and can actually be extended downward to suck food off the bottom while the body of the fish is a few inches above the bottom. Sturgeon are anadromous, like salmon and shad, so they spend part of their lives in the Pacific Ocean and part of it in fresh water. Unlike salmon, sturgeon will not only travel up and down the coast, but they'll move in and out of different river systems. For example, sturgeon tagged in the Columbia River have later been captured in the Fraser River in southern British Columbia, and vice versa.
Unfortunately, sturgeon cannot navigate fish ladders like salmon do, so the population of sturgeon below Bonneville, the first dam upstream from the Pacific Ocean, can no longer reach the upper Columbia River or the Snake River. Populations between the dams upstream from Bonneville are permanently isolated from the ocean and other parts of the river. The population below Bonneville is relatively healthy, but the populations in the upriver pools are not.
Sturgeon fishing is a popular sport on the Columbia River. Several licensed guides offer guided fishing trips for sturgeon. Two of the most popular fishing areas are in the Astoria vicinity near where the Columbia flows into the Pacific Ocean, and in the ten mile stretch between Multnomah Falls and Bonneville Dam. However, sturgeon are present scattered through the entire river below Bonneville. During the winter of 2008, a curious phenomenon was observed. A huge mass of sturgeon conservatively estimated by fisheries biologists at 60,000 individuals gathered below the spillway at Bonneville Dam. Perhaps we'll learn that this is a normal annual event. I've posted a Youtube video captured on an underwater cam along with more information about this spectacular event.
Photo tips: If you want to take your own picture of Herman, here are a few tips that will improve your results: First, make sure that your flash is turned off. Shooting through a viewing window like this, the flash will reflect off the glass or plastic and back into the lens. Second, bring your camera as close to the glass as possible. This helps eliminate capturing reflections of yourself and other people who may be standing nearby. If your camera has an 'Auto-ISO' function, it should automatically boost the sensor sensitivity as high as necessary to freeze action. If you don't have 'Auto-ISO', you may need to set the ISO speed to a 400 or 800.
This photo was taken a few years ago with my Mamiya 645 and a 35mm focal length lens on Kodak Portra 400VC color negative film. I feel lucky to have gotten such a good result with that outfit, as a manual focus medium format camera presented some challenges for a low-light action shot like this.
I've tried several times to improve upon it with my newer Canon 350D and 400D digital cameras and IS lenses, but to no avail. Either the water hasn't been clear enough or the light hasn't been as good. In addition, getting a better pose/better angle is part of the challenge, too. The only shortcoming of the shot above is that the point of sharpest focus is at the plane of the gill cover. The eye and nose are a little out of focus, although you can't easily see that in this small web version of the photo.
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