GRAND FORKS — The yellow tag was barely visible, covered with the kind of crud that accumulates over time when it’s fastened to a fish that spends much of its life cruising the bottom of a lake or river.
If not for the keen eye of a fishing buddy, who noticed the strand of wire that connected the tag to the tough skin near the fish’s dorsal fin, we might have missed it completely.
It was Saturday, April 17, and two friends and I were winding down an afternoon of lake sturgeon fishing on the Rainy River near Baudette, Minn. Conditions were far from ideal; the river was high and fast, and instead of its normal root beer-like color, the water looked more like chocolate milk with about the same amount of clarity.
Still, the sun was shining, the wind was tolerable, and we’d already managed to put two sturgeon in the boat, including the 60-incher a friend caught that was his new personal best. Anytime you catch a new “PB,” as they’re called in fishing-speak, life is pretty good in my world.
The sturgeon I hooked, just minutes before we had planned to pull anchor and call it an afternoon well-spent, was a bonus.
Scraping away the crud that had accumulated on the tag revealed five numbers — 98 867 — which soon would shed light on part of the life story of this prehistoric-looking fish that had stopped by to make an enjoyable afternoon on the water even better.
The tag didn’t come as a complete surprise. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has been tagging sturgeon in the Rainy River and Lake of the Woods for more than two decades as part of a project to assess populations of the fish and their ongoing recovery. I’ve written several stories about the tagging project over the years and even contributed a few fish for tagging when DNR fisheries crews would cruise among the anglers fishing Four-Mile Bay at the mouth of the Rainy River and tag sturgeon every April, when sturgeon fishing is at its most popular.
That being said, catching a tagged fish, whether sturgeon or any other species, is always a treat.
The DNR fisheries office in Baudette keeps a database of the sturgeon it tags, and so I sent off an email with the tag number and the length of the fish, which we measured at 56 inches before returning it to the river.
Brett Nelson, the DNR’s large lake specialist in Baudette, emailed information on April 19.
The sturgeon I caught had been tagged April 28, 2015, on the Rapid River, a Rainy River tributary near Clementson, Minn., about 13 miles upstream from where I caught the fish nearly six years later.
The sturgeon was 52.8 inches long at the time it was tagged, so it had grown just over 3 inches. Whether the sturgeon has inhabited the same stretch of river since it was tagged is anyone’s guess, but since sturgeon will spawn later this spring, chances are it was heading back to the mouth of the Rapid River, which is a known spawning area for lake sturgeon.
Based on the tag information, I was the first angler to report catching the sturgeon since it was tagged, and the fish now is about 30 years old, give or take.
“Unfortunately, it’s somewhat uneventful in terms of its history, but hey, (we) have to start building it somewhere,” Nelson wrote in his email.
As with every tag return the DNR receives, the report also included several bits of history about lake sturgeon, the DNR’s tagging program and the status of the species’ recovery in Lake of the Woods and Rainy River. Some highlights:
- Intense commercial exploitation during the late 1800s and early 1900s decimated the once abundant sturgeon population. After the decline of the commercial fishery, the sturgeon population was unable to rebound due to water pollution in the Rainy River, the primary spawning area. Water pollution prevented the sturgeon from spawning successfully most years, however sturgeon are an extremely long-lived species. Enough individuals managed to survive and reproduction was enough to maintain a small population.
- With the passage of the Clean Water Act and its amendments in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the sturgeon population started to grow, and reproduction is now successful in most years. The tagging program is one part of the DNR’s effort to monitor sturgeon as the population recovers.
- As of Monday, April 19, the DNR has tagged 9,600 lake sturgeon. The longest sturgeon tagged was 72 inches long, but weight was not recorded for this fish. This fish was tagged on the Rapid River, near Clementson, in 2014.
- The heaviest sturgeon the DNR has tagged and weighed was 98 pounds and was 68.5 inches long. This fish came from the Rapid River in 2019.
- The largest sturgeon the DNR has sampled was caught off of Pine Island on Lake of the Woods in September 2007. The fish was 73 inches long and estimated to weigh 120 pounds. Unfortunately, the DNR wasn’t set up to tag the fish, so it was released without a tag.
- In the Lake of the Woods-Rainy River system, male lake sturgeon begin to reproduce when they reach 17 years of age, while female sturgeon do not mature until they are about 26 years old. After maturing, males spawn only every two to three years while females seem to spawn every three to six years.
- Of all the DNR’s tagged lake sturgeon, 1,940 have been caught and reported one time, 546 have been reported twice, and 208 have been reported three times. The “champion” sturgeon is a fish that has been reported 10 times. Overall, 2,829 of the DNR’s tagged sturgeon have been caught and reported at least one time.