It’s almost springtime and to me, that means the kick off to the 2010 open water season! Lake Sturgeon fishing on the beautiful Lake of the Woods!
Each year there are many new faces that want to try their hand at catching what in many cases is the largest fish of their lifetime. As a Lake Sturgeon guide, I receive a huge number of requests each year on how to catch these dinosaurs of our waters. With a little bit of instruction, you’ll be having your picture taken with your prize sturgeon in no time.
Let's talk about the last first: Holding the fish and the release.
Sturgeon are a very resilient fish and can be caught many times over. Our DNR studies have proven that. Hooking and landing them, especially using circle hooks, will not harm them. It’s how we handle the fish that will determine its fate. Unfortunately for the Lake Sturgeon, their gills covers make good handles.
Bring them out of the water using a net. If they are too large for your net, have one person pick the fish up by its tail and have another person lift in the belly area, spreading out his hands and supporting as much area as possible. The MN DNR has a length and girth length conversion chart to calculate weights.
When fishing catch-and-release, keep them out of the water long enough to get your measurements, take a few photos and then make sure she's ready to swim before the release. With the larger fish it's easier to "revive" them in your net than trying to hang over the side of the boat and hold them. Some larger fish in the 50 inch or better class will take a bit longer to bring around. Watch for them to "belch" air though their gills and they will be ready to go.
For terminal tackle, many will be using a 3 or 4 oz No Roll Sinker, a swivel rated above 80 lbs and a 3/0 or 4/0 Gamakatsu circle hook. This year we'll be seeing more of the Team Catfish DOUBLE ACTION hooks in the 3/0 size. What I like about the Team Catfish hooks are that I can “set” the hook in the normal haul back and stick it to them that way, or just leave the rod in the holder and start reeling in. Many new to the sport like the hook setting itself. They work great both ways.
One of the tricks I’ve been using is to crimp down the barb on these hooks. It makes backing out the hook a job for your fingers and you’ll never need a pliers like you will with a barbed hook.
I know a number of folks who use twenty pound mono and it works well for them. They’ve landed many fish in the 40 and 50 pound range. Since the DNR is catching 100 pound sturgeon in their nets, I have to recommend going with a braided line like PowerPro or Team Catfish braid called “Tug O War” in 50 pound test or higher. I have 80 pound test spooled for flathead cat fishing and it’s worked well for me. Sturgeon are not leader or hook shy, so no need to worry about color or trimming the ends of your knots.
As long as we're talking about tackle, some of these items are hard to come by in a one-stop shop. For all of my Trophy Catfishing and Sturgeon fishing needs, I rely on Dean Everts Fishing Resort near Red Wing, MN, and Bob at Bob Moores Tackle in Mpls, MN.
Three or four nightcrawlers on your hook is the go-to bait in spring sturgeon fishing. There are some that use fatheads (live and dead) to make a fathead/crawler sandwich. Nightcrawlers are generally hard to come by in April. Make sure you call your local bait shop early enough for them to order your worms. How many crawlers should I take fishing, you ask? A flat of crawlers holds 500. Placing 3 crawlers on a hook will give one angler 166 chances of a fish. Two anglers=83 and three anglers=41 rebaitings.
How many days you’re planning on fishing, if the suckers and eelpout are biting, will influence the amount of bait needed. For my wife, daughter and myself, I’ll take a full flat for two days of fishing “not too hard.” I use those $3 styrofoam minnow buckets to contain my crawlers. It has a cover and is much handier to tote around than the flat. The bait shops appreciate having the flats back, too.
A heavy bass rod works on most fish, but if you get into a biggie...well, I've heard some pretty strange cracking noises come out of them! Please do not bring under-powered walleye or bass rods. You won't be doing yourself or the fish any favors by taking an hour to land one. (I'm not kidding about an hour.)
Most folks use rod holders while waiting. I suggest holding your rod as much as possible. I cannot stress enough for the size of this fish, they have at times the bite of a 4-oz sunfish! The perfect rod will have a very soft tip for detecting bites. Seldom will you get a bite that bends the rod over. Most of the time it's what I call a "sunfish bite." Nibble nibble….nibble nibble. Soft tips are good for detecting this...but the rod needs to have the backbone to land fish in the 20 to 60 pound range.
Everts Fishing Resort handles the St Croix Rod line and the Triumph TRC70MHF rod fills the rod holders in my boat. Between the light graphite of the rod and the no stretch of the PowerPro line, just a little practice you can tell if there’s weeds on your line and what type of bottom the area your fishing has--all without bringing your line out of the water. Can’t catch fish if your hook is in the boat!
There are many rods on the market to choose from. Keep in mind this rod is going to be responsible for bringing to your boat what will likely be your fish of a lifetime. I’ve watched rods break and the cloud of fiberglass dust is very entertaining to spectators, but it does leave the angler holding on to the cork and reel at a slight disadvantage!
I use the Garcia 6500's. A reel in this class will work great. Whichever reel you choose, make sure it has a great drag system and it works smoothly. These fish will find the weakest piece of equipment you have and destroy it!
BOAT AND ANCHORS
Since it's going to be the first time out for many boaters...make sure your tires are inflated properly, including your spare tire. Boat registration up to date? How's your starting battery? Oil? Don't forget the KEYS!
Wind is not your friend while sturgeon fishing. Many will have two anchors along, one in the front and one in the back to keep the boat from swinging. I recommend it.
LakeMaster has a new LOTWs/Rainy River map chip for your GPS. This makes it a snap to fish along the old river channel and to find the deepest holes in the area. LakeMaster’s Contour Pro software for your computer give the smart angler the edge by being able to locate neck down areas, deep bends in the river well before April and your trip up to LOTW’s!
