The Comeback of Rainy River Sturgeon


One of the largest populations of lake sturgeon in the U.S. lives in the Rainy River. This scenic and winding waterway marks our international border with Canada and feeds the lake best known for walleyes—Lake of the Woods. This stretch of water is home to a strong and growing population of sturgeon. Both the number and average size of these prehistoric fish are on the rise and anglers are taking notice.

The sturgeon population has been getting healthier since the mid-1960s. Commercial netting was halted in the early 1930s. Back in the day, there was robust netting of sturgeon for their eggs, otherwise known as caviar.

When caviar was harvested in those days, the sturgeon was sacrificed‑basically cut open‑for the desired caviar inside it. As you can imagine, this greatly brought down the number of these fish in the lake.

So many sturgeon were harvested that, at one point in time, Lake of the Woods was a major producer of the world’s caviar. That’s right, a top producer in the world. Caviar was shipped into Canada and over to Europe for distribution.

In addition to the commercial netting taking a toll on the sturgeon, pollution in the Rainy River was also holding numbers down. Lacking the regulations we now have in place, a tremendous amount of pollution and pulpentered the river from the large paper mill upstream. It wasn’t until legislation with some teeth was passed in the Clean Water Act in the mid-1960s that we started to see significant improvement.

Back in the day, it is believed the most successful sturgeon reproduction happened up the tributaries to the Rainy River where the water was cleaner, allowing for successful spawning.

Removing commercial netting and pollution from the sturgeon’s environment has allowed these massive fish to thrive. There is actually a season to catch them most of the year, and even a “keep season” in which anglers can harvest one sturgeon per year between 45 and 50 inches, or one over 75 inches.

Because of the abundance of sturgeon in the Rainy River, along with anglers having a better understanding of how to fish these fish, their popularity has really grown.

The allure of catching a fish that can reach up to 120 pounds from the Rainy River is attractive to anglers. Typically, to catch a fish over 100 pounds, you would have to fish in the ocean. Not anymore.

Lake sturgeon are the largest fish and the only sturgeon found amongst the Great Lakes basin. They are considered a near-shore, warmwater species preferring water temps of the low 50s to mid 60s, and depths of 15 to 30 feet. Their diet consists of small invertebrates such as insect larvae, crayfish, snails, clams, leeches and about any other small living creature that inhabits the river bottom.

Lake sturgeon have no scales, but they have five rows of bone-like plates along the back and stomach called scutes. These scutes can be sharp when sturgeon are young, but become dull as the fish gains age and size. These fish are tough, and when you hold one, you quickly get a feel for the durability of the sturgeon’s outer armor.



Sturgeon can live to 100 years old and mature very slowly. It takes a female sturgeon on average 25 years, and a male about 15 years, before they can successfully reproduce. A female sturgeon reproduces every four years whereas a male spawns every other year. These characteristics of sturgeon, from a pure numbers perspective, make them slow to reproduce, and they do not do so in big numbers. Consequently, it is important to take good care of these fish.

Taking the proper steps will help ensure healthy populations down the road. After all, it is very possible the sturgeon you are handling is older than you are. Let’s remember to respect our elders!

The first time you pitch your no-roll sinker and sturgeon rig loaded with ‘crawlers and/or frozen shiners into the dark waters of the Rainy River could be the time you hook into a sturgeon of 100-plus pounds. Be ready.

Ethically, targeting monster fish with typical walleye fishing gear 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.

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Most sturgeon anglers come equipped with heavier rods, reels and line for the battle. Some use their muskie equipment or catfish rods. Sturgeon bite light—almost a tap, tap, tap like a sunfish or a perch. Thus, having a rod with a flexible tip helps detect bites and will catch you more fish.

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 allows 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 a sturgeon rig, which is an 18-inch leader of 60-pound-test leader material with a 4/0 to 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 hooked deep, avoiding mortality.

Most anglers load the circle hook with a few nightcrawlers, some frozen shiners or both. “No-roll sinkers” and sturgeon rigs are produced by a local company, Tom’s Tackle, and are available at local bait shops. Other die-hard sturgeon anglers simply rig up their own.

As a rule, anchor upstream of a hole in the river and present your offering on the bottom. The current will sweep the scent downstream into the holes where hungry sturgeon are often found.

Be prepared to land a sturgeon. Is your current net large enough for a 100-pound fish? Most anglers would answer no. A good, strong net is a good investment and works out well both for successfully landing a big fish and properly managing it once caught.

A pair of needle-nose pliers is effective for removing hooks. Carry a measuring tape (to measure length and girth), and a pencil or pen to record measurements and to record numbers if the sturgeon is tagged (thousands have been by the MN DNR). Gloves are handy, especially to handle smaller sturgeon that have the sharp scutes. Finally, a camera ready to roll to captures the memory.

The state of Minnesota now has a catch-and-release record for lake sturgeon, northern pike, muskies and flathead catfish. Based on numerous reports from anglers who have released some mammoth sturgeon, there are numerous state records swimming in the river.

Know how to handle big fish before you hit the water for these river monsters. Fish are meant to swim horizontally in the water, not be held vertically out of the water. The chance of injuring a fish from simply holding it vertically increases with larger fish, as the sheer weight of the organs inside the body cavity can tear away internal membranes, causing death later, after the fish appears to swim away healthy.

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

Most sturgeon anglers practice catch-and-release. There is a “keep” season in which anglers are allowed during designated dates to keep one fish per calendar year from 45 to 50 inches or over 75 inches. Anglers desiring to harvest a sturgeon must first purchase a sturgeon tag. Upon harvest, anglers tag and register their sturgeon, much like a deer.

There are “catch-and-release” seasons in which anglers can lawfully fish for sturgeon with a valid MN 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.

Finally, there is a stretch from May 16 through June 30 in which the sturgeon season is closed to any sturgeon fishing. Check the MN DNR fishing regulations for details.

If you desire to catch a river monster, 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 guides who can take you out. They provide everything you need for an enjoyable and usually successful day on the water. 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 fish with prehistoric roots on the Rainy River is unforgettable. The raw power of a huge fish doubling your rod and ripping line off your reel with ease gets noticed. Imagine feeling your arms burn, trying to persuade this fish off the bottom. Then in a flash, the prehistoric-looking fish is flying out of the stained water and then running under the boat. Not your typical day of fishing, and certainly not your typical fish.