Like something out of an urban legend, two boys were tubing down a small bend of Minnehaha Creek and spotted a fish that looked bigger than either of them. One ran home to grab a rope, tied a slip knot and, before long, a crowd of kids in the Edina neighborhood as well as a handful of parents were out watching Wednesday as the two pulled a 6-foot lake sturgeon by its tail out of the little creek.
After taking some pictures and video and measuring it at 70-some inches, the boys released the monster back into the shallows. Now the question for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is: How did a sturgeon, especially such a large and old one, ever get into that creek?
And can they get it out?
“It just doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said Shannon Fisher, DNR fisheries populations monitoring and regulations manager.
One of the neighborhood boys, concerned about the sturgeon, called the DNR’s hotline on Wednesday and spoke to Fisher. Not entirely sure of what he would find, Fisher drove down to see for himself and, sure enough, there the fish was, hanging out under the 56th Street bridge.
DNR biologists tried to capture it Thursday, with the hopes of releasing it into either the Mississippi or Minnesota rivers, but couldn’t come up with it. They will try again Friday and have a small army of Edina’s youth ready to call in as soon as the fish shows itself again.
Fisher said his first thought was that the sturgeon somehow swam up the creek from the Mississippi River. That’s impossible, though, because there is no way it could have made it past Minnehaha Falls. The only other explanation is that the fish came downstream, from the source of the creek at Lake Minnetonka.
But in years of sampling, the DNR has never found evidence that sturgeon live in Lake Minnetonka. There have, however, been rumors of at least one of the freshwater giants hiding out in its bays or glimpsed by anglers and boaters but never caught.
“These are primarily legends,” Fisher said. “But it’s always been possible that there could be a few stray individuals in that watershed.”
Fisher believes the sturgeon, which is probably around 70 years old, was released into Minnetonka or even Lake Nokomis when it was a much smaller fish, some 20, 30 or even 40 years ago.
Most likely a female because of its size, the fish has been growing in the lake ever since, until the conditions were just right this spring to make an escape, he said. With high enough water, she could have made it out of the Grays Bay dam of Lake Minnetonka and into the creek in an attempt to spawn.
Once the spring rolled on and the water levels went back down, it would be impossible for her to get back into the lake, trapping her in the creek between the falls and the dam.
The DNR normally doesn’t try to rescue fish, Fisher said.
But sturgeon are special.
As ancient as dinosaurs, they live — and breed — into their 100s. After nearly being wiped out of Minnesota, the fish are making strong comebacks in the northern part of the state thanks to restoration efforts over the past three decades. The slow-growing and massive fish are starting to be seen more often in the Mississippi, Minnesota and St. Croix rivers as well.
“This is just a beautiful fish, and a big, breeding, spawning-ready lake sturgeon is a still a rarity,” Fisher said.
The hope is to get the septuagenarian, which has likely been locked away from her species for decades, into a river where she would have a chance of becoming part of the breeding population, he said.
“We’d just love to see it have a chance to contribute,” he said.