Wisconsin’s lake sturgeon season opened yesterday, and will run through the end of September.
Harvest limit is one fish per year, minimum size of 60 inches and purchase of a tag required prior to killing a fish that is probably older than you are.
Details of my first overnight fishing trip in pursuit of this prehistoric monster are a little fuzzy after 60 years, but a few details of this outing with Dad, Uncle Bud and cousin Jimmy remain vivid today.
These highlights include: being fed all the hamburgers and A&W root beer that an 8-year-old could possibly consume—and then puking all stomach contents up on two beds at a small cabin hours later; heavy rain, which put a fish hook in Jimmy’s back when we piled into Dad’s ’55 Chevy to avoid it, a campfire on a sandy beach near the Dells, and an armor-plated fish Uncle Bud caught, which pretty much filled the cavernous trunk of Dad’s big, white Chevy.
Rules mean little to an 8-year-old kid. Harvest tags, length limits, designated waters and other parameters might not have even been a factor back then. But I do remember Dad and Uncle Bud drinking as many real beers as I gulped A&W’s and the sturgeon that was even longer than Bud was tall. Years later, I realized my uncle was a short, skinny man—but the sturgeon was still a helluva big fish.
Sturgeon fishing, like catching a muskie, is a rite of passage in Wisconsin. With just more than three weeks, seven rivers and a couple of lakes where you can fish for lake sturgeon with a hook-and-line, the time for checking this adventure off the bucket list is short—especially when you bring a kid.
Parts of the Chippewa, Flambeau, Wisconsin, Jump and Yellow rivers are the only inland rivers where sturgeon fishing is allowed. The St. Croix and Menominee rivers are boundary waters with other states that are also open.
There is no limit on the number of lake sturgeon that can be caught and released on these waters, but if you want to kill one a prerequisite tag costs $20 for residents and $50 for non-residents.
The philosophy of “catch and release” holds considerable irony. The sturgeons get a vote, too. They are never keen on that “catch” part of the equation.
Combat with these fish is pretty much straightforward: the angler sets the hook and a fish which can exceed 50 pounds heads straight down the river, with little heed to the small hook in the round vacuum-cleaner mouth protruding from the bottom of the fish’s head.
Fishing tactics and gear are also simple and straightforward. The basic 9-foot muskie rod designed for pitching bucktails with a bait-clicker equipped reel are ideal. Terminal tackle consists of 1/3-ounce pyramid sinkers, barrel swivels and No. 6 salt-water hooks configured in a basic Lindy rig with the sinker above one end of the barrel swivel with an 18-inch leader and hook on the other end.
Two nightcrawlers impaled multiple times on that heavy No. 6 hook and a liberal splash of anise scent complete tackle requirements. The only thing remaining is tight-lining the bait on the upstream edge of a deep river hole when the sun goes down with the rod in a sturdy forked stick and the reel’s clicker feature engaged.
Sturgeon often feed in small schools, moving upstream on the river bottom with sensitive barbells under the sturgeon’s snout “sniffing” for anything which might be food. Anise scent leaves a trail in the water akin to fresh popcorn or cookies emanating from the kitchen.
Sturgeon just slurp in the bait and keep heading down the track like that midnight train to Georgia: whoo whoo. If your gear and will manage to derail the beast, it might take an hour before it is laying at your feet.
Female lake sturgeons are larger than male counterparts. It takes about 15 years for these fish to reach sexual maturity. Any sturgeon over 4 feet long is almost certainly a female.
Once females reach sexual maturity, growth rate is individual. Lake sturgeon in Wisconsin can grow to over seven feet in length, with some specimens living over a century.
If Uncle Bud hadn’t killed that sturgeon back in 1960, it might still be around to offer thrills today.
Only a handful of fish species live past age 20 in Wisconsin. Regardless of what you catch, you hold the future of fishing in your hands every single time.