Lake of the Woods/Rainy River sturgeon population just keeps getting better

The DNR has been collecting information from lake sturgeon in the Rainy River and Lake of the woods for years. This photo was taken during the 2005 sturgeon season. (Photo by Joe Albert)

Since April 2005, I’ve had every intention of heading north to the Rainy River and Lake of the Woods for the spring sturgeon-fishing season. That year, I drove up for a day and joined a DNR fisheries crew from Baudette as they tagged sturgeon.

Some of the fish had been caught in survey nets. Others were fish that anglers had caught. It was a simple process, really: We’d watch the fishermen in nearby boats, and when they landed a fish, we’d motor up to them and ask to tag it and measure it and the like.

I was simply an observer, of course, but watching fishermen with relatively simple gear catching those big fish made me want to do the same thing. Someday, I will. But for a variety of reasons, it hasn’t happened yet. Which is OK, because the Rainy River and Lake of the Woods sturgeon population is only getting better.

Sturgeon are slow-growing fish, and it’s estimated some of the fish anglers catch today are older than 50 years. (Photo by Joe Albert)

Once nearly extirpated because of dirty water and overfishing, an intensive effort to restore the fish has borne fruit. Consider that in about 1990, the DNR estimated there were 16,000 sturgeon 40 inches or longer. By the early 2000s, the number of fish that large had increased to 59,000. And in 2014, it was up to 92,000, according to Tom Heinrich, DNR large lake specialist for Lake of the Woods.

A big part of the restoration has been regulations designed specifically to protect the slow-growing fish. This year, for example, there’s a harvest season from April 24 to May 7. From May 8-15, catch-and-release is allowed. The season is closed May 16 to June 30. There’s another harvest season from July 1 to Sept. 30, and then it’s catch-and-release only through April 23, 2018. Additionally, anglers may harvest only one sturgeon per calendar year – and it must be 45 to 50 inches, or longer than 75 inches.

“They’re pretty vulnerable to overharvest,” Heinrich said. “That’s why we have some fairly restrictive harvest regulations on them.”

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