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The Sturgeon Stalker
by Leif Enger
May 23, 2000
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

Every fish has its fanatics. Brian Plutko belongs to the lake sturgeon. Click for additional view.
With the coming of summer, anglers by the hundreds of thousands are stalking Minnesota's lakes and rivers. Their objective, almost always, is walleye, northern pike, panfish and trout. Yet for a few anglers, a walleye holds no attraction; a 20-pound northern, no allure; a rainbow trout, no romance.

On the Rainy River - the border between Minnesota and Canada - the lake sturgeon is rising. Surviving near obliteration by commercial fishing and polluting paper mills, the sturgeon has resurfaced as a gamefish of almost mythical power.

EVERY FISH HAS ITS FANATICS. Brian Plutko belongs to the lake sturgeon. Why? Two words: Hundred pounds.

Plutko, 23 years old, immortal, going through Marlboros like Crackerjack, sits at water's edge in the town of Baudette. There are monsters in the river. He can't take his eyes off it. "That's all I think about, day and night, is going out and catching that sturgeon," he says. "It's like being addicted to nicotine. Catching a sturgeon is there, it's inside of me. The whole feel, the whole fight, the whole waiting, it's everything."

Plutko caught his first sturgeon at 12. His biggest, so far, was five-feet long and 65 pounds. A butcher by day, Plutko fishes nights; motoring out past the glittery boats full of walleye-seeking tourists - the showoff boats he calls them - slouching past the showoffs in his grungy Alumacraft. Anchoring in his secret place. Gobbing a hook with nightcrawlers. Awaiting his king of fishes.

"They're slow. They pretty much do what they want. They're like the tanks of the river. They do what they want, go where they want, they see something they want they'll take it. They're like an owl to a woods; everybody says, 'Oh, wise old owl.' I think the sturgeon is the great wise fish of the water."

Sturgeon have mystified through the ages. In North America they've cropped up in fossils thought to be 60 million years old. Even those caught today would look at home embedded in stone.

On Lake of the Woods, biologist Tom Heinrich measures sturgeon. Click for additional view.
On Lake of the Woods, biologist Tom Heinrich works his way along a 900-foot gillnet. The DNR catches and tags a few hundred sturgeon each spring. They're trying to figure out where the fish travel, how many are caught, and how many released.

Heinrich hoists a twisting sturgeon up over the gunwale. The fish has a back as broad as a thigh; sandpaper skin, no scales. Its angled tailfin betrays its relatives, who are sharks. Heinrich takes measurements: 46 inches long, 27 pounds. Just a pup: an inch over legal size.

"I think deep down he knows we're trying to help him," Heinrich says. "Even though we did this to him. They're very forgiving fish."

With a garden pruner, Heinrich clips out a one-inch segment of the spined leading edge of the fish's pectoral fin. A cross section of this spine, under a microscope, will show well-defined rings - just like a tree - a ring for each year of the sturgeon's life. There are sturgeon in this water that were young adults during the Civil War.

"Lake of the Woods actually had one of the oldest sturgeon that's ever been aged," Heinrich says. "If I recall, it was like 150 or 160 years old, and was caught up in the northern part of the lake near Kenora."

The sturgeon's long life-cycle has figured in both its decline and its comeback. A female doesn't spawn until she's 25 years old, and only once every five to nine years thereafter. That hurt in the early part of the century, when they were fished commercially and nearly wiped out. But by 1960, the sturgeon faced another prominent threat - the discharge of effluent by paper mills on the Rainy River.

Heinrich says the sturgeon, who are patient, just hunkered and waited for the federal Clean Water Act to be thought up, written down, and passed into law. "The Rainy River was really in pretty rough shape, primarily because of all the effluent, wood fibers that coated the bottom of the river," Heinrich says. "And what we see is, sturgeon-year classes starting to be formed in the late 1960s, about the time the Clean Water Act really started coming online."

Since then, the sturgeon's comeback has been continuous. Tourists who used to come strictly for walleye are now tantalized by the ancient-looking fish with the shark-like tail. The stories they hear from people like resorter Larry Cawble are just too good to ignore.

"One time in a boat, I'm sitting in Lighthouse Gap in a 16-foot Lund, with a 15 horse on it, me and another fella," Cawble recalls. "And he sets the hook on a fish and the fish starts to move off; we were sitting there anchored. Well I went up and pulled in the anchor and the sturgeon pulled us. And he pulled us, and pulled us, and pulled us. And about four miles later, the hook pulled out. But he pulled us four miles, and that's not bad when you consider he was pulling against the current."

In 1855, the poet Henry Longfellow wrote something similar, if more dramatic. His protagonist, the great Hiawatha, went pursuing mishi-Nahma, the king of fishes. A monstrous sturgeon. Nahma withstood Hiawatha's taunts until they were too much to bear; then -
In his wrath he darted upward,
Flashing leaped into the sunshine,
Opened his great jaws and swallowed
Both canoe and Hiawatha.

"I could see an 88-inch sturgeon in this body of water easily," says Plutko. "With a 40-inch girth; a head that weighs 20 pounds on this fish. Yeah, I can see it. He's down there. I can feel it."

Unlike Hiawatha, who killed the giant Nahma from the inside out, angler Brian Plutko photographs each fish and sets it free. If enough others do the same, he says, then even centuries from now people might have the pleasure of wondering: what's down there?

"Sit there. Think, 'Geez there might be a 100-pound sturgeon down there. Might be a 200-pound sturgeon down there! Who knows?' Just there, it's that feeling. You know there's a 100-pound sturgeon in that body of water, and you might catch him that night."

Baudette angler Brian Plutko. The sturgeon season opens on the Rainy River June 30th.