The largest of all species of fish in Minnesota is the prehistoric Lake Sturgeon, which have been reported to live as long as 150 years old. This rare, but magnificent fish generally range from 10-40 lbs and 20-55 inches long and are covered with sharp plates called scutes on their back to go along with their shark like tale. The Minnesota DNR is extremely protective of the Sturgeon, as it is listed as a “species of concern” in MN.
The population was very low throughout most of the 20th century due to overfishing, habitat loss, and poor water quality. In the 1970s, as a result of the Clean Water Act and increased fishing regulations, the Sturgeon population began to rebound. However, the rehabilitation process for Lake Sturgeon takes decades, as they don’t have the ability to spawn until they are between 20-25 years old, and once they reach that age, they only spawn once every four-seven years.
Lake Sturgeon are extremely fun to catch, but there are extremely limited opportunities in which it is legal to target them in Minnesota. The first and most well known Sturgeon bite across the land of 10,000 lakes takes place at the Minnesota/Canada border on the Rainy River. This season runs from Apr 24th – May 7th and July 1st – Sept 30th with a limit of one per season (must be registered), as well as a catch and release only season from October 1st to the beginning of the next season on April 23rd. The best time to of the year to catch a Sturgeon on the Rainy River is in early spring, usually around the last two weeks of March and first two weeks of April (note: catch and release only). At this time, the Sturgeon migrate from Lake of the Woods and head east upstream into the river. They do this to spawn as well as to eat the eggs of the walleyes that are spawning in the river at the same time.
The second opportunity anglers have to target Lake Sturgeon in MN falls just outside the Metro Area, on the St. Croix River. This season is a much shorter time frame than the season on the Rainy, as it only runs from Sept 4th – Sept 30th with a limit of one per season and at a minimum limit of 60 inches. There is an additional catch and release season from Oct 1st – Oct 15th. The added benefit of special regulations on Minnesota/Wisconsin border waters allows anglers to use two lines on the St. Croix river with a MN or WI license. This is a huge benefit to sturgeon anglers, as having twice as many lines in the water doubles your chances of putting fish in the boat.
When it comes to rigging a sturgeon rod, it is quite simple. First, you will need a strong rod, ideally between 7 and 8 feet in length. You can also use a catfish or muskie rod if you have that in your arsenal. Through my experience I have found the best place to buy these rods is at Fleet Farm, as they have a wide variety of name brand rods at an affordable price. I purchased a two-piece 7 ft medium heavy action Shakespeare Wild Cat spinning rod for $15 at Fleet Farm and it has performed perfectly for me for both sturgeon and catfish this past summer. You can use both spinning reels as well as baitcaster style reels for sturgeon rods, so it comes down to personal preference or whatever is available to you. As for line, your going to want some kind of superline, whether it be Berkley Fireline (personal preference) or braid, it is going to have to be tough enough to pull these behemoths up from the muddy bottom. I have seen guys use anything from 20-80lb test line.
The most important part of this rig is what you put on the bottom of the river for the Sturgeon to see. You want to use large circle hooks and fill them up with crawlers and minnows accompanied by a large weight to make sure your bait does not move. I typically use a 2-3 oz No Roll or Pyramid style weights for the St. Croix and a 1-3 oz weight for the Rainy River, but weight should adjust to the strength of the current. The next part of the rig is the hook and the leader. The best hooks to use are 5/0 or 6/0 Gamakatsu Octopus Circle hooks (the bigger the hook, the more bait you can put on). The ideal leader length is 12-16 inches and can be the same as the main line or could be something like 20 lb fluorocarbon. The fluorocarbon is stiffer and doesn’t tangle as much (dropping a 2-3 oz weight down 30 feet can cause some serious tangles). It is also much more abrasion resistant so when the sturgeon role, their scutes don’t cut your line. The leader length is crucial for sturgeon fishing, as the bait needs to stay in one spot and let a scent trail form so the sturgeon can find it. Too long of a leader and the bait is freely moving around and too short of a leader and your bait gets covered in sediment that gets washed over from the current on the bottom.
With all these components rigged up, your finally ready to get a line in the water. Your going to want to buy a lot of crawlers and a couple dozen minnows, preferably fatheads. My preferred baiting method involves first putting two crawlers on the hook, followed by 3-5 fatheads, followed by one last crawler (note: when putting crawlers on, gob them up to form a “ball”).
Once the boat is in the water, the ideal depth range for the St. Croix is between 30-40 feet of water. Great places to start are any inflows of rivers, streams or flowages coming into the river, which produce an area of warmer water temps where shad and other forage gather. The shad are the primary forage base for the St. Croix, and can be found thick on the sonar in these warmer water areas once the river cools down in the fall. These are spots where the river bottom has a lot of sand dunes formed by the current, which can be seen in some spots on your sonar. These sand dunes catch a lot of food that is floating and settling out of the current as the river flows downstream and hold Sturgeon almost all year. They will cruise in the trough between the dunes eating whatever has settled out of the current (worms, dead fish, frogs, etc). If you can find areas like these, you are bound to cross paths with a Sturgeon at some point, and all of your hard work will pay off. The best time to catch Sturgeon on the St. Croix and the only time you will ever see me out there is after dark, with the best time period falling from 10pm-2am.
Boat position is a key factor in sustaining the best possible presentation, thus using two anchors is highly recommended. Using one anchor on the front and one on the back will minimize any swaying of the boat due to wind, current and wakes from other boats. It is extremely important to keep your bait as still as possible once it is on the bottom, thus any minor boat movements cause your bait to move and that is BAD! It is also important to let your baits sit on the bottom/soak and get a scent trail going before deciding to pull anchor and move to another spot. The minimum amount of time I would give a spot is 30 minutes before moving to a new spot.
Using these previously mentioned presentations and techniques, you should be able to boat your first Minnesota Lake Sturgeon with a little invested time and effort. Every body of water is different and unique in it’s own ways, and it takes everybody an outing or two to get familiar with new waters. Don’t get frustrated if you get skunked your first couple times, as it happened to me, and you just have to use what you learn each time your on the water to make yourself adaptable and a better fisherman.