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Image of a lake sturgeon.

Hooked on the Rainy River

Angling for Minnesota's biggest fish can be mighty grand.

by C.B. Bylander

I didn't expect the Rainy River to hook my heart and not let go.

But it did. And that surprised me.

The 90-mile-long ribbon of river that separates Minnesota from Canada isn't nearly as alluring to me as the streams of the southeast, streams that call like sirens and beckon with diamond-clear waters that trickle and tumble through tree-shrouded valleys. Nor is the Rainy as awe-inspiring as the Mississippi at Lake City, where the great river unwinds into a sprawling mile-wide knot of water before flowing south beneath scenic bluffs, which rise like furrows hoed by an unseen giant.

Yet the Rainy—a relative Plain Jane in a state steeped with beauties—has become my favorite river.

The reason is simple. Lake sturgeon. Big lake sturgeon. Sturgeon that stretch from gunwale to gunwale. Some weigh 100 pounds, even more. I have yet to catch a fish that size, but a man can dream—and casting one's thoughts to the Rainy is fertile water for that.

I stumbled into sturgeon fishing several years ago when a group of friends asked me to join their annual spring pilgrimage to the Rainy. They had an empty boat seat, an empty bunk, and plenty of room in a pickup truck. They wondered if I, like them, would welcome the salving sound of waves splashing against a boat's hull after a long and depressing winter.

So on a Friday morning, our group angled northwest from Brainerd to Baudette. We brought three boats. A dozen rods. Hundreds of night crawlers. A thousand hopes. And one cooler chock-full of thick steaks, red potatoes, and plenty of fixings—the logic being we'd feast well even though we planned to release our catch.

Turned out, the bite was good. At one point, two anglers in our group were wrestling with 59-inch sturgeon at the same time. Later, a much bigger fish was caught. I was hooked.

I had the good fortune to spend much of that seminal trip with two fisheries biologists. While all of the men in our group were good cards, these two were a pair of pocket aces. I say this because they were Wikipedia personified—yet even better, for they could pass night crawlers, pour coffee, spin yarns, and perform other critical angling responsibilities. So during the lulls between bites, I'd fire off questions and they'd shoot back answers. Before long, I'd learned how the Rainy River and Lake of the Woods sturgeon population collapsed some 100 years ago from too much commercial fish harvest and too little regulation of the wastewater that poured from the pipes of paper mills, timber mills, and municipalities. In the late 1800s, commercial harvest of sturgeon topped 1 million pounds a year at the south end of Lake of the Woods. This over-harvest, combined with water pollution in the years to come, removed old fish and stymied the production of new fish in these waters where sturgeon had lived for thousands of years.

The sturgeon's salvation was the 1972 national Clean Water Act. Over time, this antipollution legislation and growing enlightenment among business, community, and natural resource leaders led to improved water quality and renewed spawning success. Today's good fishing, I was told, was 50 years in the making.

I had no idea what to expect on that first fishing trip, but I soon learned sturgeon fishing is pretty straightforward. If you can feel a bite, you can catch a fish. Equipment needs are basic too. You don't need much more than a stout rod, strong line, and a decent reel, preferably a level-wind reel that cranks like a winch. Add to this a hefty slip-sinker or two, a swivel, and a good-sized circle hook threaded with a few night crawlers, and you are ready to fish. Simply toss the crawlers to the bottom of the lake or river and wait, being careful to stay on the Minnesota side of these border waters.

If you're lucky, one of these bottom-feeding fish will open its mouth and engulf your bait. This might feel like the light tap of a walleye. It might feel like a steady pull. No matter. Simply raise the rod tip, start reeling, and let the circle hook catch in a corner of the fish's mouth. Then hold on. It can get real interesting real fast.

Fast Forward to Spring 2012. Spring came early on the Rainy. Record-breaking warm temperatures had melted much of the river's ice by March 22, about three weeks ahead of average. I didn't like that. Sturgeon fishing is often best shortly after ice-out. That's when mature fish intent on spawning funnel from gigantic Big Traverse Bay on Lake of the Woods into a constricted area known as the Gap. From there they fin farther into the mouth of the Rainy to spawn. The Rainy always holds sturgeon, but the odds of catching a big one are better when fish numbers are at their peak.

Unfortunately, my wife, son, and I weren't scheduled to fish until early May. Too late? It was hard to say. But that possibility nagged at me during the days leading up to our trip.

