By John Cross
Free Press Staff Writer
Just two weeks into the Minnesota fishing season and already there are tales of big fish to tell.
First, there is Steven Waugh of Mankato was fishing on the Minnesota River near Judson with friends Joe Michael and Dave Hollenbeck on April 14.
Waugh classifies himself as a very casual angler. “I have a boat and if someone calls and wants to go out, I’m usually game for it but I don’t fish very much alone,” he said.
He was drifting a 3-inch chub when he felt a tap on his line.
The thing about fishing the Minnesota River is you really never know what kind of fish you’ll catch.
The trio was fishing for catfish on that Saturday but lunker walleyes and northern pike, for which the season still was closed, also lurk in the slow-moving river.
After a short battle with the fish that leaped out of the water several times, Waugh soon had one of the Minnesota’s more unusual inhabitants, a shovelnose sturgeon, in the boat.
The shovelnose sturgeon is a prehistoric-looking, be-whiskered fish. One of several sturgeon species found in North America, the shovelnose sturgeon’s range is limited to the Mississippi and Missouri River systems.
Joe Michel, a more devoted river fisherman than Waugh, said that catching the sturgeon wasn’t that much of a surprise.
“I’ve caught quite a few from this spot,” he said, adding that particularly in the last 10 years or so, sturgeon numbers on the Minnesota River seem to have made dramatic gains.
The fish measured 40 inches long and tipped Michel’s fairly accurate digital scale at 8 pounds, 3 ounces.
According to Lee Sundmark, the supervisor of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Hutchinson Fisheries Office, a shovelnose sturgeon of that size truly is a big one.
Indeed, the current state record listed in the 2012 Minnesota Fishing Regulations booklet is a 5-pound, 9-ounce fish caught from the Mississippi River.
But the catch to Waugh’s catch is that with the exception of the Mississippi River downstream from Red Wing, shovelnose sturgeon are protected in Minnesota waters as a species of special concern.
To qualify for a state record, a fish must be weighed on a certified scale. Such scales are usually found in a butcher shop, a grocery store, a bait shop. Rarely in a fishing boat.
Taking the fish to such a place, even with the intent of eventually returning the fishing into the river, would have been illegal.
So after a few quick photographs, the state record fish was slipped back into the Minnesota River.
While a spot in the DNR’s official big fish record book may have eluded Waugh, he still can claim a bit of finny fame as a Master Angler in the Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame (www.minnesotafishinghalloffame.com) that includes a catch-and-release category as well as one for fish harvested.
At forty inches long, his sturgeon blows the 22-inch minimum length for that species qualify right out of the water.
A lunker hat trick
And then there is Kari Gustafson of Lake Crystal who was fishing recently on Lake of the Woods.
While fishing with her husband, John, daughter, Leah, and friends Louie Heydt, Chuck Robinson and Rod Isebrand, she landed a 29 1/2-inch walleye. After a few photographs, the big fish was released.
A few minutes later, she felt another bite. A few minutes later, she was hoisting a 31 1/2-inch walleye for photos before releasing it.
Later, she had another bite. After another battle, she landed and released yet another braggin’-sized walleye — this one measuring 29 3/4 inches.
Really serious anglers can fish for a lifetime and never catch even one lunker walleye of that caliber.
But to complete a hat trick like that in a single morning ... sometimes life just isn’t fair.
John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.