More research underway to determine current status
The recovery of lake sturgeon on Lake of the Woods and the Rainy River is a true success story that dates back to the enactment of the Clean Water Act passed in 1972, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
“This is really something special for anglers in the spring season and throughout the latter half of the summer,” said Henry Drewes, DNR northwest region fisheries manager. “It represents a truly unique opportunity for Minnesota anglers to catch a fish upwards of 100 pounds.”
Since the early 1980s, fisheries biologists in Minnesota and Canada have engaged in research and management of the fisheries resources along the U.S.-Canada border. Cooperatively, the Border Waters Lake Sturgeon Committee drafted short- and long-term goals for the lake sturgeon population. The underlying objective was to re-establish and then maintain a self-sustaining lake sturgeon stock in all suitable habitats within the Minnesota–Ontario border waters.
In 2012, Minnesota and Canadian fisheries biologists celebrated a major milestone in the recovery efforts of the lake sturgeon population on Lake of the Woods and the Rainy River when short-term population recovery goals were met.
“Interest in this unique fishery has increased dramatically in the past 20 years,” said Kevin Peterson, DNR area fisheries supervisor in International Falls. “The fact that the sturgeon population has continued to expand both in numbers as well as size and age distribution under ever increasing angling pressure is a real credit to those who worked together to bring about this recovery.”
Sturgeon, one of the oldest species of fish in existence, grow larger and live longer than any other North American freshwater fish. With few natural predators besides humans, these fish can live 150 years and reach 400 pounds. They spend their lives at the bottom of lakes and rivers, stirring sediment with their long, rubbery snouts and taking in crayfish, nymphs and other small aquatic animals with their sucker-like mouths.
The abundance of sturgeon and a lack of fishing regulation led to heavy exploitation when European settlers arrived in the area in the 1800s. On Lake of the Woods and the Rainy River, where sturgeon were fished heavily, the annual commercial harvest reached nearly 2 million pounds between 1883 and 1893.
Like most long-lived species, sturgeon mature slowly and reproduce infrequently. The population couldn’t reproduce fast enough to sustain the harvest, and it crashed before 1900.
With recovery efforts and careful management, Peterson and his counterpart, Phil Talmage, DNR area fisheries supervisor in Baudette, now report seeing bigger fish every year. Both know from past history that these waters are capable of producing some real behemoths as long as they protect their habitat and let them live long enough.
Still, while sturgeon fishing is better than anyone could have expected, the population remains in recovery mode. Continued monitoring and management is needed and described in management plans for the system.
Recently, fisheries biologists began a research project on Lake of the Woods and the Rainy River to obtain current information on the abundance and size structure of the lake sturgeon population in the system. Previous estimates of the population size and size structure were obtained in 1988 and 2004. Those estimates showed an increasing population and an expanded size structure with larger lake sturgeon.
STURGEON STUDY UNDERWAY
In mid-April, in cooperation with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and the Rainy River First Nation, DNR fisheries biologists began setting nets to capture and tag lake sturgeon. The study area consists of all 82 river miles of the Rainy River below the International Falls Dam, Fourmile Bay, and a large portion of Big Traverse Bay and the Inside Channel located on the southeastern part of Lake of the Woods. The tagging effort includes help from anglers that are targeting lake sturgeon within the study area.
“Anglers who catch a lake sturgeon can voluntarily participate in the study by allowing DNR staff (in boats) to take the fish, tag it and release it,” said Talmage. “These folks can be a valuable part of our research efforts.”
Tagging will end mid-May. In mid-June through July, lake sturgeon will be recaptured in gill nets placed at randomly determined sites within the study area. During the recovery phase, a ratio of tagged to untagged lake sturgeon will be obtained. This ratio is then used to estimate the number of lake sturgeon within the study area.
Lake sturgeon fishing regulations for 2014 on the Minnesota side of Lake of the Woods and the Rainy River allow anglers to purchase a lake sturgeon harvest tag that allows them to harvest one lake sturgeon between 45 and 50 inches or one more than 75 inches, per calendar year.
Immediately after harvesting a lake sturgeon, the tag must be validated and attached to the fish. The angler must mail in the registration slip within 48 hours of harvesting a lake sturgeon. Party fishing for lake sturgeon is illegal. Gaffs may not be used to assist in landing lake sturgeon. Anglers may not target or harvest lake sturgeon from the Ontario waters of Lake of the Woods and Rainy River.
The spring harvest season on the Rainy River runs April 24 to May 7. From May 8 to May 15, anglers can fish for lake sturgeon, but must release all fish they catch. The fishing season for lake sturgeon is closed May 16 to June 30. There is a second harvest season that runs July 1 to Sept. 30. Anglers can catch and release lake sturgeon any time, except May 16 to June 30 when the season is closed to protect spawning fish.