As we pulled away from the dock at the Wigwam Resort, the cool crisp October breeze blew the vibrant colored leaves into the river and every once in a while I could detect the distinct musty aroma of fall, I couldn’t help but think of a few Minnesota fall staples as we motored to our spot; grouse, ducks, deer and walleyes. But here I was with a heavy fishing pole, 5 ounces of lead bouncing around, and a bucket of nightcrawers at my feet. Huh? Could this be right? By the end of the weekend, I would have long forgotten about anything else in the world except these big beautiful dinosaur fish that worked our gear to the extremes and left us with happy memories and sore aching muscles.
The Lake Sturgeon is the largest of MN gamefishes, and let me tell you, they do not disappoint! The Ojibwe refer to the fish as Namé-Ogimma Giigonh, or King of the Fish, and I would have a hard time arguing with that. All it takes is battling one of these fish over 50” to convince you of why it deserves that title. Most large fish will come up the surface as soon as they are hooked and leap completely out of the air, almost mockingly, just to show you what you are dealing with, and then head to the dark depths of the river to do battle with you, sometimes exceeding fight intervals of 10-20 min! I like to call them the fireworks of fish, because of all the “oohs and ahs” they get from leaping in the air and stripping line from your reel.
The Lake Sturgeon has a long history in MN, and at one time flourished here, but as a result of things such as pollution, overharvest, poaching, and even being used as steamboat fuel, the Sturgeon population plummeted and was in danger. But things have changed and with the help of strict regulations on harvest, pollution control, and angler education, the Lake Sturgeon once again flourishes in parts of MN. It is now not uncommon to catch 50-60” during a single trip, and fish as big as 70” are starting to show up. Lake Sturgeon generally range from 5 to 40 pounds and 20 to 55 inches long. But sturgeon may grow to more than 300 pounds and 8 feet long! The Minnesota record lake sturgeon, caught in the Kettle River, weighed 94 pounds, 4 ounces.
There are limited areas and seasons to target Sturgeon in MN, but one of the most popular spots is the Rainy River in the northern part of the state where the river is the border between the US and Canada and flows into the great Lake of the Woods. Fish can be caught all year round with the better bite being in the early spring and fall of the year. I’ve been up there in the spring previously and it can be a phenomenal bite as the fish move upstream from the lake into the river to spawn. This time around however we headed up there in October and had just as good if not better fishing for the active fall fish. We finished our weekend trip with approx 30 fish total, with 9 of those being over 50” and one giant that measured 61×28 (length/girth) and weighed an estimated 72lbs!
The tactic used to catch these is really quite simple. If you have ever fished a slip rig, or what is commonly referred to as a “Lindy Rig” for walleyes, you know what to use. As simple as a sliding bank sinker (heavy enough to sit on the bottom) a swivel and about a 12” leader with a 4 or 5/0 circle or J hook on the end. Put 3 nightcrawlers or a few smashed up fatheads or chubs on the hook, toss it out and wait. It really is as simple as that. Because of the way a Sturgeon feeds, you won’t get spectacular bites, but rather a “tap,tap” at the end of your rod (similar to a sunfish or perch) as they vacuum the bait off the river bottom. As I see that tap,tap, I like to pick up my rod and give them slack to eat the bait, and then slowly sweep my rod back and let the circle hook do its work. Once the fish is hooked, be prepared for the fight of your life! Because of the way they bite and how they then fight. I prefer a rod with a sensitive or fast tip, followed by a stout beefy body or butt section. Heavy bass gear will work, but going lighter than that will get you in trouble when you hook into a large one. For line size I like 50-80lb braid. I prefer braid over mono because not only will it detect the light bites better, you will also be able to hold on the bottom with less weight. As a compromise I will often tie a heavy mono leader to act as a shock absorber between the fish and I.
When it comes to areas in which I like to fish for them, I will key in on handful of specific features. Those areas are funnels, mouths of tributaries, top and bottom sides of holes, and dams. My 2 favorites are funnels and mouths of tributaries. My theory is that these fish are somewhat of a nomadic beast moving around from area to area, and instead of finding the fish; instead you find areas the fish will pass through and essentially ambush them. That is why funnels make such a great spot. A funnel can be an actual neckdown in the river channel, or even as simple as a trough or saddle between two submerged humps. Any place where the fish are forced by Mother Nature or even manmade structure to swim through can be a good spot. Mouths of tributaries are key spots in the spring as the Sturgeon move upriver to spawn, and be sure not to overlook the smallest of river mouths either as they will go to extremes to spawn. Finally, for obvious reasons, dams make good spots as the fish are stopped from progressing further upstream.
I would suggest a few things to make your trip a little better, a large net, a hand towel or two, and an empty media card with fresh batteries in your digital camera. These fish are a pretty tough customer and can handle being brought into the boat and being out of the water for a longer period of time than most fish, but use a little common sense when handling them and taking photos. While it is tempting to do so, vertical gill holds are not encouraged. Remember, future generations of anglers depend on us!
I can’t stress enough how much fun these fish are and it’s something that every angler needs to do at least once in their life, and in my case several time a year. Give the fine folks up at Wigwam Resort a call and they will be sure to get you set you up with a great price on lodging and provide you with the latest report on the bite. The worst thing that could happen is that the Sturgeon are being fussy that day and you might have to discover the World Class Walleye fishery under your boat. In other words…bring the walleye rods too!!
Wigwam Resort- 800.448.9260