One note: when boating over a deep hole, you're likely to see a HUGE number of marks on your graph. Most will be the largest fish marks or arches you've ever seen. Fish the edges of the hole starting at the front, then the sides and lastly the back if needed. Our success is much better fishing around the edges than actually in these piles of fish. In fact, after fishing in the hole, you might find your boat is fishless!
Rod holders make fishing more enjoyable.
One rod is all that's allowed per angler.
Stay on the US side of the river. Divide the river in half if you don’t have the LakeMaster chip which has the actual border shown.
When anchoring, remember other boats have an anchor too, and it’s likely to be 50 or more feet ahead of their boat. Because sturgeon fishing is really a social event, I will ask permission if anchoring close to another. Most folks don’t mind it and it is just as much fun to see others battling these brutes as it is to hook into one yourself.
Now that you have your 50 pound fish to the boat, how will you get him IN the boat!? A net makes life more pleasant. Running out and purchasing one isn't really a financially sound decision, since you might only use it once a year. If you know a musky or cat fisherman, ask if you can borrow their net. Leave your walleye net at home, it will just take up room. My net is a Beckman BT264243. At 42 inches deep, I’ve still had to boat fish by hand because of their size!
When the fish is up next to the boat, put one hand just ahead of the tail, then use your other arm to cradle the fish and support its middle weight...then just lift him in. If you run into a REALLY big fish, it might take two of you to do this. The good thing is that most of the time when a sturgeon comes to the top, she'll be tuckered out and will hold still enough to bring 'er aboard.
Remember! Please do not lift these guys out of the water by their gill plates.
RECORDING YOUR CATCH
A camera is a must-have.
Many have seamstress tape measures that go to 72 inches at a minimum (about $3 at Fashion Bug). Take a length (tip of nose to top of tail) and girth measurement (just behind the gills). Do not pinch the tail in taking the length. Here’s a handy link to the DNR’s length to weight conversion chart.
Be prepared for COLD. Our family takes our ice fishing wear along. April on LOTW’s might get to 50 degrees, but don’t count on it. We have been in tee shirts in the afternoons, but if the sun isn’t out or it’s windy, it sure can be cold out there.
Don't forget the PFD's!
TAGGED FISH and THE DNR
Our MN DNR employees have been working hard at tracking these fish. They have over 5000 tagged sturgeon as of last year.
If you see a yellow tag on the back of a fish, please do not remove it. Record the numbers of the tag, the length, girth and location. Sending this info to the DNR helps them in estimating population and general health of the fishery.
The DNR might be out tagging fish. If they are, they will ask you to flag them down when you boat one. The DNR will then take the measurements for you, but make sure you get your photo taken first! If it wasn't for this type of team work, much less would be known about these creatures.
THE STURGEON DANCE
I hope many of you see your rod tip shake and have the opportunity to see a 50 or 60 inch fish go from 30 feet of water to airborne in a matter of seconds...and then back down to the bottom again. I get goose bumps just thinking about the last one that did that. When this happens, everyone that I’ve been with drops their jaw to the boat floor.
Once your fish is on, don’t stop reeling. These fish will swim toward your boat just to see if your're paying attention! If you’re lucky enough to have one go airborne, bow to it, then be prepared to hang on as it’s going to head straight to the bottom. If you have two anchors out, get the back anchor out of the water…fast! It’s the anglers job to keep the line out of the motor.
It’s your fellow anglers' job to help the angler when the fish starts swimming around the boat. Sometimes it’s easier to bring in the other rods. Other times just raising a rod over the angler then replace it in the holder works well. If you are lucky enough to have a large fish on, there will be little you can do to keep him from wrapping around your front anchor.
If this happens all is not lost. Coil up all the loose anchor rope, then lift the anchor until you can see which way and how many wraps there are. Then take the coiled rope and unwrap the fishing line. Then tell your buddy to get that fish under control!
This is what is known as the sturgeon dance. It’s the dance where the sturgeon always leads! Others call it playing Keystone Kops! On thing for certain, it takes team work for the bigger sturgeon!
You might wonder how a fish can change depths so quickly without blowing its swim bladder. Sturgeon are one of a few freshwater fish that are physostomus, meaning their gas bladders are connected to the gullet by a duct. Walleyes, crappies and perch are physoclistous, they use their blood to put gas into and release gas from their swim bladders.
With this duct, they can release the gas in their bladders much faster, hence the 30 foot depth change in seconds. Many times when reviving a sturgeon you will see a "burp" of bubbles coming out of the gill area. Generally it's because your hand is supporting the bladder area under the fish and pushing the air out.
Although the above seems cut and dried, there are many variations to sturgeon fishing. Everyone has a slight change to the above prescription that gives them the edge, from cutting up the worm before placing them on the hook to keeping a finger on the line to detect a bite. You’ll just have to get out there and come up with your own secret methods!
This is fun socialized fishing. You don't need to get up too early and you don't need to fish too late if you don't want to! The fish seem to have the feed bag on all the time!
If you would like to have a chance at catching your fish of a lifetime, head on up to Lake of the Woods. Stop in to the Wigwam Resort after dark on April 26th through the 28th and show me the photos of you and your big sturgeon and your bigger smile!
Editor’s Note: Brian Klawitter is a U.S. Coast Guard-licensed catfish and sturgeon guide. Members of the NAFC editorial staff have enjoyed catching flatheads (and 7-pound-walleyes) with Brian as their guide. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651.307.8326. His website is www.brianksworld.com.