I haven’t had many fun surprises lately. For better or worse, life has been plodding along at its sedated, pandemic pace. Nothing seems to change and there isn’t much to look forward to. Until Thursday, that is.
An invitation came out of the blue from my friend Scott Mackenthun, who is a Fisheries department manager with the Minnesota DNR. He asked if I’d like to go out with him and try to catch lake sturgeon. I’d never caught one before, and wouldn’t have thought that was likely to change. I was intrigued, to say the least.
Now, I’ve known Scott for about a year. He’s a keen outdoorsman and biologist who naturally knows plenty about whatever fish he sets his sights on. He also shares many of my interests, including doing new things and helping other people enjoy outdoor experiences.
So, last night I happily accepted the role of protégé. It would have been foolish to decline his offer. This was the best lead I’d ever had on a lake sturgeon fishing experience, after all. I grabbed three dozen nightcrawlers as directed and met him at the boat ramp at the appointed time.
Not far on our way up the river, Scott took a sudden turn to greet the anglers in a boat he recognized. I understood immediately why he spotted it so quickly from afar- it’s bright yellow. As we pulled up alongside, a fellow named John reported some success at netting shad. Scott was eager to try and collect some for our purposes, so we took a short detour.
On the far side of a large 12-foot flat we found good numbers of shad. Well, we found them on the sonar screen, anyway. Scott tossed his net while I tried to keep the boat over the school. He threw it 8 or 10 times without success. Those shad seemed wise to the game. I, for one, was having a great time watching the process, never having witnessed it in person before. Scott was definitely more disappointed than I was at not having picked up any free bait.
With a few minutes of daylight left, we came within view of the first spot Scott had in mind. John’s banana barge was already parked there, so we anchored about 150 yards away and tossed our lines in.
Before long we were catching up on jobs, family life, and the outdoor industry under constellations, airplanes, and meteors. The wind all but faded away. The scent of driftwood campfires along the riverbanks filled our nostrils. Though the temperature was dropping quickly, my body was relaxing noticeably and shedding the stresses of the week. I didn’t care at all what would happen or not happen; I was already getting what I needed.
After about an hour and a half, John’s boat fired up the motor and headed downstream. There had been no signs of action from them, so it seemed they were doing as well as us. It wasn’t much consolation, of course, but the change prodded us to move on as well.
John’s instincts were apparently similar to Scott’s, and we again played second fiddle at the next spot. Scott positioned the boat at the upstream edge of a dropoff. Hooks and high hopes were cast toward the deep and the waiting resumed. We switched off our headlamps and picked up where we left off- about halfway between our kids and the new world we find ourselves navigating.
A familiar numbness began to grow on my toes, so I poured a mug of coffee. Once or twice Scott shook off the cold and let out an audible shudder. Between the chill and the lack of action, I think we both wondered how long we might be able to keep at it. All that was forgotten when a bell rang out in the dark and John’s boat lit up.
A rod could be made out in a beam of light, bent over like a seven-foot question mark. There was splashing, talking, and the flash from a cell phone camera. Once or twice more in the next hour or so, they confirmed in the same way that there were indeed fish in the area…just not our area. We took it as a good sign and renewed our commitment to the mission. I did what I could to reinvigorate my enthusiasm by imagining lumbering behemoths slurping up our nightcrawlers.
Lake sturgeon persist in Minnesota mostly in the bigger rivers, like the St. Croix, Mississippi, and Rainy. They cruise the depths, locating food with keen, albeit ancient senses. It is well known that they are an old fish species, dating back literally hundreds of millions of years. Their shark-like caudal fins and armored appearance harken back to a darker, more brutal age. They are survivors. As with crocodiles, their longevity on this earth testifies to the fact that good engineering isn’t necessarily pretty.
As the hands of the clock swept past midnight, I began to make peace with a fishless outing. All at once, Scott detected a bite. Then he second-guessed himself.
“No, it’s there. Here, take it.”
It didn’t put up too much of a fight, but then again, my first lake sturgeon was not a giant. After the release, Scott estimated its length at around 30 inches. We both forgot to take a measurement- something that would have been unforgivable with a 60+ inch specimen. But it did happen; I have pictures and a little video footage to prove it.
Knowing its exact size seems hardly important, compared to having the chance to reach out and touch the Triassic.
Fish photos by Scott Mackenthun.