During the last two weeks, I’ve had the opportunity of catching the biggest fish of my life, not once, but twice. The best part? It didn’t take tremendous time or energy to do it. Most people don’t think of Minnesota as a place to find 50″ + fish regularly. Outside of the very limited, and challenging muskie opportunities, we never dreamt of catching a fish that big in our own waters.
That was until we discovered sturgeon fishing.
These prehistoric beasts are incredible. They grow to significant lengths and live extraordinarily long lives. In fact, the females can live upwards of 150 years and be found longer than 70″.
During a cold afternoon, the first of our open water season, we decided to give sturgeon fishing a try. We switched gear (literally) and set up on the edge of a drop-off, not knowing what we were exactly expecting.
Then, within 20 minutes, I landed two sturgeon. One of these was 47″ long. For someone who lives to catch 40″ pike every summer, this 47″ beast was quite a treat, especially considering we only fished for a few hours. What a return on investment!
Of course, doing it once wasn’t enough, so we went back.
The next weekend we came with more of a plan and more time. We landed six fish, included a 58″ and a 59″. Keep in mind, a 59″ sturgeon isn’t huge, but it sure felt huge to us. Not too mention both fish took close to thirty minutes to bring in. What a rush!
Reports of fish breaking the 70” mark on Rainy River have been circulating the world wide web numerous times. It’s been known that it holds some incredible fish, but just how big is still unknown.“Sturgeon have existed since the Cretaceous period, meaning they are estimated at 136 million years old.”This is because there hasn’t exactly been a standard, and most of the sturgeon caught are thrown back (either by law or by will). Unfortunately, Minnesota didn’t start their “catch and release” records until 2016. Even so, I’ve noticed most anglers either don’t know about or don’t bother with, submitting a record.
Photos and social media provide enough bragging rights, and if social media is at all honest, then catching a 70” fish is far from out of the question. It’s been done on more than one occasion.
STURGEON: THE PREHISTORIC FISH
Sturgeon have existed since the Cretaceous period, meaning they have been around for approximately 136 million years. To put it into perspective, they have existed since the peak of the dinosaurs.
Although they have experienced some evolutionary change, they still maintain a close resemblance to their prehistoric ancestor. They have often termed dinosaur since they are one of the very few prehistoric fish remaining that came from that time period. There is estimated to be between 25 and 27 different species of sturgeon (depending on which source you read). However, this particular species of sturgeon is called Lake Sturgeon, a once common sight in the Great Lakes region.
Despite it once being common, populations plummeted. This is primarily due to overexploitation during the late 1800s and early 1900s. This, in combination with slow reproductive cycles (for instance, females only spawn once every 4 to 9 years) has made it a difficult comeback for natural resource managers, and the species continues to be listed as endangered or threatened in most areas today.
However, thanks to modern-day conservation practices, a few opportunities have started to rise again. One of these being Rainy River in Minnesota.
DESTINATION: RAINY RIVER
If you aren’t already familiar, Rainy River is international border water between Minnesota and Ontario. It connects Rainy Lake to Lake of the Woods (two of the biggest lakes in the region). It provides incredible fishing opportunities for multiple species, including Lake Sturgeon.
As previously mentioned, due to their listing as threatened or endangered, finding Lake Sturgeon fishing opportunities are limited. In fact, so much so, that even the popular Rainy River only allows you to fish on one side (that side being Minnesota), meaning you need to keep your eyes on your GPS at all times.
As for the season, there are designated harvest, catch-and-release, and closed seasons. Therefore, be sure to check the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources‘ latest regulations before you plan your trip. When looking to fish other waters, be sure to check your local fishing regulations, as regulations vary significantly between locations (with many having no season at all).
It’s important to remember two main things when targeting sturgeon: they are big and they are bottom feeders. You will need to account for both when you are gathering your gear.
If there is one word to describe the gear needed for sturgeon fishing it’s heavy. You are going to want a rod that can handle 50 lb or higher test line. You are going to want a reel that can do the same (a heavy-duty spinning reel or baitcasting reel will work fine). These fish fight hard and hold tremendous weight. Your classic walleye or bass rod usually isn’t the best option for you or the fish. It’s hard on the rod, the fish, and the angler! Rather opt for a classic catfish or muskie setup instead.
