The St. Croix river is a special destination fishery for one of the world’s most ancient fish, the Lake Sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens). These dinosaurs can grow up to six feet or more and weigh over 100 lbs. Anglers come from all over the Midwest to cross catching a sturgeon off their bucket list. Surprisingly, it’s not hard with just a few tips.
Dinosaurs are not known for their big brains, and sturgeon are no exception. Many of them are caught multiple times, including the 78-inch 120 lb state record officially attributed to Darren Troseth. This geriatric behemoth (who needs a name by the way-remember “Catfish Hunter” from Grumpier Old Men?), has fallen for the bait from no less than 6 other anglers according to trolled facebook posts from Minnesota Sturgeon and Catfishing facebook group. How do I know it’s the same fish? Well, I don’t, but it doesn’t seem likely there are a bunch of 78-inch, 60-year-old (my guess on age) Lake Sturgeon swimming around a 5 mile stretch of river near Bayport, MN.
So, it’s no wonder more and more anglers want to get into the action! Thankfully, the sturgeon fishery in Minnesota and Wisconsin is tightly regulated and is catch and release only for most of the year (there is a short harvest season that allows an angler to keep one fish all season). In a long overdue follow up to my article in 2019 where I shared some tips, techniques, and gear to catch a sturgeon during the open water season, below, I share some “secrets” about how to catch a sturgeon through the ice.
And guess what? It may be even easier to catch one through the ice than it is through the open water. And a bonus is that like open water fishing, you won’t go broke trying to do it.
Of all the gear needs, the rod is the most difficult to find. Please: don’t even try to get by with your walleye gear. Yes, you can hook a sturgeon with a walleye rod (or crappie rod for that matter) like any other rod. The problem is, you’ll spend at least an hour trying not to get spooled, your wrists will be on fire trying to hold that little noodle rod with a giant on the other end, and you’ll end up tiring and stressing out the fish. There are a handful of off-the-shelf brands that make ice rods for catfish and lake trout. Apparently, sturgeon remain too much of a niche species for the big brands to get into the game of making rods made and marketed for sturgeon. Still some good buys are the Clam Jason Mitchell Mackinaw Big Fish Series™ Ice Rod (made for Lake Trout), Mudpuppy Tackle Co Sturgeon Ice Fishing Rod, or a Dave Genz Split Handle Rod. These rods are made with super strong graphite or fiberglass blanks and have stiff backbones. Alternatively, there are a few local custom rod builders like Wolfram Custom Rods who make top quality rods designed specifically for sturgeon.
Length should be no shorter than 34” but probably no longer than 48.” I like my 48” rods with almost half the length as the handle so I can tuck it under my armpit while winching up these fish. Depending on your preference, you could go with either a spinning reel or baitcaster; however, typically, spinning ice rods are easier to find
Line and reel
Like the rod, keep the walleye and crappie reels at home. But, you could probably get by fine with the reels you used for your summer bass, northern/musky, or catfish setups. If you are setting up a combo specifically for sturgeon, go with a 4000 series spinning reel spun with a 50 lb braid. You could go a bit lighter and smaller, or a little bigger and heavier and be fine, but that 4000 series is kind of the Goldilocks.
For baitcasters, I like a round reel and the Abu Garcia Ambassador 5500 C3 is a timeless performer. Bait clickers or bait feeders are not features you’ll need for sturgeon fishing. Sturgeon are generally light biters and will not (usually) pick up your bait and run like a catfish or northern pike. Of all the gear discussed in this article, allocating a bit higher budget for the reel is money well spent. Generally, with most brands, you’ll get a decent reel at the $60-70 price point, especially for the “weekend warrior” who doesn’t get out a ton. Spend more for higher quality if you plan to put the reel to high use in a variety of conditions.
Sturgeon do not have good eyesight, so don’t worry about colors. As far as I know, their hearing/lateral line senses aren’t great either…so we needn’t preoccupy ourselves with rattle baits and jigs either. Instead, sturgeon’s sense of smell and taste are their “eyes and ears” underwater. They don’t investigate by looking, they investigate by smelling and tasting with their nose, barbels, and prehensile mouth and lips.
In fact, that mouth is almost a fishy version of an Elephant’s trunk. It’s very possible that many sturgeon catches are from sturgeon that may not even be hungry, but rather curiously investigating a bait by putting it in its mouth….”Hmmm, what’s this?….JERK!”
In the fish house, you’ll see me deploying two different techniques/rigs. First, I will jig a large 1-1.5 oz spoon with a 4/0 treble hook.
On a second set up, I will rig up a 7/0 “J” or “Octopus” hook below six or so large beads and a 1 oz egg sinker. Some may say 7/0 is a bit on the large end, but I like the bigger size so I can fit more “meat” on the hook. Some anglers like large treble hooks for the same reason. Sturgeon don’t seem to be too sensitive to hook size, but you do need to be quick on the hook set before they taste/feel the metal and spit the bait. I always tie the palomar knot whenever possible. Arguably the palomar is the easiest and strongest fishing knot the sport has ever known. Google/YouTube is your friend to show you how to tie this knot.
