Prehistoric Monsters of the Rainy River

Lake sturgeon are prehistoric. They are tough; they are big. And they live right here in Minnesota.

One of the largest populations of lake sturgeon is in the Rainy River. This scenic, winding waterway marks our international border with Canada in these parts and feeds the lake best known for walleyes—Lake of the Woods. This stretch of water is home to a strong, growing population of sturgeon. Both the numbers and size the fish are rising and anglers are taking notice.

“The sturgeon population has been getting healthier since the mid-1960s,” explains Tom Heinrich, large lake specialist for the DNR Fisheries of Baudette, Minn. “Commercial netting was halted in the early 1930s. But it wasn’t until legislation was passed with some teeth for the Clean Water Act in the mid-1960s that we started to see significant improvement.”

In recent years, sturgeon fishing has started to gain popularity. The allure of catching a fish that currently can reach up to 120 pounds from the Rainy River is attractive to Midwesterners. Typically, to catch a fish over 100 pounds, one would have to fish the ocean.

Not anymore.

Getting to know lake sturgeon
Lake sturgeon are the largest and only type found in the Great Lakes Basin. They are considered a nearshore warm-water species, preferring temps in the low 50s to mid-60s at depths of 15 to 30 feet. Their diet consists of small invertebrates such as insect larvae, crayfish, snails, clams and leeches.

Lake sturgeon have no scales, but possess five rows of bone-like plates along the back and stomach. These fish look tough, and when you hold one, you quickly get a feel for the durability of the sturgeon’s outer armor.

They can live up to 100 years old and mature very slowly. It takes a female sturgeon on average 25 years and a male about 15 before they can reproduce. A female sturgeon reproduces every four years, whereas a male spawns every other year. These characteristics from a pure numbers perspective make them slow to reproduce and they don’t in big numbers. Consequently, it is important to take good care of these fish. Taking the proper steps will help to ensure healthy populations down the road.

Plan ahead and be properly armed
The first time you pitch your no-roll sinker and sturgeon rig loaded with ‘crawlers or frozen shiners into the dark waters of the Rainy River, it could be the time you hook into one at 100-plus pounds—be ready. Ethically targeting monster fish with typical fishing gear used for walleyes probably isn’t a good idea. With light equipment, you are in for a fight over an hour long and the fish will be extremely exhausted once to the boat, lessening its chance for survival, once released. Most sturgeon anglers come equipped with heavier rods, reels and line for the battle; some use their muskie equipment. However, sturgeon bite light, almost a “tap, tap, tap” like a sunfish or a perch. Having a rod with a flexible tip is helpful and will catch you more, as the muskie rods are very stiff.

In a nutshell, a hefty reel teamed with 60- to 100-pound-test line and an 8- foot rod is a good start. The heavier equipment will allow for a shorter fight, lessening the stress upon one of these prized dinosaurs.

On the tackle end of the setup, most use a flat “no-roll” sinker, typically about 3 to 4 ounces, depending upon the current teamed up with the sturgeon rig, an 18-inch leader with a 5/0 circle hook. The flat “no-roll” sinker stays put on the bottom of the river and the circle hook allows for the sturgeon to get hooked in the mouth and not swallow the hook, avoiding mortality. Most anglers load the circle hook with a few nightcrawlers, some frozen shiners or both.

Necessary equipment to land a dinosaur
Is your current net large enough for a 100-pound fish?

Most anglers would answer no. A good, strong net is a smart investment and works out well for landing a big fish and properly managing it once caught.

Taking a lesson from muskie anglers, who also target big fish and have great respect for them, make sure everything is ready to roll and you have a plan when you do hook a big one. When you net one, leave the fish in the water as long as possible. Remove the hook while in the water, if possible, and in the net. Have your camera ready before bringing the fish aboard and make sure to have tackle, rods and reels, etc., out of the way. Also, have a clean area to maneuver. A set needle-nose pliers is effective for removing hooks. And have measuring tape (to measure length and girth), pencil or pen to record measurements and record numbers if sturgeon is tagged, gloves (handling the smaller sturgeon that have razor-sharp projections, “scutes”) and a camera.

Taking good care of sturgeon
Fish are meant to swim horizontally in the water, not held vertically out of the water. The chance of injuring a fish from simply holding it incorrectly increases with larger fish. The sheer weight of the organs inside the body cavity can tear away membrane internally, causing death at a later time after the fish appears to swim away healthy.

If the sturgeon is too big, consider not bringing on board. If it is one you can handle, use two people. One person can grab the fish behind the pectoral fins, the other the tail. Support the weight of the fish under its belly, ultimately holding it horizontally. Do not drop the fish and take care in not touching the eyes, gills or gill plates. The gill plates look tough, but they will tear, leading to a later death.

Don’t be shy; cradle the fish with both arms for the picture. Take pictures quickly and get the fish back into the water. Support the fish in the water until it shows signs of swimming away. It is not a good idea to go forward and backward with a fish in the water, but rather use a gentle side-to-side motion for revival. A fish can actually drown by pulling it backward too much in the water.

Sturgeon seasons and terminology
Most sturgeon anglers practice catch and release, and I personally encourage that. There is a “keep” season in which anglers are allowed during designated dates to keep one fish per calendar year 45 to 50 inches, or at over 75 inches. Anglers desiring to harvest a sturgeon must first purchase a sturgeon tag and mail-in registration card. Anglers can tag and register their sturgeon, much like when dealing with a deer.

There are “catch and release” seasons to lawfully fish for sturgeon with a valid Minnesota fishing license during the open season. No tag is needed to catch and release. Anglers looking to catch and release sturgeon can also fish during the “keep” season.

And finally, there is a stretch from mid-May through June in which the sturgeon season is closed. Check the Minnesota DNR fishing regulations.

Full-service sturgeon guides
If you have the desire to catch a dinosaur, but don’t have a boat or the equipment, there is a great option. Most resorts in the area are set up for sturgeon fishing or have relationships with full-service guides who can take you out on the water. They provide everything you need for an enjoyable and usually successful day. This typically includes the guide, boat, rods, reels, tackle, bait and a good idea of some of the best sturgeon holes in the river.

Catching a big lake sturgeon is an experience of a lifetime; the excitement of hooking a dinosaur on the Rainy River is unforgettable. The raw power of a huge fish doubling your rod and ripping line off of your reel with ease gets noticed. Imagine feeling your arms burn trying to persuade this fish off of the bottom, and in a flash this 60-pound prehistoric species is flying out of the stained water and then running under the boat—not your typical day fishing, and certainly, not your typical fish.

For more information…
For a complete list of lodging, sturgeon info and access points along the Rainy River, contact Lake of the Woods Tourism at lakeofthewoodsmn.com.