It was the most unsightly glob of bait I’ve ever seen on a hook. First, two nightcrawlers were skewered on a large, circle hook, forming a sort of worm ball, then a trio of frozen rainbow shiners were added. According to the captain, “Sometimes the fish want worms, other times they want minnows, so we’ll just feed ‘em both.”
There was a school of tiny fish below the boat in the form of sub-sized walleyes and saugers. Not sub as in submarine, but sub as in sub-standard miniatures. Their preference was the frozen shiners and each time I felt the tap-tap-tap up the line, it was a signal one of the little brats had stolen the minnow portion of my bait.
I was after something much bigger than the little bait-stealers. I was after “dino-fish,” a.k.a. lake sturgeon, one of the largest fish found in freshwater. Lake sturgeon, with DNA dating back to the age of dinosaurs, used to be abundant in the Great Lakes and other large lakes in the Midwest. Habitat loss (damming their spawning streams) and over-fishing by commercial netters exterminated them in many areas and left only remnant populations in others.
In most places trying to catch a lake sturgeon is illegal and even if it were legal, they are so few and far between, trying to catch one would be almost like hunting unicorns. Perhaps the best opportunity left to catch a lake sturgeon is at Lake of the Woods, the huge U.S./Canadian border lake in Minnesota – specifically in the Rainy River the major tributary to Lake of the Woods.
Lake of the Woods is renowned for walleyes. Some go there to catch muskies, others seek out the often huge pike, there’s a sauger run each year in the Rainy River and other tributaries and it’s possible to target crappies or smallmouth bass if you are so inclined.
So why fish for sturgeon? I’d previously caught a sub-sized (as in small) sturgeon in the Niagara River, so when I signed up for a sturgeon fishing outing at Lake of the Woods recently, it wasn’t to add to the life-list of species I’ve caught. I caught that mini-sub by accident while I was salmon fishing.
I wanted to catch one on purpose. I wanted to catch one that wasn’t a small fry.
The pick-up at first seemed as though it was just another bite of the bait stealers, but instead of the tap-tap-gone, this fish slowly started drifting downstream as it vacuumed the bait glob off the bottom. I told my fishing partners to get their camera gear ready. I thumbed down on the reel’s spool to pull the circle-hook from where ever it was in the sturgeon’s gullet and allow it to hook at the edge of the fish’s bottom-feeding mouth.
I was latched to the largest freshwater fish I’ve ever hooked. I could feel every powerful sweep of its tail as I struggled to lift it to the surface and it struggled to stay on the bottom.
Steady pressure prevailed and eventually the fish was near the surface. All that remained was figuring how to get it out of the water and into the boat. Sturgeon gills are tight, so hand-grabbing and hoisting as one might do with an over-sized musky was not a good option. One look at the walleye-size net and that idea was scrapped. “Tail rope!” said Captain Brent.
He quickly made a slip-loop in the end of one of his mooring lines, leaned over and somehow lassoed the tail end of the fish while I attempted to control the front end with my rod and reel. We didn’t get the job done on the first or second try.
Eventually, he pulled the noose tight and we slithered the fish up and over the gunwale, onto the deck. Fish in the boat!
Cameras clicked, a tape measure unwound and the circle hook was quickly unhooked from where it was stuck in the uniquely shaped sturgeon lip. I’d caught a dinosaur-fish on purpose.
At 48 inches, it was just over half as big as some of the sturgeon in the Rainy River.
Specimens over 80 inches have been caught. At 48 inches it was a “keeper.” There is an open season at Lake of the Woods and the season was open. Only fish between 45 and 50 inches are legal to keep. Still, I released it. The fish was probably 20 to 30 years old. I wanted to be a dino-fish catcher, not killer.