A “Carolina rig” with a 8” leader of braid above a 1 oz slip sinker works just fine as well.
Use just enough weight to get your bait straight down to the bottom. Unlike open water fishing, I do not use or recommend circle hooks. The straight up and down angle of the line under the ice affects the self-hooking efficiency of circle hooks, and they seem to pull out of the fish’s mouth easier than conventional hooks. Plus, yanking 30 ft of line straight below you is pretty effective at sinking a hook into these fleshy mouths.
Like catfish, sturgeon have superb taste and smell, but unlike their fishy feline friends, they don’t go for the strange bait concoctions. Further, in my experience, they will not touch a bait that’s been frozen. It doesn’t need to be live, but it must be fresh. For ice fishing, I have not found a better combination than night crawlers and fathead minnows all gobbed up on a hook. Fresh cut chunks of sucker have been known to produce as well.
If you’re jigging a spoon, you aren’t feeling for a nibble, you’re feeling for a snag into a cement block, because that’s what a sturgeon feels like on the hook set! Nothing special here. Rip the spoon up with a flick of the wrist, let the bait fall. Wash, rinse, repeat…over and over again.
The more popular way to fish sturgeon is on a “dead stick,” meaning a rod sitting still in a rod holder with the bait on bottom. When fishing this technique, it’s of the utmost importance that your rod is ready to grab fast for a quick hookset. HT makes a cheap and super effective rod holder that keeps the rod off the ice and easy to grab for the hookset.
A second very important tactic for bite detection is the precise placement of a slip bobber. If the bobber stop causes the bobber to stick straight up and sink a little with the bait resting on bottom, the stop is too low (or pushed down too far). If the bobber is laying flat, the stop is too high (or pulled up too far). It’s just right if the bobber ever so slightly leans at an angle.
Like I said earlier in the article, sturgeon investigate with their smell and taste and will often inhale the bait into their mouth, swish it around a bit and decide whether they like it or not. Sometimes this action is very light so a hair trigger is important. Unlike walleye and crappie fishing, don’t wait for the fish to “take the bait.” If you have a sturgeon down there and the bobber is moving, the bait is in its mouth. Let ‘er rip! But, you’ll quickly find that you’ll whiff your fair share.
Most of the time, it’s due to another bottom-dwelling, bait-robbing creature: the common mudpuppy
These strange salamanders live their entire life underwater and crawl around on the bottom with feet but breath through external gills and have a long tail that makes them agile swimmers. They are quite abundant in the St. Croix and weeding through them is arguably the most frustrating part of ice fishing for sturgeon on the St. Croix.
Advancements in fishing electronics have revolutionized fishing in the past two decades. For many species, understanding how to read your electronics can mean the difference between a skunk and a limit. For sturgeon fishing however, electronics are mostly for entertainment, but also learning. Generally, a sturgeon is unmistakable when it comes into view on your conventional scrolling screen, your flasher, or live sonar. Seeing a sturgeon come into view on your sonar gets you focused and ready to pounce if the bobber starts to move. But it’s also important to know that depending on the fish’s orientation and where your bait is within the acoustic cone, there could be acoustic “dead zones” or areas where you may not see the fish before it takes your bait. So always be ready! Sometimes, electronics can be frustrating because you may not see anything interesting on the screen the whole night, or you may see several sturgeon passing through but never interested remotely in your bait.
Where and when to fish
Finding a good spot to fish for sturgeon on the St. Croix, about as easy as it gets. These fish generally like featureless slow-current channels and are cruising constantly. Plop down in any spot in depths ranging from 15-40 ft and nestle in for the long haul. Moving and hole hopping is a waste of time and energy since these fish don’t school and hold to various structures like other common game fish.
These fish are constantly on the move and feed/bite at unpredictable times. Many times, you’ll see these fish on the electronics move quickly though without paying any attention to your bait. Other times they seem to “turn on” and you’ll catch a few within a short period of time. Many sturgeon anglers, myself included, have racked their brains trying to figure out the habits of sturgeon and how to gain an edge. I’m sure they aren’t completely random, but I haven’t been able to figure out the secret recipe to being the “King of the Croix” when it comes to sturgeon fishing outside of time spent on the ice.
If you follow these tips, are patient, and bring the right attitude (almost every successful angler will tell you holding all other things constant: a confident angler will outfish a non confident one 2 to 1), you will get your dinosaur, and maybe even the 78” St. Croix Monster!
Ray Valley is an Aquatic Biologist with Navico Inc. and former DNR Fisheries Research Biologist. Ray lives in Bayport and is an avid sturgeon angler.