Kayak angling for sturgeon brings new sport to the Northwoods

Barb Carey, founder of WI Women Fish shows off the day’s first sturgeon, caught from a Hobie Pro Angler.

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.

A sturgeon relies on the 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.

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.

Pursuit

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.

Catching sturgeon from Hobie kayaks offered a new challenge to anglers.

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.

Jody Rae shows off her prize catch, a lake sturgeon, a throwback to prehistory.

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.

Fish on!

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.

For anglers like Barb Carey, sturgeon fishing is all about the catch…and safe release!

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.

 

Don’t spin your wheels! Hobie offers guide to kayak cart selection

Without a set of wheels, a loaded kayak can be tough to transport a long ways to the water.

By Mike Pehanich

Getting a kayak from your vehicle to the water can sometimes be the toughest challenge of the day. Save time and energy for the fish by outfitting your kayak with a set of wheels!

One of the kayak angler’s most important accessories seldom reaches the water.

The kayak cart!

Wheeled kayak carts enable the angler to transport the craft from vehicle to remote launch areas with tackle and accessories already aboard.

Three “Plug-in” kayak carts from Hobie (L to R): 1) Hobie’s Trax 2-30 is an inflatable style ideal for transport over soft ground such as sand or mud; 2) Hobie’s Heavy Duty Cart (225-pound load capacity) is durable and best suited to pavement and coarse gravel or rock terrain; 3) Hobie’s Standard Plug-in cart is economical and offers a 150-pound load capacity.

Tire options enable the kayak owner to match cart selection to land surface. Carriage design will vary, too. Some carts are specifically made for kayaks while others double as transport devices for canoes and other small craft as well.

Some kayak manufacturers design or recommend specific carts to fit scupper holes in their kayaks. This style of cart generally simplifies mounting and transport.

Some carts require straps to secure the kayak during transport.

A cart functions as a fulcrum. If you select a cart designed for variable positioning, you may have to adjust cart location to the size, weight and locations of your load for best results. Positioning the cart near the center of the cumulative kayak mass is a safe and generally effective strategy.

2017 Hobie Bass Open champion Jay Wallen wheels his way to prime launch areas with Plug-in carts, including the Heavy Duty Plug-in Cart stored behind the seat of his Pro Angler in this photo.

Wheeling ‘em in

Airless wheels eliminate a major cart maintenance concern, but inflatable wheels offer advantage over soft terrain.

“The inflatable style wheels are great for soft mediums, especially sand and mud,” notes Kevin Nakada of Hobie. “They spread the kayak’s weight and load over a larger surface area. You may want some bounce to your wheels when you are hauling a loaded kayak over sand dunes.”

Hobie’s Trax 2-30 Plug-in Kayak Cart has pneumatic tires and small diameter rims that prevent pinching and valve damage under heavy loads. The cart has a 242-pound capacity. Tires can be deflated, too, for better performance on soft terrain.

Hobie’s Plug-in kayak carts fit the scupper holes of most of the manufacturer’s craft. They are easy to install and remove and facilitate transport from vehicle to water – even when weighted with a tackle and accessories.

Hobie’s standard cart is economical and efficient when hauling the kayak over a range of ground conditions. But hardcore kayakers concerned with durability and reliability over paved launch areas or hard, coarse gravel or rock terrain might opt for a tougher, more durable set of wheels. Hobie’s Heavy Duty Plug-in Cart fills the bill and offers a 225-pound load capacity, too.

Kevin Nakada uses Plug-in kayak carts to transport kayaks from motor vehicle to water’s edge, where adventures with smallmouth bass like this bronze specimen sometimes begin.

“We also have a stowable fold-up style called the Hobie Fold and Stow Plug-in Cart,” says Nakada. “It’s compact, so you can take it on the water with you. It comes with a storage bag you can fit in your front hatch so you don’t have to walk your wheels all the way back to your vehicle if you’ve had a long haul to reach water.”

The Fold & Stow Plug-in Cart from Hobie, held here by Hobie’s Steve Oxenford, breaks down easily to fit into a carrying bag or the large front cargo hatch featured on a variety of Hobie kayak models.

