Rainy River Lake Sturgeon
January 24, 2017
Lots of Rainy River Lake Sturgeon surpassing 50 inches, with a good shot at fish to 70 inches with weights to about 90 to 100 pounds, make for spectacular fishing once the river is ice-free. The lower river near the mouth at Four Mile Bay just above Baudette, Minnesota is a popular spring fishery, however, sturgeon inhabiting various wintering holes prvide opportunities upriver, too, to Birchdale and above.
Large fish exist again today as the Lake of the Woods-Rainy River population continues its long road to recovery. In many states with impacted populations, management efforts to improve populations include moratoriums on commercial harvest, reduced recreational harvest, seasonal closures, low possession limits, size limits, maintaining and improving spawning habitat, and stocking native waters. In states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan where recreational fisheries exist on select systems, regulations call for either catch-and-release or annual harvest of only a single fish, the fishing limited to specific seasons in most cases.
Sturgeon from both the lake and river groups move upriver to spawning grounds, generally in May into June. Non-spawning fish in the Rainy River migrate to the main lake in spring, setting up home use areas in the main lake, often in the vicinity of the river mouth. Anglers often target mid-river holes, similar to fishing for blue catfish.
We have good success fishing a slipsinker rig. Fifty- to 65-pound braid works well for mainline, as does 30-pound mono. For rods, a good all-around choice is a 7.5-foot medium-heavy-power stick with a softer action in the tip. For big fish we often used the Shakespeare Ugly Stik 2270M and Penn International 965 and 975 reels. Most times 2- to 3-ounces of lead does the trick.
When feeding, sturgeon move along slowly over bottom, using their barbels to detect food and their thick-lipped extendable mouth to vacuum up the edibles. Much of their diet consists of larval insects, mollusks, leeches, and small fish. Buy a flat of nightcrawlers (500 count) and you should be set for a couple anglers over a longer outing or two. We haven't had to venture from 'crawlers on the Rainy River, but you might also have minnows on hand as they can be the bait of choice depending on where you fish.
Don't be stingy with the 'crawlers — a big gob on a hook is more attractive and easier for fish to find. Most times you're fishing with rods in rod holders off the sides and transom. Strikes from even the largest fish are often just subtle taps and bounces of the rod tip as the fish vacuums up the bait and slowly moves along. Only when the fish swims away does the rod start to steadily load.
The Eagle Claw 84 is a classic J-hook that works well, with size 5/0 suitable for large sturgeon and 2/0 to 3/0 for smaller to medium-size fish. Another option is an octopus hook, like the Lazer Sharp L7226 and Gamakatsu Octopus. If you're using J-style or octopus hooks, avoid letting the fish run for extended period to avoid deep hooking. Once you see steady bouncing of the rod tip, reel down to set pressure on the hook and keep reeling as you remove the rod from the rod holder.
Once hooked, sturgeon dig hard, often pulling upstream against you and the current. They can be spectacular jumpers, especially during spring and summer. During fall they often rise for a showy surface roll. A respectable fighter they are, not only against angler, but also for survival as a species. Yet when finally in the boat and cradled in the arms of a fishermen they transform into the gentlest of giants, perfect for a pose and a picture before release.
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