More than a decade ago, something happened to broaden Brian Klawitter’s passion for catching big catfish on the Mississippi River — he tangled with lake sturgeon, an incredibly ancient fish that is making a modern comeback.

He’s been excited about them ever since.

"If a catfish could jump 4 feet out of a water when they are 65 pounds, that is what a sturgeon does,” said the Wisconsin angler who is known for his ability to catch lake sturgeon. They are the much bigger cousin of the shovelnose sturgeon that also swim in the Mississippi. The Minnesota record for lake sturgeon is 94 pounds; it’s 6 pounds for shovelnose.

Klawitter said there’s another thing — fishing lake sturgeon can be intense. When fishing on the St. Croix River with a friend, they caught 31 in two hours. The biggest was 48 inches, which is only so-so for a sturgeon. “That many fish in short of a period is unheard of,” he said. “The people on the St. Croix, they just went nuts up there.”

At first, when sturgeon take the bait, they often don’t know it, he said. “Then it realizes that it’s hooked and doesn’t want to come your way anymore and the fight is on,” he said. “The rod will bend under the boat and you’ll think you forgot to set the drag because the line is leaving your reel so fast.”

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Once they hit 50 inches, they change “and you may see a torpedo coming straight out of the water” then they dive deep. It’s almost stunning seeing those big ones can do that.

Klawitter, who guided on the river until a few years ago, said he first began catching the ancient fish when he was at Baudette on the U.S.-Canadian border in early spring when walleye fishing had closed. They had a great time “and it just blew up after that.” Over the years, interest in lake sturgeon has grown to the point where the Department of Natural Resources has set seasons to allow for legal fishing for them on U.S. and Wisconsin boundary waters. Anglers are allowed to keep one a year on the Canadian border waters and part of the St. Croix but not the Mississippi; there are size restrictions.

'Success is a little difficult'

Chris Winchester is another angler fascinated with lake sturgeon. At first, he was kind of a loner doing it but not any more, said the manager of 4 Seasons Sports in Red Wing and owner of Evert’s Resort on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi below the Red Wing Dam. “There are definitely more and more people fishing for them,” he said. “They were kind of unknown; they are good for our business.”

“I’ve spread the word so much that I have to quit spreading the word,” Winchester continued. “They are fun to catch. Lots of room to catch them … It’s not for everybody. It’s different equipment, patience. Success is a little difficult.”

Some anglers catch smaller sturgeon when fishing for walleye or sauger but to go after big ones requires heavier tackle, he said.

You would think a 40- or 50-pound fish would slam the bait. Not so, he said. “The bite is very very light, it’s almost like a bluegill on your line,” he said. "It doesn’t matter if they are 5 pounds or 50 pounds, they all bite the same.”

While they stack up below dams in spring and fall, they spread out in summer. Right now, some are below the Red Wing Dam but there are many in Lake Pepin. They do like current but will settle in the main channel of Pepin that usually isn’t all that deep. Right now, Bogus Point, which is a bit down the lake on the Wisconsin side from Lake City, has been good, he said.

Also, Winchester said the fish do like to move around. In fact, a Rochester angler caught a sturgeon of maybe 40-inches below the Lake Zumbro Dam.

Kevin Stauffer was not surprised.

He’s the area Department of Natural Resources fisheries supervisor in Lake City who has been watching the growth in interest in sturgeon grow, and has watched as numbers of sturgeon, young and old, grow. “They move, they are a very mobile fish,” he said.

They are fascinating for a fisheries expert. “They are one of the oldest species, one of the longest-liver species,” he said. “They are an ancient remnant fish.” Sturgeons (there are many species around the world) date back at least 70 million years, he said. They are also one of the most threatened families of fish worldwide, he said.

Lake sturgeon were once very common across Minnesota but the coming of Europeans severely knocked down their numbers by overfishing and pollution, as well as with dams, he said. They were once common on the U.S.-Canadian border but they ripped nets of commercial fishermen so fishermen killed the sturgeon whenever they could. Some frozen fish were used to fuel locomotives, while others were used for field fertilizer.

Of course, water pollution took its toll on them as it did on so many fish species. But they were especially hurt by dams on the Mississippi and smaller rivers, Stauffer said. Sturgeon can swim hundreds of miles, often to get to the best spawning places. But dams either blocked their migration or wiped out spawning beds because dams were often built in places with fast riffles, which is where sturgeon spawn, he said.

Killing them because they broke nets ended long ago and water is so much cleaner than a half century ago. But lake sturgeon have not rebounded quickly, he said. The problem is the females don’t spawn until they are into their 20s and then once every four to seven years, he said. “That is one of the really unique features” about them, he said. “It is a unique lifestyle.”

Because of those factors, “it takes a long time for them to come back,” he said. “It’s that very slow recovery from all of those impacts of 100 years ago.”

'Headed in the right direction'

But they are coming back. In some cases, such as the Red River of the North, they were extirpated, he said, so they had to be restocked. That’s not the best solution because experts don’t know the right genetics for those fish, he said.

In the case of the Mississippi in this region, fisheries officials just let the fish already here, the ones with the right genetics, come back while also trying to protect their habitat. “It really seems like we are headed in the right direction,” he said.

They are actually quite a docile fish when you get them into your boat, he said. They are bottom feeders for the most part, eating invertebrates, mussels and detritus.

Stauffer said he loves seeing what’s happening with the fish. “It’s rewarding to see people appreciate those fish,” he said. “It’s a really neat experience to catch a big ancient fish like that.”

The fish being caught today are far from reaching their potential in weight and length, he said. Anglers will be able to catch bigger and bigger fish for decades to come. “We are going to see some very large fish up here.”

John Weiss has written and reported about Outdoors topics for the Post Bulletin for more than 40 years. He is the author of the book "Backroads: The Best of the Best by Post-Bulletin Columnist John Weiss"

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It's catch-and-release season

The catch-and-release season for lake sturgeon on the Mississippi River below its confluence with the St. Croix south of the Twin Cities opened June 16 and goes until next spring when it closes for spawning. No special tags or stamps are needed. The season for shovelnose sturgeon, the much smaller cousin of lake sturgeon, is continuous below the Red Wing Lock and Dam.

Hints for beginners

Here are a few hints Brian Klawitter gave for beginner lake sturgeon anglers:

If you’re really new, hire a guide. If you go by yourself, you’re going to need a heavy bass rod, or one even stouter, because you might hook a 40-pound fish. Use a heavy reel, such as a Garcia 6500, and nothing lighter than 80-pound line like Power Pro. Hooks should be 4/0 or even 6/0. Sinkers should be the flat no-roll kind. Use the sinker then a swivel and 18-inches of the Power Pro, then the hook. Bait should be cut-up suckers or gobs of nightcrawler; shad work too. When fishing, stay in the deeper water and stay anchored. Windy days are rough because the bait seems to jump around too much. You will need a large net and don’t try to hold them by the gills or hold them vertically. Big ones, properly revived, can be caught again and again for scores of years.