If you are looking to invest in higher-end gear, take into consideration that their bite is relative “light”. If picking between two rods, choose the one with the lighter action (lighter at the tip) and heavier at the base. This will help identify movement and improve your odds of catching that big fish!
Also, instead of “setting the hook”, you’ll let the fish hook itself (the joys of a circle hook). I found that giving the fish line worked better than applying any pressure.
For tackle, use a circle hook with a non-rolling weight (there is a variety of them to choose from). A 5/0 circle hook is perfect: it keeps the fish on without causing any major damage. Next, you’ll want to add weight and a leader to keep the bait at the bottom. Of course, the weight will depend on the current of the body of water you are fishing. For us, this meant using a 4 oz flat sinker. Any non-rolling sinker will work, just make sure it keeps your hook in place.
Next, you’ll want to tie the hook and weight on each side of a leader. Again, length depends on the body of water you are fishing. We personally had success with an 18″ leader length. Many anglers, however, had leaders well over 2 feet long. Being their bottom feeders, I’d start shorter (closer to the bottom) and adjust over time if you don’t receive any action.
As for bait, you can’t go wrong with nightcrawlers. It’s also common to throw on dead salted shiners as well. Perhaps it’s the overwhelming scent of minnows starting to rot (sturgeon can smell and “taste” with their barbels), or the fact that there certain times when crawlers haven’t made it through the frost yet, but we found more success with salties than anything else. Not too mention, at this point, they had grown used to free handouts from walleye fisherman throwing minnows all spring long.
I also believe in rebaiting the hook to keep the scent as fresh as can be. Sometimes the current will take the bait, walleye and suckers will get a piece of the feast, or it simply will get worn out. There is nothing worse than reeling up the line to find nothing was on it for the last half hour. Take time, often, to check your bait and add a fresh scent.
STURGEON FISHING STRATEGY
Finding sturgeon isn’t difficult, but getting them to bite can be. They are usually found holding in deep, calm waters in relatively large numbers. Drive over a sturgeon with sonar and you’ll know it. It’s a HUGE mark.
Although setting up over the deepest part of these holes (where the sturgeon may be the most concentrated) may sound tempting; it’s likely not your best bet.
Not only does setting up over their holding area mean you might boot them from it altogether, they also might not be feeding. They tend to move from their holding site to the shallows to feed. That’s why most anglers find success anchoring upstream from the deepest hole, waiting for a hungry sturgeon to pass through.
Also, keep in mind that sturgeon are the most active at night. That means if the day bite is tough, switch to overnights, or at a very minimum, early mornings and late evenings.
HOW TO HANDLE A STURGEON PROPERLY
When sturgeon fishing, be sure you don’t grab the gills! There are two ways to handle sturgeon: buy a big enough net, or “tail” them. The gill area is not a place they should be handled. You’ll notice this as soon as you pull one up!
We “tailed” all of our fish. Simply put, we controlled them by grabbing their tail. Then the other person would grab them by the belly to set them (gently) in the boat. Most of the time the bigger fish were exhausted from the fight, making it a relatively easy process.
Also, watch out for the little ones. Not only are they still filled with energy when you reel them to the boat, but they also have sharp spikes. Combine the two and it’s a painful process getting them into the boat without gloves.
As for returning them to the water? Use a similar process. Also, be sure to hold the tale until they attempt to swim off on their own. The bigger fish may take longer to become energetic, but unless you damaged their gills, they almost always will be fine.
Sturgeon fishing is a simple and rewarding fishing experience that anyone can try. However, due to their vulnerability and low population, it’s absolutely crucial that they are handled properly, to assure they can be caught for years to come.
If your first fish is over 40″, you are going to experience a heck of a fight. Depending on the equipment, the battle can last between ten minutes to an hour-long. There is nothing more frustrating than spending an hour working on a fish to lose it at the boat because your line (or rod) broke. Come prepared with the proper gear, and the proper knowledge, and you’ll enjoy the experience that much more.
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