How to catch a lake sturgeon

Illustration of a lake sturgeon

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A lake sturgeon

The lake sturgeon is Minnesota's largest fish, and oh what a fish it is. This species can grow to more than 100 pounds. Moreover, big sturgeon are increasingly common in Minnesota. The Rainy River, for instance, holds nearly 100,000 sturgeon 40 inches or longer. Put head to tail, that is a string of fish more than 60 miles long. If you have never fished for lake sturgeon now is the time to try. Sturgeon fishing is the best it has been since the late 1800s.

When to fish

Sturgeon fishing season dates vary depending upon whether you are fishing on inland waters or waters that border another state or Canada. Check the fishing regulations based on where you want to fish. Some waters have special regulations for sturgeon.

  • Inland: waters within Minnesota
  • Border: waters that border other states or countries
  • Special: waters that have special or experimental regulations in place that differ from statewide regulations.

That said, the state's most popular sturgeon fishing destinations are Lake of the Woods and the Rainy River, which offer both a catch and release season and a harvest season in which you can keep one fish per calendar year. The harvest season runs from late April until early May and early July until late September. The catch and release season runs from early May until mid-May and early October until late April. This means from the second half of May until the end of June you cannot fish for sturgeon fishing. The rest of the year, you can fish for sturgeon.

There are some additional regulations that apply to sturgeon regarding tagging, possession and transportation.

Where to fish

Lake sturgeon exist in Lake of the Woods, Lake Superior and many rivers, including the Rainy, St. Croix, St. Louis, Kettle and Red River of the North. You can search LakeFinder on the Minnesota DNR website to determine if lake sturgeon are in a lake or river near you. The lake sturgeon isn’t a common fish but it has expanded into many new waters over the past 30 years as part of a major recovery effort.

Underwater photo of a lake sturgeon

A lake sturgeon

How to fish

Sturgeon fishing is pretty simple. It’s simple because basically all you do is drop live bait to the bottom then wait for a bite.

A typical sturgeon fishing outfit begins with a stout muskellunge rod. Add to that a level-wind reel loaded with braided line in the 80- to 100-pound test range. Next, thread your line through a heavy slip sinker. Many sturgeon anglers prefer “no-roll” slip sinkers in the one- to five-ounce range. Use just enough weight to keep your bait on the bottom. After you have threaded your line through the sinker tie a strong barrel swivel to the line. This will keep the sinker from sliding down to the hook. Next, tie about 12 to 18 inches of line onto the other end of the barrel swivel. This is your leader. Finally, tie a 5/0 circle hook onto the other end of the leader. Now you are set.

Most anglers fish with one or more nightcrawlers on the hook, and many also like to add a minnow or two for good measure. Once you feel a bite simply tighten the slack from your line and raise the rod, thereby allowing the circle hook to catch. Then hold on. You may be fighting a fish for 10 minutes or more. A stout rod with heavy line is best because it allow you to pull in the fish quicker, which means less stress exhausting on the fish.

Typically, sturgeon anglers who fish from boats look for pools or deeper seams in the river bottom. Then, they anchor slightly above these areas and allow their bait to settle into them. They do this because sturgeon often “hole-up” and when they do start to move upstream they often leave by swimming upstream from the head of the pool.

Gear

As mentioned above, the gear you’ll need for sturgeon fishing is similar to what you would use for muskellunge fishing. Important things to have include:

  • A large landing net.
  • A hefty anchor or two.
  • A pair of pliers for removing the hook.
  • A wet towel to place over the fish’s head when measuring. This helps calm the fish.
  • Gloves, especially for handling small sturgeon that have razor-sharp projections called scutes.
  • A tape measurer or seamstress tape to accurately measure the length and girth of the fish. These measurements can be used to determine the weight of your fish.
  • A pen or pencil and a pad of paper to record numbers from a tagged fish, if indeed you catch such a fish.
  • Camera
What’s important to know
  • Do not remove the fish from the water for an extended time.
  • Some fish are just too big to safely bring into your boat. Release them without bringing them into the boat when possible.
  • Consider placing a measuring device on the side (outside) of your boat to get a quick measurement before releasing the fish so you do not have to remove it from the water.
  • When photographing a sturgeon, always support the fish horizontally. Do Not hold sturgeon in a vertical position by their head, gills, or tails, even for taking pictures.
  • Before you bring a big fish into your boat, make sure fishing rods, tackle boxes, and other loose objects are out of the way.
  • Never touch a sturgeon’s eyes or gills.
Basic biology
  • The lake sturgeon is a torpedo-shaped primitive fish with a cartilaginous skeleton. It has five rows of large, prominent, bony plates called scutes on its body.
  • Lake sturgeon have a flattened snout, with large, fleshy barbels and a protractile mouth located under the head.
  • Lake sturgeon prefer moderately clear, large rivers and lakes. They are most often found over firm sand, gravel, or rubble bottoms. The lake sturgeon is a migratory species, present in all drainages in Minnesota except the Missouri.
  • Lake sturgeon travel widely. They require extensive areas of shallow water to find food, lightly dragging their barbels along the bottom in search of prey. Their diet includes insect larvae and other invertebrates, snails, leeches, small mussels, and small fish. Spawning occurs between April and early June.
  • Females spawn once every four to six years and typically reach sexual maturity at 24-26 years old. Males spawn every two to three years and typically reach sexual maturity at 8-17 years.
  • The maximum life span of lake sturgeon is typically 55 years for males and may be more than 150 years for females.