For women only: Sturgeon trip proves to be a memorable adventure for mother, daughter

BAUDETTE, Minn. -- Cheri and Madelyn Petersen had done "a little bit" of fishing, including a charter boat trip for salmon on Lake Michigan, but they'd never tangled with anything like the behemoth that now was sending large bubbles to the surfac...

Cheri and Madelyn Petersen
FNS Photo by Brad Dokken Volunteer guide Jon Frees of Bemidji, Minn., has an easy job April 27 as he watches Cheri Petersen, left, and her daughter, Madelyn, each battle sturgeon. The mother and daughter from Webster, Minn., landed seven sturgeon during the first day of the two-day Becoming an Outdoors Woman event on the Rainy River near Baudette, Minn.

BAUDETTE, Minn. -- Cheri and Madelyn Petersen had done "a little bit" of fishing, including a charter boat trip for salmon on Lake Michigan, but they'd never tangled with anything like the behemoth that now was sending large bubbles to the surface from the murky depths of the Rainy River.

The fish, a lake sturgeon, was giving Cheri and her daughter, Madelyn, 14, everything they could handle, and they took turns at the reel. Not only to give their sore arms a break, but to share in a moment the likes of which neither of them had ever experienced.

Time tends to lose context when a big fish is on the line, but the battle goes on for 20 minutes, maybe more. Finally, it's at the surface, and the sturgeon without question is the largest fish they've ever seen up close.

A scoop of the big landing net and it's in the boat, 60 inches of prehistoric power.

"This is why we came -- right here," Cheri said. "That was incredible. That's a monster."


A 22-year police officer for the Minneapolis Police Department, Cheri and her daughter were fishing with volunteer guide Jon Frees of Bemidji as part of the sixth annual Becoming an Outdoors Woman sturgeon fishing trip last weekend on the Rainy River. The popular event, which paired 12 women with six volunteer guides, is one of about 50 outdoors events the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources offers annually through its BOW program.

Watching the mom and daughter from Webster, Minn., play and land a 60-inch fish, it's easy to see why the BOW sturgeon trip fills to capacity every spring.

Frees, who has volunteered all six years, said the fish was the biggest to come into his boat for a BOW sturgeon event; the previous best was "only" 57 inches.

"We've got a team record -- 60 inches with a 26½-inch girth," he said. Using a chart provided by the DNR, Frees estimates the sturgeon at 62 pounds and 30 years old.

The sturgeon is released after a few quick photos, perhaps to live 100 years or more.


"We can't even get our hooks baited because we're so worn out," Cheri said. "That's the longest I've fought a fish for sure."

Boats by the dozen


Springtime is prime time for sturgeon fishing, and dozens, perhaps hundreds, of boats dotted the Rainy River on April 27 in hopes of doing battle with one of the brutes.

For the first time in months, the temperature last weekend passed 60 degrees in the border country, and while Lake of the Woods remained frozen, the Rainy River was open except for small sheets of ice along the shoreline.

Gulls and pelicans filled the sky, seemingly glad to be home after a much-too-long winter, and the raucous honking of Canada geese echoed across the water in a constant din.

After a slow morning of watching other boats catch fish, Cheri and Madelyn got their time in the spotlight after lunch. The key, Frees said, was finding a place to anchor out of the wind, a stiff southeast blow that rocked long stretches of river, making bites difficult to detect.

Lake sturgeon can grow to weigh 100 pounds and more, but they often act like little perch when they peck at the crawlers most anglers use for bait.

"It's surprising for such a big fish how light they bite," Frees said. "They're just little nibblers.

"Sometimes, it's just a matter of waiting them out. You could sit two or three hours, and all of a sudden, all of the rods are going."

That was the case last Saturday; Cheri and Madelyn landed seven sturgeon after lunch and lost a couple of others, including one that would have given the 60-incher a run for bragging rights on the day.


"At least we got to fight him, and that's the exciting part with these guys," Cheri said.

They even had a "double," one a 46-inch sturgeon that had been tagged three years earlier in Four-Mile Bay of Lake of the Woods, about five miles downriver.

About BOW

According to Linda Bylander, Becoming an Outdoors Woman coordinator for the DNR, the goal of the program is to provide women with outdoor skills in a relaxing, non-intimidating environment. Minnesota is one of 44 states, including North Dakota, to offer Becoming an Outdoors Woman programs.

The BOW program started in 1991 when Christine Thomas of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point decided to find out why women were so underrepresented in hunting and fishing.

Ideally, Bylander said, women will become proficient enough in a particular outdoor skill to venture out and enjoy it on their own. Minnesota's BOW program will mark its 20th anniversary next year.

"Typically, we get a lot of women in their 40s and 50s," Bylander said -- women who want to try something new after their kids grow up and leave home. "We've been growing every year. We're one of the largest programs in the nation."

Mike Larson, a retired DNR fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Baudette, said he got the idea for a women's-only sturgeon trip after Bylander gave a presentation at a fall managers' meeting.


"I said, 'What the heck -- let's do a sturgeon trip,' " Larson said. "We did the next spring, and it filled up right away."

Frees, a retired lineman for Otter Tail Power Co., was among the volunteers Larson recruited to guide. Not that his arm had to be twisted; the pair grew up together near Fergus Falls, Minn., and they're longtime fishing buddies.

"When Mike started this up, he was looking for people to fish, and here I am," Frees, 60, said. "It's a good way to break up those winter blahs."

Learning the ropes

Cheri Petersen said she learned about the BOW sturgeon trip last year through a mailing from the DNR, but Madelyn wasn't yet 14, the minimum age to participate. She said the whole family, including her husband, Lawrence, and son, Alex, got on the list after signing up for a Becoming an Outdoors Family program a few years ago near Lanesboro, Minn.

"We tried fly fishing, which was a disaster," Cheri said. "It was really windy that day." Still, she said, they had a good time with other events such as a high-ropes course and a hike to identify flora and fauna.

"They conquered their fear of heights on the high ropes," said Cheri, who signed up for this year's sturgeon trip as soon as she got the information.

"I told a couple of the guys I work with I was coming up here fishing, and they were thinking about shaving and putting on wigs and seeing if they could get in," she joked.


That probably wouldn't have worked, but if last weekend is any indication, there's a good chance mom and daughter will make the trek north again next year.

"I was kind of worried after the morning," Cheri said later. "But it was an awesome afternoon.

"Madelyn told her dad it was the best fishing trip she's ever been on. And it was so cool to see the fish that was tagged."

Oh yeah, and one more thing, she admitted:

"I think we were kind of worn out by the time we brought the last fish in," Cheri said.

That's the mark of a good day of sturgeon fishing -- for beginners and experts alike.

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