It was about noon on a Friday when Linda, 12-year-old Michael, and I hitched the Crestliner to the Pathfinder, crossed our fingers that nothing would break, and pulled the rig north onto Highway 371. We bought four dozen night crawlers in Walker. We bought gas and groceries in Baudette. We bought new fishing licenses at Border View Lodge on Wheeler's Point, our destination. We were set.

Once registered at the lodge, I ambled over to the adjacent public boat launch to collect the latest local fish-catching intelligence. It was depressing. The school of men I waded into had fished a sturgeon tournament earlier that day. They had not fared well. Neither had many others, they said.

"It was a tough bite," one of them grumbled in a voice as dry as the desert.

"Sure was," said another. "I was skunked most of the day. Thankfully, I caught this one right before quitting time." He pushed a smart phone in front of my face. A photo of a 55-inch sturgeon shone from the screen. Nice fish.

After I said so long to these men, I strolled down to the docks to observe anglers in the flotilla of boats up and down from the access. I didn't see a single bent rod. I didn't see anyone ready with a net. I did bump into Mike Larson, an angler of some repute on the river, as he pulled up to the dock.

"Any action?" I asked.

"Not much," he said. "But I did see a woman just land two fish out in the Gap. … If you're gonna give it a try tonight, you may want to fish out her way. … She's past the second weedbed … last boat in the string … kind of out there by herself."

Thirty minutes later, that's where Michael, Linda, and I were bound. Upon arrival we kerplunked a 22-pound anchor close—but not too close—to the port side of the woman's boat. We baited hooks. Checked drags. Dropped lines. And then we kicked back and relaxed. We had soft seats and plenty of snacks. The night was young. This would be good.

It was at this point—just as a wave of bliss was washing over me—that the boat's bilge pump whirred into action. I peered over the gunwale and beheld the contents of the belly of the boat being upchucked back into the lake. Not good. Leaks below the water line never are.

"I bet this means we're going back to land right now," my wife opined in a soft voice that spoke loudly to the wisdom of lifting the anchor and not arguing.

"Yes," I replied without hesitation. "Land sounds good."

So that's where we went. At the access I wrapped the better part of a roll of electrician's tape around a livewell pump that had fractured from ice expansion over winter. We were set for the next morning. Unfortunately, the fish weren't. We didn't catch a thing in the forenoon.

However, the afternoon was different. It all started when Linda, seated in the back of the boat with her feet propped up against the transom, detected a bite. It was just a light pull. She passed the rod to Michael with the counsel that "it feels like a small one."

Michael, who had landed a 50-inch sturgeon the year before, knew what to do. He raised the rod tip. He cranked the reel. He measured tension in the line. Then he reefed back in a slow and steady motion. Confident the hook was set, he cried, "Fish on!"

His eyes, which had grown dull since dawn, now widened and sparkled with intensity. They grew even larger as the sturgeon made its first run, unspooling line with ease and bowing the rod until its tip stabbed through the surface of the water.

"Doesn't feel like a little one to me," he said, grinning.

In the minutes that followed, he gradually worked the rod back to a more horizontal position by heeding age-old advice: "When the fish pulls, you don't." It was quite the tug-of-war. Michael would pump the rod, crank the reel, and gain line. Moments later, the fish would take it back, and then some. The seesaw battle reminded me of Hemingway's story The Old Man and the Sea, which Michael and I had read together years ago. I began to call Michael "the boy," a reference to the boy in the book. I thought this was apt and funny. He found it odd and not funny at all.

"He's coming up," Michael said at last. And when it did, we got our first look at the sturgeon that would later be measured at 61 inches and 62 pounds. Yet we didn't see the behemoth for long. It dove again, this time pulling out line as though the hook were snagged to a submarine.

Finally, Michael said, "My arms are on fire. Take the rod." I didn't, at least not immediately. But when I did, I too was amazed at the strength of the fish. The seesawing continued far longer than I would have imagined. At last, Michael and Linda swooped a net under the fish and hoisted it into the boat. We heard whoops of approval from anglers on nearby boats as we raised the fish for a photo and then released it.

As fishing stories go, I know this one is quite ordinary. Countless others have caught more fish, bigger fish, and overcome adversity far beyond a broken livewell pump. Yet it remains extraordinary to me how fishing can unite a family and spawn memories that last a lifetime. Together in a boat, you talk. You laugh. You imagine. You catch fish, or at least sometimes you do. And you dream.

As we drove home on a Sunday afternoon, Michael daydreamed of boating an even bigger fish but wasn't sure we would.

"Are we coming back next spring?" he asked.

"Yes," I replied.

"Good," he said.

The Rainy had hooked his heart too.


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