Herman the Sturgeon

Herman the Sturgeon

September 26, 2023

He is an Oregon icon – Herman, the sturgeon, the state's most famous fish. At 10 ft. long and nearly 500 lbs., Herman is not only one of Oregon's most distinctive aquatic characters- some even consider him the unofficial state fish.

The first mention of a Herman the Sturgeon was in 1925. In 1932, the Roaring River Fish Hatchery Manager transported a large white sturgeon named Herman from the old Clackamas River Hatchery to the fish display at the State Fair. And for nearly 50 years Herman was an undisputed star attraction at the Oregon State Fair.

Herman the Sturgeon

But getting his humongous body back and forth to the fair, and keeping him healthy and safe while he was there, became an issue. Just getting Herman onto a fish tanker was a big job. Hatchery workers had to corral him in his pond, lift him up on a wet blanket, carry him to the truck, and slide him in through the gate of a fish tank mounted on the back of a truck. Upon arrival at the fairgrounds, someone had to climb into the tank to get Herman pointed at the back door so he could slide headfirst through the opening onto a wet blanket that was used once again like a sling to hoist him into the pond. Once in the pond, he laid around for 11 days and saw as many as 350,000 fair goers parade through the ODFW exhibit to gape at him.   ‌

After many years of taking Herman to the fair, ODFW managers decided the ordeal was causing too much stress on him so the practice was stopped. No one responsible for his well-being regrets that decision. That was 1985. Yet 30 years later, people still remember Herman's state fair days and continue to ask ODFW staff, "Where's Herman?" ‌

Herman the Sturgeon, the True Crime story:  ‌

Besides the State Fair, Herman and other sturgeon had plenty of other stressors to deal with. Indeed, the life of Herman and other sturgeon reads something like a true crime story:  ‌

  • In 1969, an unidentified assailant entered the sturgeon pool at Bonneville and stabbed five large sturgeon repeatedly.
  • In 1980, one of the sturgeon at Bonneville mysteriously disappeared and was believed stolen.   ‌
  • In 1982, vandals took two sturgeons and inflicted a severe cut in another one's back.  ‌
  • In 1983, Herman was kidnapped in the middle of the night from his viewing pond at Roaring River.   ‌
  • Early 1990s: There was another attempt to steal Herman from a shallow pond at Bonneville Hatchery. The thieves mangled Herman so badly in the failed attempt that workers spent months nursing Herman back to health so they could release him out in the Columbia  ‌
  • In 2007, seven sturgeon (not Herman) were stolen from Bonneville Hatchery.  ‌
  • In 2017, Bonneville and two other nearby hatcheries were evacuated due to wildfires; Herman stayed at the viewing center and survived.   ‌

Sturgeon are tough fish and can survive a lot, but they have their limits. Herman didn't survive all of these attacks (or getting sick at the State Fair in the mid-80s). So, several sturgeon have played the role through the years. Bonneville Hatchery managers estimate that four different sturgeon have played the role of "Herman."  ‌

Recognizing the need to give Herman a safe home after his reign at the State Fair ended, Oregon Wildlife Foundation hatched a plan to build a first-class, fish-friendly sturgeon holding facility at Bonneville Hatchery next to the Columbia River near Cascade Locks in the mid-1990s. The Foundation spearheaded a fund-raising campaign and raised more than $350,000 toward the construction of what is now known as the Sturgeon Viewing and Interpretive Center. A grant from ODFW's Restoration and Enhancement Program also helped fund the center.   ‌

Builders broke ground on the Sturgeon Viewing Center on Sept. 27, 1998 and Herman moved into his new home on Dec. 2, 1998.  ‌

The Sturgeon Center has since become one of Oregon's top visitor attractions with an estimated half a million people visiting each year. But now that it's 25 years old, the center is showing its age. Oregon Wildlife Foundation intends to launch a capital fundraising campaign in 2024 to make essential repairs to the building, improvements within the pond, updated messaging regarding white sturgeon and their conservation, and improved wayfinding for people visiting the hatchery.

