– The heavy, braided line on David Whitescarver’s fishing reel whizzed off the spool as if it were tied to an underwater missile.

What had been a 20-minute standoff with a fish that wouldn’t budge had suddenly turned into a rodeo. Whitescarver stumbled across the back of the boat and halfway up the port side to keep up with a monster sturgeon that was now speeding up river, against heavy current and past our anchor.

“Let him take it!’’ said Scott Ward. “You’ll tire him out.’’

Whitescarver, a corporate lawyer for a Twin Cities medical device company who lives in Golden Valley, had never hooked a sturgeon before. None of us had.

For years we had promised to venture in early spring to the main tributary of Lake of the Woods to leverage the ancient ritual of sturgeons congregating in the Rainy River to reproduce. In the annual pre-spawn staging period, the massive, primitive fish roam the river’s muddy bottom. With surprising frequency, they bite on anglers’ circle hooks gobbed with nightcrawlers and garnished by a minnow or two.

“The popularity of this fishing season has gone through the roof,’’ said Phil Talmage, area fisheries supervisor in Baudette for the Department of Natural Resources.

As recently as 2006, the DNR sold only 1,485 tags for the two-week harvest that precedes the walleye opener. Since then, those sales have nearly tripled. And most participants don’t even purchase a tag — opting instead for catch and release.

“The nice part of this is that you can get out and do it before the walleye opener,’’ Talmage said. “We’ll shut it down May 7 and it doesn’t open up again until July.’’

Comeback in the making

Pollution from paper mills, timber mills and municipal discharges ruined the Rainy River spawning grounds and contributed to the near-collapse of the state’s premier sturgeon fishery before Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. The population has been recovering ever since, with the DNR successfully adapting harvest regulations as angling pressure began to increase in the 1990s.

With the current protective slot limit and angler emphasis on catch and release, only 210 sturgeons were tagged and registered from the area last year — a typical amount.

We were decidedly in the catch-and-release camp but were coming to the realization that our decent-sized landing net wouldn’t be much help catching David’s fish. The initial bite wasn’t much. It felt like a perch or like debris striking the line.

When a sturgeon bites a circle hook, your’re not supposed to set it the way you do for most sport fish … and David didn’t. He lifted his pole slightly and reeled in. Twenty-five minutes later he was catching his breath and gawking at a wide-girthed sturgeon that stretched 56 inches across the floor of the boat.

Scott and I had wrestled it into the boat with our hands and arms and a little bit of net.

“I didn’t know how big it was until I started to engage with it,’’ Whitescarver said. “That fish is bigger than some of the kids that have been on this boat.’’

Curious fish

In two days of fishing around a tributary to the Rainy a few miles west of Baudette, we encountered enough sturgeons to keep us laughing and scurrying around the boat. We weren’t in a crowd, but we were usually within eyesight of a group fishing from shore at the mouth of the tributary.

David’s fish took the bait about 4 p.m. on Thursday. One hour before, I had reeled up to clear my line of weeds. I never sensed it, but a 14-inch baby sturgeon was hooked by his snout and we brought him aboard for a brief inspection.

“Looks like a lizard,’’ Scott said.

Indeed. The tan-colored fish had a spiky exoskeleton spine and weird green eyes. It was leathery and docile, but very healthy looking. Like mature sturgeon, its snout was made of tough, rubbery tissue.

David had read on Wikipedia that the ancestry of lake sturgeon dates back 245 million years. The fish are shark-like in their appearance (minus the snout), with forked tail fins, gill slits and white underbellies. Beneath their chins are fleshy, white whiskers.

“There’s something about these fish that really make you want to check them out,’’ David said.

On Friday before noon, with the water temperature at 41 degrees, Scott landed a 45-inch sturgeon that hit his line with the same curious tap experienced by David. We fished almost exclusively in 19 or 20 feet of water, on the downstream side of an eddy.

We were coached by experienced sturgeon anglers to make our own rigs: a No. 3 circle hook on a plain 18-inch leader cut from our own braided lines. The leaders attach to a stout swivel backed by a single red bead and a sliding arrowhead-shaped weight designed not to roll along the river bottom. The sinkers vary in weight from 1 to 6 ounces, and the strong spring current on the Rainy was strong enough to demand the 5s and 6s.

Scott landed his sturgeon in about 15 minutes, scooping it onboard with the help of an oversized hoop net purchased early that morning in town.

Close encounters

In the early afternoon, the biggest sturgeon of the weekend fought Scott for more than 30 minutes. The fish made seven or eight runs and never surfaced, but David conceded as an observer that it was undoubtedly more forceful that the 30-year-old sturgeon he tussled with the day before.

Our smallish baitcasting reels were each spooled with just 80 yards of line (65-pound test) and the spool on Scott’s line was almost out. When he tightened the drag in a last-ditch effort to stop the sturgeon, the hook came out.

Added to the drama of each battle was the “river watch’’ — keeping an eye on fallen trees, bushes and branches and pushing them aside as they raced downstream toward our anchor rope and bow.

David did the math as we were wrapping up the trip. We had trekked to the Rainy River to encounter the largest fish in the state. Assuming Scott’s fish was at least 60 inches in length, we were up close and personal with 14 feet worth of sturgeon.