By Tony Capecchi
Underdressed in a hooded sweatshirt and windbreaker, I was grateful that bottom fishing let me keep my hands in my pockets. Normally on a late summer morning, I'm casting for smallmouth bass on the St. Croix. But this day I was content throwing out a night crawler on a hook with a 1-ounce bell sinker. Simple setup, easy approach — all I had to do was watch the tip of my pole against the gunwale of the boat.
Other than the cold that made my breath visible, the morning had been unremarkable. That changed around 7:30 — an hour and three walleyes into my day — with a slight twitch of my pole. I fed it some line and waited, counting to five-Mississippi, like my grandfather taught me, before setting the hook. The instant I yanked my pole, I realized I'd hooked a monster.
It ran upriver, then shot out of the water in an explosion that changed my definition of huge. I had heard such sturgeon swam St. Croix's deep waters, but I had also read stories about the Loch Ness monster. When you only hear tales about a creature, it lives in an abstract world. Now reality was bending my pole to its limits.
A zinging sound filled my ears; the sound of my reel stripping line. The sturgeon leaped, adding to the chaos. I gasped at the sight: The dark brown beast with its suction-cup mouth shook its head and danced on its sharklike tail.
Two more jumps and 40 minutes later, the big fish finally tired. I gradually worked it up to the boat, which led to an interesting conundrum — how to land it with my woefully undersized net. I scooped its head into the net with my left hand. Then, moving quicker than I ever had, I dropped my pole and grabbed its tail with my right hand. Adrenaline took care of the rest, and the creature landed in my boat.
I measured its length at 54 1/2 inches, and I guessed it weighed about 45 pounds. Sandpaper skin stretched tightly around its dense body. Its stomach bulged like a stuffed sausage, exceeding the grip of my extended hand. To support the fish properly, I slid my hand closer to its head and was startled to feel its dangling whiskers. My breath had not yet resumed its normal pace, but the sturgeon seemed unfazed. Its black, beady eyes stared ahead. Those eyes had probably seen a lot over the decades. A sturgeon's lifespan can run 100 years.
I asked the fisherman in a nearby boat to take a picture of this once-in-a-lifetime moment. The vision that's stuck in my head, though, came during the release: The monstrous sturgeon, which looks the same today as it did in the days of the dinosaurs, returning to the murky depths of the St. Croix.
Tony Capecchi, a strong advocate of catch-and-release, works for Ron Schara Enterprises and also writes for In-Fisherman.