This article was originally published on StCroixRiverFishing.com. Reprinted with permission.
Each year there are many anglers that 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. Follow a few basic instructions, and you might have your picture taken with a giant sturgeon — without a guide!
The last thing first: Holding the fish and performing a proper 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 whether the fish will survive. Unfortunately for the Lake Sturgeon, their gills covers make good handles. In their haste to get a grip on a sturgeon, many anglers grab the specimen by the gills, causing severe injury to the fish and putting its life in danger.
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 Minnesota 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 Sinkers, a swivel rated above 80 lbs and a 3/0 Team Catfish DOUBLE ACTION hook. What I like about the Team Catfish hooks are 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. 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. The shape of a circle or the DOUBLE ACTION hook will do the same job as a barb.
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 increasingly larger sturgeon in their sampling, I have to recommend going with a braided line like the 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. Sturgeons are not leader or hook shy, so no need to worry about color or trimming the ends of your knots.
Three or four night crawlers on your hook work well in the fall for sturgeon fishing. As the water cools add fatheads (live and dead) to make a fathead/crawler sandwich. Using a slice of sucker makes a darn good bait as well. No need to go too large. About the size of your thumb will do it.
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! Do not bother with 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-oounce 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 or more range.
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!
Boats and Anchors
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.
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 holes 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.Two hooks/rods are allowed on the Minnesota side of the St. Croix and three hooks/rods are allowed on the Wisconsin side (no matter which State license you possess).
Get the Net!
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 Frabill. 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 surface, it will be tuckered out and will hold still enough to bring it aboard.
Recording Your Catch
Many sturgeon anglers use a 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 bending it horizontal to reach it’s longest length) and girth measurement (just behind the gills). If you have a scale large enough, place your trophy in the net and weigh it, then just subtract out the weight of the net.
Be prepared for COLD. 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! They don’t work if you’re not wearing them!
Tagged Fish and the DNR
Minnesota DNR employees have been working hard at tracking these fish. 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. (Read more about “Living Dinosaurs” and conservation challenges.)
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 you’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 angler’s 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. Others call it playing Keystone Cops! On thing is for certain, it takes teamwork to land a giant 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 him or her 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!
Night fishing is generally better, but for the inexperienced night angler, I would recommend fishing early mornings before the wind and boat traffic picks up.
If you would like to have a chance at catching your fish of a lifetime, come on down to the picturesque St. Croix River.
Your dance partner is waiting!
About the Author
Brian Klawitter holds a U.S. Coast Guard Master Captain license. He’s been guiding for over nine years and lives in the St. Croix River Valley. He operates Brian K’s Guide Service. Email: BrianK@InDepthOutdoors.com. Phone: (651) 307-8326. He wishes to thank Nicole Michel at Your World Design for helping with his recent appearance on Minnesota Bound.