Minnesota woman signs up for ‘Her Wilderness’ catfishing event, catches 56-inch sturgeon

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The fish didn’t seem like anything special, at first, Wade Anderson recalls – not like the battles for which big Red River catfish are known – but that would soon change.

A longtime Red River catfish enthusiast, Anderson, of East Grand Forks, was hosting Andrea Charlebois of East Grand Forks and Barb Kueber of Grand Forks on Saturday, May 18, for a women’s catfishing event sponsored by the “Her Wilderness” organization.

The event paired a half-dozen women with three volunteer guides – Anderson, Jim Sandbeck and Rob Raymond – for a day of catfishing on the Red River.

Set up near shore on the North Dakota side of the Red River downstream from Riverside Dam, Anderson and his two fishing partners were anchored on a 6-foot shelf that quickly dropped into deeper water when the tell-tale sound of the clicker on the baitcast reel hinted at a bite.

It was about 11:15 a.m., and the day was young.

The fish, which was nibbling on a chunk of cut sucker, took some line, and Anderson picked up the rod and set the hook before handing the rig off to Charlebois.

“She started reeling and she had made the comment, ‘Oh, this is coming in pretty easy,’ ” Anderson said. “It was obviously swimming toward us.”

A couple of minutes into the battle, the fish put on the brakes about 20 yards behind the boat.

“It was pulling, it was pulling and all of a sudden, it kind of let up,” Charlebois said. “And I’m like, ‘Oh man, it got off.’ ”

That’s when the fish launched itself out of the water.

“Wade was standing next to me, and the fish jumped out of the water,” Charlebois said. “The entire body came out and Wade and I just looked at each other, and we both yelled, ‘It’s a … sturgeon!’ ”

A fishing first

In all of his years of fishing the Red River, Anderson says he’d never seen anything like it.

“When it launched itself out of the water and we got to look at that torpedo head with the big sucker stingray mouth at the bottom, it was like, ‘Holy cow!’ ” Anderson said. “To see that was unexpected and really cool. That image will be burned into my brain forever.

“It was awesome.”

In the way lake sturgeon usually do, the fish then dived back to the depths. That kicked the excitement level up even further. Nothing was more important than landing that fish.

“The panic level kind of set in, and Wade’s coaching – ‘All right, take it easy, take it easy, slow down, don’t horse it, breathe, you’ve got this,’ ” Charlebois said. “He was coaching me the whole time. We were both like, ‘This fish is huge, this is a big moment.’

“You just see that white belly and that mouth, and you know immediately what it was and then it became, like, high level, heart racing and intensity. ‘Keep this on the line, and don’t mess this up.’ ”

Life tends to become a blur when there’s a big fish at the end of the line, but Charlebois figures she battled the sturgeon for about 20 minutes before getting it to the boat.

That presented yet another dilemma.

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“He gets his net out, and you could just see with the fish, that (net) definitely is not big enough,” Charlebois said.

It took two or three attempts, she says, but Anderson was eventually able to finesse the sturgeon into the landing net.

“It came to the boat, and then it tried to swim past the boat, and she did a good job of controlling it and fighting with it,” Anderson said. “I was just glad when it broke the surface and I got the head in there, and I’m like, ‘come on tail, come on tail’ (fit in the net).”

He laughs at the memory.

“I just shimmied and wiggled the net a little bit, and finally (the sturgeon) all went in there, and I was able to pull it into the boat,” Anderson said.

Too big for the board

Like the net, the “bump board” Anderson keeps in his boat for measuring fish – which goes up to 44 inches – wasn’t big enough to accommodate the length of the sturgeon. They improvised by finding a piece of rope and measuring the distance between the end of the bump board and the tip of the sturgeon’s tail, Charlebois says.

As best as they could tell, the sturgeon measured at least 56 inches, she says.

The look on her face pretty much says it all as Andrea Charlebois of East Grand Forks struggles to control the 56-inch lake sturgeon she caught Saturday, May 18, 2024, on the Red River near Grand Forks while participating in the Her Wilderness women’s fishing event. (Courtesy of Andrea Charlebois)

“It’s not 100% accurate,” she said. “Maybe it was 56½, maybe it was 57. But with our limited resources, we were pretty confident with at least 56.”

