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Surprise sturgeon

Jeff Rusling of East Grand Forks took his boat on the Red River for a test drive Tuesday afternoon and figured he might as well do some fishing, long as he was there.

Jeff Rusling of East Grand Forks took his boat on the Red River for a test drive Tuesday afternoon and figured he might as well do some fishing, long as he was there.

Anchored off the Minnesota shoreline about two miles south of town as the crow flies, Rusling was fishing with nightcrawlers in about 10 feet of water when he hooked into a surprise catch: a tiny lake sturgeon that he measured at 13½ inches.

The sturgeon put up a good scrap despite its small size, Rusling said. He didn't know what he had at the end of his line until the fish came to the surface.

"I was all by myself in the boat," he said. "I thought it was about 3-4 pounds. It fought, and then it just gave up."

Rusling was fishing alone, but he had a digital camera in the boat so he snapped a handful of photos to confirm the catch before releasing it. He said the sturgeon was a personal first -- for the Red or anywhere else.

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The sturgeon is the first to be officially documented in the Red River in several years. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources stocked juvenile sturgeon into the Otter Tail River, a Red River tributary, in the late 1990s, and fish from those stockings were reported at several sites along the Red -- including Grand Forks -- as the sturgeon worked their way downstream and headed north toward Lake Winnipeg.

A Herald reporter witnessed a sturgeon from that stocking effort in December 2000 while fishing the Red north of Selkirk, Man., near Lake Winnipeg. A DNR tag confirmed the sturgeon, which measured 27½ inches, had been stocked in the Otter Tail River -- more than 500 river miles away -- in September 1998.

In recent years, the DNR has changed its strategy for restoring sturgeon to the Red River basin, stocking fry instead of juvenile fish in hopes they won't venture so far downstream. DNR fisheries now stocks about 200,000 lake sturgeon fry and 10,000 fingerlings annually into Red River Basin waters, including the Red Lake River.

Dennis Topp, assistant area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Baudette, said the sturgeon Rusling caught most likely came from one of those fry-stocking efforts.

The sturgeon might not have been very big, but it's a catch Rusling won't soon forget.

"My baby trophy," he calls it.

According to the DNR, lake sturgeon were abundant in the Red River basin until the late 1800s, when dams, declining water quality, habitat loss and overharvest decimated the population. Efforts to remove lowhead dams and improve habitat have paved the way for restoring the species.

It's a slow process because sturgeon don't begin spawning until they're 20 or 30 years old. But someday, catches such as Rusling's could be a lot more common.

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Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: FISHING
Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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