DNR proposes catch-and-release sturgeon season

St. Paul — The statewide catch-and-release season for sturgeon that’s been talked about for the past couple of years is a step closer to fruition.

The proposed season, which would not affect existing lake sturgeon seasons on the Rainy and Lower St. Croix rivers, is among several rule changes that could go into effect next year.

Henry Drewes, DNR regional fisheries manager based in Bemidji, said that while all of the state’s lake sturgeon populations are still at some level of recovery, the fishery has improved statewide to the point that it can withstand such a season.

The season would remain closed during the spring spawning period, from April 15 to June 15.

Drewes pointed to the improved status for the species throughout the state: in the St. Croix River and its tributaries, in the Red River, where catfish anglers frequently catch them, in the St. Louis River, and on the Otter Tail River system, including Otter Tail Lake, where DNR began stocking the fish in 1997.

Drewes said a group of DNR biologists from around the state was put together and asked if it was an appropriate time to consider such a season.

“They internally said now would be a perfectly appropriate time for a catch-and-release season,” Drewes said.

Drewes said the DNR also consulted with its tribal counterparts, who agreed to the season since there was no harvest of fish.

The proposed season would also include shovelnose sturgeon. That species’ population on the Minnesota River is doing well, according to Jack Lauer,  DNR southern region fisheries manager.

“We are seeing more of them today than we ever have,” Lauer said, mentioning that a new lake sturgeon stocking effort is in the works on Big Stone Lake, which the Minnesota flows through.

But shovelnose sturgeon fishing has been limited to a season on the Mississippi River, from the Red Wing dam to the Iowa border.

“All of the populations are in restoration mode, but we are advanced enough in those efforts that people are encountering them on a regular basis,” Drewes said.

Al Stevens, who coordinates DNR fishing regulations, said lake sturgeon, save for the Canada border waters and the St. Croix River from Taylors Falls down to its mouth on the Mississippi River, were closed in 1997.

Worldwide, sturgeon have been imperiled by dams, which block their passage to spawning grounds, pollution, and overfishing, and the statewide lake sturgeon season was largely closed until 1947, when the St. Croix River was opened (tributaries to the St. Croix were opened in 1951), according to Stevens.

“It was pretty close to being an endangered species,” Drewes said. “Having any species of a fish in that low of an abundance, those were very appropriate regulations. You put everything you can into protecting them.”

Thankfully, sturgeon populations statewide are heading in the right direction, Drewes said.

Dave Thompson, of Fisherman’s Village Resort on Deer Lake on the Otter Tail River system, said his customers started catching lake sturgeon about eight years ago while walleye fishing.

Some of his customers had started catching the fish so frequently that he worried they could be ticketed for targeting them in a closed season, so he reached out to the DNR a few years ago and was happy to learn a catch-and-release season was being kicked around.

“This is exciting stuff,” Thompson said. “They are beautiful fish. This way, if folks catch them, we can do a better job of having folks handle them.”

Drewes said sturgeon are fairly hardy fish that can withstand being handled, especially if it is done properly.

But since the species has largely been off-limits, few people know proper handling techniques, which include keeping hands away from their gills.

This new season should bring more awareness to the species and perhaps spark conservation efforts among sportsmen groups.

“I believe we will build up the number of people that are interested in lake sturgeon and the conservation of that stock (by having more people exposed to them),” Drewes said.

Thompson said the DNR deserves credit for its success in bringing back the long-lived species.

That sentiment was echoed by Lakeland’s Brian Klawitter, a catfish and sturgeon fishing guide, who fishes the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers.

Klawitter also serves on the DNR working group for catfish.

“People need to get out and try it,” Klawitter said. “It’s the state’s biggest fish and you don’t have to go to the ocean. It’s right in your backyard. Once you experience it once, you’re usually hooked.”

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