By Mike Pehanich
Sturgeon ancestry dates back to the dinosaurs. But catching these giants from a kayak, is a fresh new sport!
For us outdoor folks, Northwoods travel comes with great expectations. Anticipation grows feverish when the destination is a renowned fishery.
My destination this August was the Rainy River, fabled for its seasonal runs of walleye, cherished as the fertile connecting water to the diverse fisheries of Rainy Lake, its source to the east, and Lake of the Woods, the million-acre drainage to the west.
I arrived at River Bend’s Resort (www.riverbendsresorts.com)on the Rainy River, a short boat ride from the river’s mouth at the southeast corner of Lake of the Woods. My imagination waxed rosy with visions of walleye gobbling jigs, cartwheeling smallmouth bass, and lightning-quick attacks from northern pike and musky.
However, my hosts from Hobie Cat, the resort and Lake of the Woods Tourism had added a new wrinkle. They had relegated the game species the area is noted for to back-up roles. First we would challenge lake sturgeon, known more as a fish of mystery and an evolutionary survivor than as a target for sport fishermen.
My hosts had added another twist to the hunt. We would take the ancient brutes on from Hobie kayaks.
Anatomy of a sturgeon
One look at even an artist’s rendering of a sturgeon is enough to tell you that its family roots reach deep into the geological past. Credit its gift for survival to crude yet efficient characteristics acquired early in its evolution — a streamlined body built on bone and cartilage; a tail strangely fashioned for speed and maneuvering; an oddly tapered snout; an armor-like exoskeleton highlighted in younger specimens by a jutting serrated backbone; a complex set of sensory and feeding organs in its nose including barbels to locate desirable forage; and a highly functional snout made to stir up lake bottom and suck in food like a vacuum.
Sturgeon grow BIG, too, a trait that makes any species more desirable. Paul Johnson, the resort owner who served as both our guide and host, has witnessed catches of sturgeon up to 62 inches in length and 75 pounds. The river’s hook and line record, caught just this past May (2018), measured 75 inches in length and weighed well over 100 pounds.
Our Rainy River sturgeon had a comeback story to tell as well. Before the middle of the 20thcentury, overharvest and pulp mill pollution had endangered sturgeon populations in the region. Common sense initiatives set the stage for a mighty comeback. Environmental regulations led to improved water quality, and enlightened conservation measures and catch-and-release practice ushered in the robust, invigorated population found in the Rainy River and adjacent waters today.
It is a species more than worthy of protection. Sturgeon can live to a ripe old age, with some able to live 150 years or more and reach weights in excess of 200 pounds.
A sturgeon breached 50 yards offshore within minutes of my arrival at River Bend’s Resort, leaving no doubt that this was sturgeon country.
“In peak season in April, it’s boat-to-boat across the river along the Minnesota portion of the Rainy River,” explained Paul Johnson, who with wife Brandi owns River Bend’s and Walleye Inn resorts in Baudette, Minn.
Minnesota opens limited “keep” seasons for sturgeon in spring and summer, but most fishermen are content to release their quarry after doing battle. “A lot of sturgeon fishing’s popularity has to do with the size of the fish,” continued Johnson. “Most anglers aren’t targeting sturgeon to keep them. They just want the opportunity to catch these prehistoric monsters.”
Despite the clear presence of sturgeon in the area, local guides opined that we would find bigger numbers upstream near the town of Birchdale.
We launched our kayaks — a couple of Hobie Pro Angler 14s and i11S inflatable models along with several of the new Hobie Compass kayaks — above Birchdale. Two sets of rapids made for a scenic and modestly adventurous start. From there, we eased our way toward prime sturgeon haunts, catching smallmouth bass, walleye, sauger and northern pike along the way.
Breaching sturgeon gave our party of eight a fair hint of where to anchor, though we wished we had had sonar units to pinpoint holes and other key feeding areas. We spread out along the river, and settled in for the game of patience known as sturgeon fishing.
Tackle and technique
We geared up with tackle tailored to a big fish brawl – mostly medium heavy to heavy rods and reels spooled with 50- to 65-pound braid.
Terminal tackle consisted of a swivel, short monofilament or fluorocarbon leader of no less than 20-pound test, a #2 to #4 circle hook and adjustable bell sinkers from one to four ounces in weight.
Our bait selection was an unglamorous mix of two to three nightcrawlers and recently thawed emerald shiners, the latter added “extra scent for the sturgeon to find the bait,” in Johnson’s words.
The art of anchoring
We learned quickly that anchoring a kayak for sturgeon fishing in a moderately swift stream like the Rainy River is damn near an art form all its own.
“We use a breakaway buoy anchor and an anchor trolley system,” explained Kevin Nakada, the Hobie pro who guided us through the paces of this new skill. “With the system, you can position the kayak to fish comfortably in the current yet detach the kayak quickly from the anchor to fight the fish.”
The buoy anchor consisted of a 3.5-pound anchor and several feet of heavy anchor chain that more than doubled the anchoring weight. Sixty feet of anchor rope ran from the chain to the buoy, a conventional bumper buoy generally used to protect moored boats from banging into a dock. A 7-foot tagline, terminated with a bowline loop, ran from the buoy to the anchor trolley, a pulley system positioned on the starboard sides of our kayaks. The trolley allowed us to position the anchor tagline at the starboard stern of the kayak. Anchored thus, we could fish comfortably downstream without our kayaks struggling sideways in the current.
Barb Carey, founder of WI Women Fish, a Wisconsin-based organization dedicated to teaching women to fish with skill and confidence, earned the first hook-up. Sturgeon on, she freed her kayak from the buoy anchor and took off on a summer sleigh ride.
All of us within earshot rallied to her shout, detaching, too, from our anchor tethers and pedaling the Mirage Drives to close the quarter mile or more distances between us. The sturgeon made sure we had time to witness Barb’s battle and photograph the prehistoric fish.
Sturgeon are bulldogs in battle. They dive deep, pull drag and put serious strain on tackle. The highlight of many sturgeon battles, however, is a surprising aerial display.
Barb’s fish obliged with a writhing perpendicular leap. The sturgeon’s hang time drew cries of excitement from the convergence of kayakers. The fish’s size and profile doubled the excitement.
Even a modestly proportioned sturgeon possesses considerable strength, evidenced in the tugboat rides it took the kayaks upstream and down. Interestingly, the drag of the kayak allows the angler to battle these big fish even with limited line capacity.
Paul slugged it out with another sturgeon an hour later. Then action lagged for the rest of the afternoon.
Evening was closing in when writer Jody Rae’s rod bent into a throbbing arc. Whoops and hollers signaled a special fish, and we all converged on the day’s closing action. When the fish finally tired after a long battle, Kevin Nakada snared it with a tail noose. He carefully led the subdued fish the short distance to shore where Jody and fish posed for photos.
It was a fitting end to a fabulous adventure, a meeting with a fish from prehistory on legendary water during the dawn of a new sport.
Paul and Brandi Johnson, owners of River Bend’s and Walleye Inn (www.riverbendsresorts.com)resorts in Baudette, MN, run guided fishing trips for sturgeon as well as for other Lake of the Woods and Rainy River sport fish (walleye, northern pike, sauger, perch, smallmouth bass and crappie). Hobie kayak rentals are available as well. Contact Lake of the Woods Tourism (www.LakeoftheWoodsMN.com ; 1-800-382-FISH ) for additional information on sport fishing, lodging and area activities.