More about the Sturgeon Viewing and Interpretive Center  ‌

ODFW engineers designed the Sturgeon Center so it would preserve the historical architecture found at Bonneville Hatchery, mostly native stone and vegetation. Thanks to those efforts, Herman rests comfortably in a pond, feeding on fresh salmon, and doing swim-bys for tourists from all over the world who stop in by the tens of thousands to eagerly snap selfies with him to send to friends. It is one of the few places on the planet where people have the opportunity to gaze directly into the eyes of a fish that predates man by millions of years, a modern day dinosaur.  ‌

The Sturgeon Center is situated under a forest canopy and has a continuous flow of cool, fresh water. A paved path part-way around the pond provides easy access to a viewing platform where people can get a bird's eye view of Herman plus smaller sturgeon and some over-sized trout. A covered kiosk just a few steps away has a large viewing window below the water's surface that lets visitors get nose-to-nose with Herman. The site is ADA accessible and is open to the public year-round free of charge.  ‌

So nowadays Herman is kicking back and enjoying the good life at Bonneville. He doesn't have to hunt or scavenge for food in the bottom of the Columbia River anymore because hatchery technicians bring him a steady diet of fresh salmon. Eight smaller sturgeons – two 8-footers, a 7-footer, and four smaller sturgeons – also live in the pond and keep Herman company. Someday one of them may become the next Herman. That could be awhile, though, because even at estimated age of 85 as of 2023, the current Herman potentially has another decade to reign as the state's oldest and largest captive sturgeon. An older, smaller sturgeon viewing pond has approximately 18 sturgeons in it, all of them less than four feet in length.  ‌

There are 23 species of sturgeon worldwide, seven of which that are found in North America with only two species (the white sturgeon, like Herman, and his green sturgeon cousin) found on the West Coast. Some sturgeon live to be more than 100 years old and grow to be twice as big as Herman, who is now approximately 10 feet long and weighs almost 500 pounds.  ‌

Herman comes from a long line of prehistoric bottom-feeders. So far this approach has proven an effective survival strategy for sturgeon, which evolved during the Jurassic Period of the Mesozoic Era (100-200 million years ago) when the dinosaurs were still walking the earth. Sturgeon have changed very little since then. They even look like part dinosaur. The prehistoric nature of the sturgeon even captured the attention of rap music star Aesop Rock, who came to the Sturgeon Center at Bonneville to film a music video with Herman. So, yes, if you have heard Herman is a rock star – that, too, is true.  ‌

Though Herman is not coming back to the state fair, people who want to see him can easily do so. The Sturgeon Viewing and Interpretive Center at Bonneville is just 45 minutes east of Portland on highway I-84. It's a great place to bring the family for a day's outing. There is abundant parking and admission is free. In addition to vising Herman and his sturgeon friends, visitors can take advantage of the hatchery's other attractions such as the salmon rearing ponds, visitors' centers and the spawning room, which is seasonal. Display ponds where people can feed rainbow trout are open year-round. The best time to view adult fall Chinook and Coho salmon is from August through November with spawning viewing in early September and late October.  ‌

The Spruce Gifts and Provisions shop is open year-round and is owned and operated by Oregon Wildlife Foundation, a non-profit organization. Proceeds from the gift shop (which features sturgeon stuffies and Herman the Sturgeon hoodies) are used to benefit Oregon's fish and wildlife. Neighboring Bonneville Dam has a visitor's center and offers site tours for large groups.

1972_herman_ the_sturgeon_roaring_river_hatchery_5x5
Herman at Roaring River Hatchery, 1972.

UPI file photo from Oregonian archives of Herman the Sturgeon being placed in pond at Oregon State Fair, 1983.

Herman the Sturgeon being released into pond at the viewing center, Dec. 2, 1998. Photo credit: Steve Nehl, Oregonian

Sturgeon Viewing and Interpretive Center in 1998. Credit Doug Beghtel, Oregonian

Building of Sturgeon Viewing and Interpretive Center in 1998. Credit Doug Beghtel, Oregonian

Media coverage of 1969 incident.

Herman release into State Fair pond, ODFW photo.

statefairHerman 8okgladson
Herman at State Fair, year unknown, ODFW photo

Sturgeon in viewing pond in 2023, photo by Beth Quillian, ODFW.

Sturgeon at viewing center in 2023, photo by Beth Quillian, ODFW.


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