In their excitement to snap a few photos and get the sturgeon back in the river, they neglected to get a girth on the fish. But based on the girth of channel catfish he’s caught over the years, the sturgeon “was all of 24 inches around,” Anderson says, and maybe closer to 26 inches.

That would put the estimated weight of the sturgeon in the range of 48 to 53 pounds, based on a length-girth table the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has on its website.

It was her first sturgeon ever and her biggest fish ever, Charlebois says, easily topping the 42-inch northern pike she caught several years ago while ice fishing on the English Coulee diversion ponds southwest of Grand Forks.

“We were on Cloud 9 for the rest of the day,” Charlebois said. “We were just like, ‘I can’t believe that just happened.’ It was just great, and it was a team effort, that’s for sure.

“I said, ‘Barb, you’ve got the fish for the rest of the day. I’m done.’ ”

Red River rebound

Reports of lake sturgeon catches are becoming more common on the Red River and throughout the Red River Basin. Native to the Red River, lake sturgeon were all but wiped out by the early 1900s, the result of habitat degradation, excessive harvest and the construction of low head dams that blocked access to crucial spawning areas.

That began to change in the late 1990s, when the DNR, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and tribal partners from the White Earth and Red Lake nations began partnering on efforts to restore the species to the Red River Basin.

Through regular stocking and efforts to “reconnect the Red” by replacing low-head dams with rock-riffle structures that accommodate fish passage while still holding back water for human use, sturgeon populations throughout the Red River Basin are on the rebound. The DNR in 2022 documented lake sturgeon spawning in the Upper Otter Tail River – a Red River tributary – for the first time in more than a century.

After a few quick photos, Andrea Charlebois of East Grand Forks releases the unexpected lake sturgeon she caught Saturday, May 18, 2024, while fishing for catfish during the Her Wilderness women’s fishing event on the Red River. (Courtesy of Andrea Charlebois)

Reports of catches such as the sturgeon Charlebois landed show the effort is working, said Nick Kludt, Red River specialist for the DNR in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. Kludt figures the sturgeon Charlebois caught was stocked as a fingerling in the early 2000s, since it didn’t have a tag like the “few hundred” juvenile and adult lake sturgeon stocked in the Red River Basin in the late 1990s.

Kludt says he gets a “handful” of reports every year from anglers who catch lake sturgeon on the Red River or its tributaries; no doubt plenty of others go unreported.

“It’s usually less than half a dozen, and it’s usually coming from folks who are excited about catching one and want to learn more about that fish being there,” Kludt said. “Because, any time you’re catching something that large and you maybe weren’t aware that the species is in the river, that kind of inspires some curiosity of, ‘I didn’t know about this. Can I learn more?’ ”

The sturgeon Charlebois caught is “definitely in the upper tier” of sturgeon that have been caught on the mainstem Red River, he says. The continuing recovery of the lake sturgeon population in the Red River Basin is cause for celebration, Kludt says.

“Every spring when we’re doing the monitoring assessments, it basically turns into an episode of why life is worth living,” he said. “For the fish biologist community, we’re all out there, and we’re just giddy. It’s really a lot of fun.”

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Ultimately, Kludt says, he’d like to see the lake sturgeon population in the Red River Basin grow to the point where a limited harvest season – similar to the season the DNR offers on the U.S. side of Lake of the Woods and Rainy River – could be considered.

“Then it becomes just commonplace, that people expect to go out and target sturgeon,” Kludt said. ”That’s kind of the eventual goal of this whole restoration program is to restore that resource for recreational use, as well as, of course, the biological benefits.”

For Charlebois, catching the biggest fish of her life just minutes from downtown Grand Forks put an exclamation point on an already-special day. All of the Her Wilderness participants also had good luck catfishing, she said.

“It was a good little story to be told,” Charlebois said. “We had a fantastic day on the water.”

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