BAUDETTE, Minn. – A sturgeon nudged a clump of night crawlers and dead minnows staged on the bottom of the Rainy River, 25 yards away from the American shore.
Scott Ward of Inver Grove Heights resisted the urge to set the hook. Instead, he waited for a member of North America's biggest freshwater fish species to lodge the bait inside its toothless, protruding mouth. Ward lifted his fishing rod out of its holder, felt the sturgeon's considerable weight, kept the line tight and stepped to the rear of his fishing boat for a 15-minute battle.
While sturgeon populations in other parts of the United States have become threatened or endangered, the family of lake sturgeon native to Lake of the Woods and its tributaries in Minnesota and Ontario continues to thrive. Over two days of unguided fishing late last week east of Baudette, three of us caught and released four sturgeon, the largest of which was 4-feet, 4-inches with an estimated weight of 38 pounds. In our midst was a festive group of nearby shore anglers who caught at least 10 more sturgeons, each time shouting out to us the tip-to-tail measurement.
"It's been a really good spring for sturgeon fishing,'' said Phil Talmadge, area fisheries supervisor in Baudette for the Department of Natural Resources. "For whatever reason, the action's been hot.''
For those who still want to partake, sturgeon can be targeted this month through May 15. This Sunday, however, is the last day to harvest one until the season reopens July 1.
Early spring fishing on the Rainy and at its river mouth in Lake of the Woods continues to be a cherished tradition in Minnesota. A relatively new rule now prevents anglers from keeping walleyes, but throngs of visitors continue to ply the border waters starting March 1 of each year, weather permitting. This year, Talmadge said, the biggest turnouts have been for sturgeon. They happened after the April 14 climax to the six-week catch-and-release walleye season.
In our case, the waves were rolling opposite the current when we launched at Frontier Landing in Koochiching County. We anchored in a spot where we had previous success in 2019, downstream from a minor tributary. For our friend David Whitescarver of Golden Valley, the trip was his first sustained escape from a serious, 13-month pandemic lockdown. All three of us were vaccinated before heading north.
The river was glorious. The strong currents and heavy debris we battled in 2019 were gone. Instead, the Rainy flowed gently inside winding banks that were barren of snow but not yet greening. A pair of bald eagles patrolled the water, returning often to a tall perch on the Canadian side. All it took to hold our position was a GPS-guided trolling motor.
"This is good living,'' Scott said. "River fishing. We're not casting, we're not jigging, we're not trolling.''
Our lines were set identically: A high-test fluorocarbon leader tipped with a number 5 circle hook and loaded with crawlers and frozen emerald shiners. The leader dangled from a beefy snap swivel, which doubled as a stop for the flat, five-ounce sliding sinker that was designed to grab and hold the river bottom without rolling downstream.
The rigging paid off within 20 minutes. That's when a 30-inch sturgeon knocked my bait, hooked itself and flexed in every direction on its way to our oversized net. A 40-incher followed within the hour, snatching my bait and fighting for a good 10 or 12 minutes before succumbing to a quick photo session inside the boat.
Hungry male walleyes were in the area, too, getting hooked incidentally on our sturgeon gear. They were prone to releasing milt while being unhooked and released. Talmadge said they were probably lingering in an area where walleye spawning had recently taken place.
Just as he had in 2019 — earning the nickname "sturgeon whisperer" — it was David who caught the largest fish on our return trip. The 51-inch sturgeon struck at midafternoon on Day 1, creating what he described as a half-hour of "controlled chaos.''
The fish allowed itself to be reeled to within 15 feet of the boat on several occasions, only to overpower David for long runs downriver. About 20 minutes into the fight, the sturgeon once again drew close to the boat. When it dived to get away, the fishing line tangled around an external bracket mounted low on the stern. Scott spared David from losing the fish by stripping down to his T-shirt, reaching over the back of the boat and freeing the snag.
When the two of them hoisted the sturgeon for pictures, they were cheered by the shore anglers.
Scott's catch came the next day after a full morning of calm. The sun was bright and the river was glassy. When the sturgeon finally bit, it copied many of the previous moves. The fish yo-yoed 20 feet up and down in the water column, took several trips downriver and stripped line out of Scott's reel while moving side to side behind the boat.
Finally netted, unhooked and photographed, it measured 33 inches long.
The northern spring sturgeon fishing season is dominated by catch-and-release. As of Monday, for instance, only 61 license holders had tagged and kept a sturgeon, according to the DNR. Talmadge said more will be reported throughout the weekend. Regulations allow Minnesota anglers to keep one lake sturgeon per calendar year. Keepers must be 45-50 inches long or longer than 75 inches.
Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213