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Anticipation fuels sturgeon excursion

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Beauty might be in the eye of the beholder when it comes to lake sturgeon, but the prehistoric-looking fish draw throngs of anglers every spring to the Minnesota-Canada border waters of Rainy River and Lake of the Woods. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service2 / 6
A brilliant sunset lights up the western horizon Friday, April 20, 2018, on the Rainy River near Clementson, Minn. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service3 / 6
Anglers wait to load their boats Friday, April 20, 2018, after a beautiful day of sturgeon fishing on the Rainy River near Clementson, Minn. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service4 / 6
Busy boat ramps are par for the course during the spring sturgeon season on the Rainy River, as was evidenced Saturday, April 21, 2018, at the Vidas Access near Clementson, Minn. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service5 / 6
Thick shoreline ice lingers Sunday, April 22, 2018, along the edge of the Rainy River near Birchdale, Minn. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service6 / 6

ON THE RAINY RIVER, Minn. — For people who fish, there's something about getting in a boat again after a long winter that's difficult to put into words.

Excitement is part of it.

So is anticipation.

Anticipation for the sound of an outboard motor rumbling to life for the first time in months.

Anticipation for the sound of water lapping against the hull of the boat, a sound as soothing as it is hypnotic.

Anticipation for the sounds of spring: the raucous calls of Canada geese, the whistling wings of ducks zipping overhead, the joyful sound of chorus frogs already tuned up and in fine voice despite a lengthy winter layoff.

All of these sounds offer proof that spring has arrived.

Finally.

Two friends and I felt that anticipation April 20 when we approached the Rainy River, boat in tow, for an evening of sturgeon fishing that would be followed by two more days of sturgeon fishing.

They're not looking for publicity, these friends, so I'll respect their wishes.

Scattered boats could be seen along the river from state Highway 11, but we didn't expect the sight we encountered upon turning off the highway and onto the road leading to the Vidas Access near Clementson, Minn.

Vehicle-trailer rigs were lined up all the way from the ramp to the highway, a distance of nearly a mile.

We obviously weren't the only ones feeling that anticipation.

Monster quest

The crowds shouldn't have come as a surprise. Every subtle sturgeon bite — and they are subtle — offers the prospect of tangling with a prehistoric fish that can tip the scales at 100 pounds or more.

They're down there, swimming around the depths of the Rainy River, the scenic border water that straddles the Minnesota-Ontario border for 85 miles from Rainy Lake downstream to Lake of the Woods.

Nearly wiped out by the early 1900s, the result of overfishing and declining water quality, sturgeon in Lake of the Woods and Rainy River have staged a remarkable comeback in recent decades, thanks to clean water legislation on both sides of the border and restrictive regulations that focus on catching rather than killing.

Springtime is prime time for catching them. That's an exciting prospect.

That April afternoon, boat ramps downstream in Baudette, Minn., and at Wheeler's Point where the river spills into Lake of the Woods still were locked in ice. That also explained the crowd gathered at the Vidas Access.

And who could blame them? The weather was perfect, and the weekend forecast called for more of the same.

Not that many years ago, access points along the river would have been nearly empty after the end of the spring walleye season on Minnesota-Ontario border waters. Gradually, though, word about the sturgeon fishing available on the river spread.

Big fish — or at least the prospect of catching them — tend to have that effect. It's no surprise, then, that both of the top fish in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' new catch-and-release state record category for lake sturgeon came from the Rainy River.

Both were caught April 23, 2017 — by Mark Minnick of Brooklyn Park, Minn., and Tim Deiman of St. Paul Park, Minn. — and both measured 70 inches with 29-inch girths. According to the DNR, a fish that size weighs 94 pounds and is 51 years old.

By sturgeon standards, those fish are young. Lake sturgeon can live to be more than 100 years old and exceed 200 pounds. The largest lake sturgeon ever recorded, measuring 15½ feet long and weighing 400 pounds, was pulled from the Roseau River, a Red River tributary, in October 1903 near Dominion City, Man.

That's just cool.

Oops, no anchor

Our anticipation for tangling with big fish suffered a minor setback just minutes into the evening when our host, who also owns the boat, realized he'd forgotten the anchor. Fortunately, he lives nearby and soon was back at the ramp with the missing anchor.

We were anchored up and dunking a smorgasbord of nightcrawlers and fathead minnows on the bottom of the river some 20 feet below by 6 p.m.

The first sturgeon of the evening was tugging on a line less than half an hour later, resulting in a rod-bending struggle that culminated in a 51-inch sturgeon. We didn't get a girth measurement, but the sturgeon weighed somewhere between 25 pounds and 36 pounds, based on the DNR's length-girth chart.

A 44-inch sturgeon that gave a very good accounting of itself served up another battle a short time later.

Feet up and thoroughly relaxed, we spent the remaining hours of daylight soaking in the sights and sounds of spring. The sunset alone made the evening worthwhile. There'd be no more sturgeon that night, but that didn't lessen our anticipation for the coming day.

We didn't know it at the time, but those would be the only sturgeon we'd catch all weekend.

In good company

As humbling as that might have been, we took comfort in knowing we weren't alone in our struggle. The next day, fishing the same stretch of river with a fourth fisherman onboard, we moved several times and witnessed a total of five sturgeon caught among the fleet of boats that surrounded us.

That's five more sturgeon than we saw caught the next day while fishing upriver near Birchdale, Minn.

That's the way it is with fishing sometimes; catching never is a guarantee. But in the mantra of anglers everywhere who encounter tough fishing on a beautiful day, catching fish is a bonus.

We'll keep telling ourselves that...

As a postscript to this tale of great fishing but not-so-great catching, the Rainy River within two days would be open all the way into Four-Mile Bay, where the river meets up with Lake of the Woods. A friend who'd never fished sturgeon before April 17 made the trip with his cousin, and they landed 14 sturgeon, including three over 50 inches.

For whatever reason, some of the best sturgeon fishing every spring occurs in Four-Mile Bay right after the ice goes out. Time it right, and the result often is sore arms from battling brutish fish.

"We marked a lot of sturgeon, and they were jumping all over," the first-timer said. "We got lucky and timed it just right."

Yes they did.

There's still plenty of time to head north and battle the brutes, but anyone making the trip can expect lots of company. A limited harvest season for anglers who buy a sturgeon tag opened Tuesday, April 24, and continues through May 7. Sturgeon fishing is catch-and-release only — no tag required — from May 8 through May 15. The season then closes until July 1.

For more information on sturgeon regulations on Lake of the Woods and Rainy River, check out the 2018 Minnesota Fishing Regulations booklet, available at electronic licensing outlets or online at mndnr.gov.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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