The Plug-in carts are all designed to fit the scupper holes of Hobie kayaks for quick and easy set-up and transport. Wheels are detachable on all models.

Some specialty manufacturers also make carts to fit kayak scuppers. Make sure any such cart choice adapts to your kayak before making the purchase.

Odds are you’ll love your set of wheels!

A “Sneak Peek” at the 10 BERKLEY TOPWATER LURES introduced at ICAST-2018

Berkley Cane Walker has a weighted tail and is easy to cast.

  • New moderately priced line from Berkley includes walking baits, waking baits, poppers, ploppers and prop baits
  • Ten lure types in 16 size variants and 23 colors
  • Designed by Bassmaster Elite Angler Justin Lucas and Forrest Wood Cup Champ Scott Suggs

By Mike Pehanich

The new Berkley topwater line introduced at ICAST 2018 straddles the surface lure spectrum, from ploppers and poppers to walkers and wakers! 

Pure Fishing has been the subject of sales and contraction rumors since Newell Brands completed purchase of its then-parent Jarden Corp. in spring of 2016. Much of the speculation focused on whether Newell would sell Pure Fishing intact or allow buyers to cherry pick from a stable of venerable tackle brands that includes Berkley, PowerBait, Abu Garcia, Gulp, Pflueger, Shakespeare, Penn, Stren, Fenwick and more.

A big flow of new products appeared highly unlikely, but such was not the case at ICAST 2018 last week, at least not for PF’s flagship Berkley brand. Pure Fishing paraded 1,100 new products for the coming season under the Berkley banner in Orlando.

Topwater line

Berkley is better known for fishing lines and its soft bait supply, a reputation that tends to shroud the success of products like the Flicker Shad and Flicker Minnow.

For the new topwater line, Berkley looked for fresh pro staff inspiration, recruiting Bassmaster Elite pro Justin Lucas for input on eight designs and Forrest Wood Cup champ and MLF/FLW pro Scott Suggs for the other two bait styles. The line includes 10 lure types in 16 size and design variants and 23 colors. All baits are equipped with sticky Fusion 19 hooks.

Poppers

Berkley Bullet Pop comes in three sizes and performs well in both popping and walking presentations.

Bullet Pop 60, 70, 80 – Popper/chugger-style baits have been springboard lures for countless anglers. They compel focus on presentation and invite experimentation, often bringing the first touch of true artistry to a budding angler’s game. Justin Lucas may have had this thought in mind when he designed this trio of popping lures to facilitate popping, spitting and walking retrieves. With three Bullet Pop sizes ranging from 60 to 80 mm in length and 14 colors, there’s a Bullet Pop to match any hatch. Feathered treble hooks tail all three sizes.

Bullet Pop 60: 2-1/4 inches (60 mm); 1/5 ounce (6 g)

Bullet Pop 70: 2-3/4  inches (70mm); 2/5 ounce (11 g)

Bullet Pop 80: 3-1/4 inches (80 mm); ½ ounce (15g)

MSRP: $6.99

Berkley Choppo Lure is a Plopper that generates strikes from a wide range of predator species.

Ploppers

Choppo 90, 120 – You can’t help but anticipate action from the Choppo from the first “plop” of its tail prop! Berkley’s entry into the “plopper” category generates a powerful fish-attracting chop as it churns the water, attracting bass, stripers, pike, musky and other husky predators. Try the smaller Choppo 90 for smallmouth bass and smaller game fish, as well as the usual suspects. Available in 10 colors.

Choppo 90:  3-2/7 inches (90 mm); ½ ounce (15 g)

Choppo 120: 4-5/7 inches (120 mm); 1 ounce (28 g)

MSRP: $9.99

Berkley Drift Walker has a long stride action, perfect for those fish that have seen everything else…till now.

Walking Baits

J-Walker 100  – Justin Lucas made subtle changes to the original cigar-shaped walking bait design to welcome newcomers to the bait walking art. The J-Walker is weighted and fitted with rattles. Available in 14 colors.

