Prehistoric Monsters of the Rainy River

Dinosaurs have not inhabited the earth for only 65 million years. The lake sturgeon is amongst a family of fish that have been around about 135 million years. They are prehistoric. They are tough. They are big…

And they live right here in Minnesota

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 in these parts 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. 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 lb. from the Rainy River is attractive to anglers. Typically, to catch a fish over 100 lb, one would have to fish the ocean. Not anymore.

Get to know the lake sturgeon. Lake sturgeon are the largest fish and the only sturgeon found amongst the great lakes basin. They are considered a near shore warm water species preferring water temps of the low 50s – mid 60º and depths 15-30 ft. 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 has five rows of bone like plates along its 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.

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 4 years whereas a male spawns every other year.  These characteristics of sturgeon from a pure numbers perspective make them slow to reproduce and do not do so 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. After all, it is very possible the sturgeon you are handling is older than you are. Let’s remember to have respect for our elders!

Plan ahead and be properly armed.

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 100+ lb. 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. 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, thus, having a rod with a flexible tip is helpful and it will catch you more fish. Most muskie rods are very stiff. 

In a nutshell, a hefty reel teamed with 60-100 lb. 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 set up, most use a flat “no roll” sinker, typically about 3-4 oz. depending upon the current teamed up with a sturgeon rig, which is an 18” 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. The “no roll sinkers” and sturgeon rigs are produced by a local company, Tom’s Tackle, and are available at local bait shops.

Do you have the necessary equipment to land a dinosaur?

Is your current net large enough for a 100 lb. 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.

Taking a lesson from muskie anglers who also target big fish and have great respect for the fish, make sure everything is ready to roll and you have a plan when you do hook a big one. When you net the fish, leave the fish in the water as long as possible. If possible, remove the hook while in the water and in the net. Have your camera ready before bringing the fish aboard. Make sure to have tackle, rods and reels, etc., out of the way. Have a clean area to maneuver.

A needle nosed pliers is effective for removing hooks, a measuring tape  (to measure length & girth), a pencil or pen to record measurements and to record numbers if sturgeon is tagged (thousands have been by the MN DNR), gloves (especially to handle the smaller sturgeon that have razor sharp projections called scutes), and a camera are all necessary equipment to have ready to roll.

Catch and release state record

The state of MN now has a catch and release record for lake sturgeon, northern pike, muskies and flathead catfish. The last two state record sturgeon including the current state record came from the Rainy River, maybe you are next.  The current state record measurements are 73” long with a girth of 30” .According to the MN DNR length, girth, weight relationship chart, this fish is over 50 years old and weighs about 107 lb. 

Take good care of these fish, they might be older than you are

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 vertically increases with larger fish as 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 a fish 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. Take care in not touching the eyes, gills or gill plates. The gill plates look tough, but they will tear, causing eventual 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 the fish shows signs of swimming away.  It is not a good idea to go forward and back with a fish in the water but 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.

Sturgeon easons and terminology

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 45-50” or over 75”. Anglers desiring to harvest a sturgeon must first purchase a sturgeon tag and mail-in registration card. 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.

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

Full service sturgeon guides are available

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 guides who 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.