By Nick Simonson
As with all rivers, the flow, action and environment can change from day to day. The Rainy River, which drains the lake of the same name, along with dozens of tributary rivers and creeks, down an 85 mile stretch of the Minnesota-Canada border to Lake of the Woods, is no different. On our second day, that fact was more than evident as branches, stumps and even a few large deadheads which were infrequent the day before bobbed and rolled their way with regularity toward the lake a mile down from us, where we were held in place over the last large hole by the wobbling anchor rope that hummed in the current.
The day dawned in brilliant pink-and-orange, hemmed in by a cloudbank that split the sky in half and held on to night’s deep purple overhead. Conditions, save for the increase in floating debris and that other jetsam which went undetected beneath us, were as good as one could hope for with light breezes. We cast our offerings of nightcrawlers out behind five-ounce sinkers to the back rim of the deep scour in hopes of connecting with the sturgeon success we had experienced the day before.
In the first few quiet hours, my friend Tory, his son, Gavin, and I would lift our rods frequently to steer our lines around the floating timber or reel up to remove the grass and reed fragments which piled up around our weights. Occasionally, while watching an adjacent boat fight a fish, or while drifting off on some random thought in the cool spring sunlight, we’d lose track and a rod would jump wildly, catching our attention that a wooden torpedo had bumped it. It wasn’t much to lift the line up or slowly drag the wood through the current to get it to pop loose at an angle, but it did provide a challenge added from the day before.
Turning away from an angler’s fight in a boat to our right, I saw my rod jump and shake and I looked downstream to see an eight-foot log pulling on the line. I lifted up and turned the timber at an angle to the flow and the braided tether slid off the soft wood with a little effort. As the debris came loose, I felt the line jump again as I reeled in the slack and it remained as tight and electric as if I hadn’t pulled it from the obstruction. Confused, I debated with my boatmates as to whether another log had caught my line, or if it was a fish. As I pulled back to solve the mystery, the suspected deadhead below turned out to be something very much alive, as it greeted me with two pulls of its own.
I confirmed it was a fish, and Tory and Gavin set about bringing in the other rods as I caught up to the sturgeon that had settled in just below the back of the boat. Like a metronome, it moved between the port and starboard corners with rhythmic regularity, and I steered my line around the pieces of wood that had wedged between the hull and the prop and worked the fish toward the surface.
Upon breaching, I noted the deep gray sturgeon with the healthy shoulders could very well be my biggest ever, before the beast took back every inch of line it had given me and descended the thirty feet to the river bottom in just a matter of seconds. As I worked to regain the line, Tory deployed the net and stood at the ready and the fish came up after a few more hard-fought minutes of cranking and lifting. The fish stalled on the surface and he slowly swept after it, and as the sturgeon’s tail touched the mesh, it shot forward and dove down, away from the metal rim and black fabric. Again, I brought the sturgeon back up and Tory attempted to land it. The net appeared to get smaller as the fish rolled and thrashed, caught its bearings and disappeared in the chocolate water over and over.
“Land it tail first,” came a shout from a nearby boat, to which my netman responded that he was trying, and that the length of the fish was too great for the depth of the mesh basket.
After a quick debate and a few more attempts to stick five feet of fish in a four-foot hole, Tory got grabbed the beast by hand at boatside, wrapping his two-handed grip around the back of its head and lifting it up and out of the water. For all the difficulty of trying to get the sturgeon in the net, he made the process of moving nearly forty pounds of fish from look almost easy as it slid up and over the side of the boat and into the hull.
We stood over it for a second, smiling and shaking, before I set to work on the hook locked firmly in the corner of its rubbery mouth, a testament to the holding power of the barbed circle with the connection having endured so many attempts to get the fish. After a few quick photos the sturgeon measured out at 58 inches in length – a personal best – and was released, serving as a reminder that next season’s net will be twice as deep. With the lessons learned, and a slower afternoon in the spring sunshine to cap our trip, we wrapped our sturgeon adventure and logged the first of what will hopefully be many exciting returns to the Rainy River in the seasons to come…in our outdoors.