J-Walker 100:  4 inches (100 mm); ½ ounce (15 g)

J-Walker 120: 4-3/4 inches (120 mm); 2/3 ounce (20 g)

MSRP: $7.99

Drift Walker 110 – With its broad back and keel design, the Drift Walker is a walking bait with a long-stride finesse style. Three Fusion 19 treble hooks up the hook-up ratio.

Drift Walker 110:  4-1/4 inches (110 mm); ½ ounce (14 g)

MSRP: $7.99

HighJacker 100 – The “fishiest” of the walking baits in the series, the HighJacker’s hydrodynamic tail-weighted fish-shaped body casts long and produces tantalizing tail-down walking action, even when worked at a rapid cadence. Lucas counts it a key tool with schooling bass busting baitfish at the surface. Available in 10 colors.

High Jacker 100: 4 inches (100 mm); 3/5 ounce (18 g)

MSRP: $7.99

The weighted tail and tapered body of the Berkley Cane Walker makes it easy to cast.

Cane Walker 125 – Big fish like big mouthfuls, and large bass, stripers, hybrid stripers and toothy pike and musky are all likely to awaken to the commotion of the tail-weighted Cane Walker. With three sizes of weights confined to separate body cavity compartments, this “pencil” style walking bait delivers a distinctive rattle. Comes with feathered tail treble and in 12 colors.

Cane Walker 125: 5 inches (125mm); 5/6 ounce (24 g)

MSRP: $7.99

Prop Baits

Spin Rocket 110 – Prop bait aficionados may find a new love crush in the Spin Rocket. With its slim profile and flat back, the Spin Rocket draws strikes from a wider range of fish than conventional prop baits. Three Fusion 19 treble hooks promise a high hook-up ratio. Plastic propellers fore and aft generate the surface commotion.

Spin Rocket 110: 4-1/4 inches (100mm); ½ ounce (13 g)

MSRP: $7.99

Spin Bomb 60 – Count on this compact prop bait to count coup when predators are feasting on small forage. A conventional twitch-and-pause retrieve should get ‘er done. Comes with skirted tail treble. Watch the spray fly from this little bait.

Spin Bomb 60: 2-2/5 inches (60 mm); 2/5 ounce (12 g)

MSRP: $7.99

Berkley topwater baits, like this Berkley HighJacker in “Perfect Ghost” color, attract fish from a distance and bring vicious strikes .

Wake Baits

Wake Bull 60, 70 –Crankbait-style wake baits were once well-kept secrets. No more! The Wake Bull’s spacious body cavity emits a deep one-knocker rattle that draws fish from a distance. A Scott Suggs creation.

Wake Bull 60: 2-2/5 inches (60 mm); 2/5 ounce (12 g)

Wake Bull 70: 2-3/4 inches (70 mm); 3/5 ounce (18 g)

MSRP: $6.99

Surge Shad 130, Jointed 130 – Berkley took special pride in presenting its Surge Shad duo. Scott Suggs, who no doubt spent a lot of hours tweaking ancestors of this long minnow-style waker, directed both high-riding wake bait designs. The bait’s patent-pending weight system helped deliver the “exaggerated wobbling action” he was after. The single-bodied Surge Shad, only entry in Berkley’s topwater line-up without rattles, is a stealth tool, ideal for calm conditions and spooky fish. The jointed model produces a more aggressive action and sports rattle attraction as well, making it a better choice in murky water and windy conditions. Both the Surge Shad and the Surge Shad Jointed models come in eight custom-paint finishes, all with FlashDisc attractors on the belly.

Surge Shad 130: 5-1/5 inches (130 mm); 3/5 ounce (17 g)

Surge Shad Jointed 130: 5-1/5 inches (130 mm); 2/3 ounce (19 g)

MSRP: $7.99

Tags: Berkley, ICAST, 2018, Choppo, Bullet Pop, J-Walker, J Walker, Drift Walker, Cane Walker, High Jacker, Spin Rocket, Spin Bomb, Wake Bull, Wakebull, Surge Shad. Justin Lucas, Scott Suggs, Pure Fishing, Mike Pehanich, Small Waters Fishing, Share the Outdoors, Small Waters Outdoors, poppers, chuggers, propeller, lures, bait, walking lure, wakebait, wake bait, prop,