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A FISH STORY

Vermilion Lake man lands nine-foot sturgeon

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 12/13/17

COLUMBIA RIVER—If you think you have a fish story, you’d better check with Jake Schmidt of rural Tower— he’s probably got you beat.

Jake, who hails from Vermilion Lake Township, was …

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A FISH STORY

Vermilion Lake man lands nine-foot sturgeon

Posted

COLUMBIA RIVER—If you think you have a fish story, you’d better check with Jake Schmidt of rural Tower— he’s probably got you beat.

Jake, who hails from Vermilion Lake Township, was fishing late last month out on the Columbia River, when he latched onto the fish of a lifetime. He’d been out on the water for four hours fishing for sturgeon, with a guide, his wife Sarah, and their daughter Emily, and it was three minutes until their time was up. Sarah had landed a number of modest-sized white sturgeon that morning, but Jake had come up empty and was figuring he’d have to hear about it for the rest of their Oregon trip. He was starting to reel in for the last time when the line started peeling out from his reel. When he set the hook and pulled back on the rod, he knew his morning had just gotten interesting. “You could just tell it was enormous,” he said.

The Columbia, said Jake, is loaded with big white sturgeon and he had just hooked a monster. And just like the Old Man and the Sea, Jake had an epic battle on his hands. Working the big beast in towards the boat was a challenge, even with the 100-pound test on his reel. “He just kind of did his thing,” said Jake. “Nothing would stop him from going to the bottom whenever he wanted.” Video of the battle proves the point, as every run of the big fish sent the reel just whirring. Jake said he initially tried slowing it down with his thumb until it burned his finger.

Just holding the rod proved difficult against the strain, and Jake said his daughter gave him occasional breaks to rest. “I don’t think I could have done it myself,” he said.

He’s not sure how long it took to coax the big fish to the boat. “It was at least twenty minutes to get it where we could a hold of it,” he said. And as they got it up towards the boat, the scale of the giant fish became clear, measuring in at about nine feet long. Jake estimates it likely weighed about 400 pounds, but there was no way to know for sure since they never even tried to lift the giant out of the water.

Turns out, the fish wasn’t even that spectacular for sturgeon in the Columbia. “They get them that big all the time,” said Jake. “And they get a lot bigger than that.”

Indeed, according to Kevin Peterson, the International Falls area fisheries manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the white sturgeon that reside in the Columbia can grow up to 800 pounds and are the largest freshwater fish in North America.

Even the lake sturgeon that are increasingly common in northern Minnesota rivers and lakes can get enormous. Peterson said early records list some of the big fish weighing as much as 400 pounds. “The biggest one taken from Rainy Lake was 196 pounds,” said Peterson, who has a picture of the 1930s-era fish hanging on the wall of his office.

Sturgeon can get so large not because they’re fast-growing, but because they can live tremendously long, often well over 100 years, according to Peterson. Sturgeon don’t even become sexually mature for about 20 years. Biologists can age sturgeon by clipping a portion of their pectoral fins and counting growth rings. “Just like with a tree,” said Peterson.

As a family of fish, sturgeon are among the most ancient and share a number of characteristics with dinosaurs, noted Peterson. They are also increasingly endangered in many parts of the world, where they are harvested, and often poached, for their highly valuable roe, otherwise known as caviar.

“We’re fortunate to have a very healthy population of sturgeon right here in the Rainy, Lake of the Woods system,” said Peterson, who noted that the fish are found in other big border lakes and connecting rivers throughout much of the Rainy Lake watershed. “Namakan has a lot of sturgeon,” said Peterson. “In fact, ‘namakan’ is the Ojibwe word for sturgeon,” he said.

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