NEAR BAUDETTE, Minn. – At first glance, it looked as if the boy fishing off the dock last Sunday at Ballard’s Resort near the mouth of the Rainy River was hopelessly snagged.
His fishing rod was bent nearly double, but a closer look revealed it wasn’t from a snag.
Dawson Erickson was wrestling a fish, and it looked to be a real monster.
Erickson, 14, of Thief River Falls, and his dad, Kevin, and sister Ava, 9, had wandered down to the dock Sunday morning, May 14, to try and catch a sturgeon before heading home for Mother’s Day. They’d opened up the family camper for the season in the lot they rent from the resort just across the street, but Kevin’s wife, Alicia, hadn’t made the trip because of a prior commitment.
“She was just sick that she couldn’t be here, and we thought, ‘Well, we’ll open up the camper and just fish a little bit from the dock,’ ” Kevin said. “My boat’s still in storage.”
About two hours had passed without so much as a nibble from a sturgeon.
“They’d been jumping here all morning,” Kevin said. “We could see some nice ones, but I thought, ‘Well, you know, give it some time.’ ”
Then it happened.
In the way sturgeon so often do, something tapped at the “sturgeon rig” – a circle hook tied to a 60-pound monofilament leader and weighted with an 8-ounce no-roll sinker – they’d loaded with a glob of nightcrawlers and tossed out to rest at the bottom of the river.
“It gave a few taps, and Dawson’s like, ‘I hope that’s a fish,’ ” Kevin said. “We’d been trying all morning.”
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Those taps quickly turned into an epic battle, and Dawson, who’s just wrapping up his eighth-grade year at Franklin Middle School in Thief River Falls, had been playing the fish for nearly an hour when Jason Laumb and three buddies, all from Grand Forks, pulled into their nearby dock slip for a lunch break.
The foursome, which included a certain Herald outdoors writer, had rented a cabin and dock slip from the resort for the walleye opener. In a case of perfect timing, they’d come in for lunch just as Kevin Erickson was laying at the end of the dock trying to lift the behemoth fish at the end of Dawson’s line out of the water.
“I thought he was snagged at first – 100%,” Laumb said later. “Then, when I saw that the sinker was visible, I figured these guys needed help.”
He figured correctly.
After tying off his boat, Laumb, who stands about 6 feet, 4 inches tall and goes by the nickname “Sasquatch,” ran over to help Kevin Erickson attempt to land the fish. Laying at the end of the dock, the two men were able to get a firm grip on each end of the sturgeon, which was nearly as long as the dock was wide.
Fortunately, the Rainy River is quite high again this spring, and the dock was only about 18 inches above the water.
“I grabbed onto the mouth, got my hand in the mouth and wrapped my other arm on its midsection, and his dad and I hoisted it up,” Laumb said. “I knew it was a big fish, but I didn’t realize how big it was until I got over there and saw that big old noggin on that thing.
“It’s a good thing I have long arms. That is the biggest sturgeon I’ve ever had my hands on.”
The big sturgeon measured 70 inches long with a girth of 27¼ inches. According to a length-weight chart from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, a sturgeon of that length and girth weighs about 91 pounds.
It’s also about 51 years old, DNR estimates show.
Lake Sturgeon Length Weight Estimates by inforumdocs on Scribd
“Something like that, you don’t want to bother trying to weigh it,” Kevin said. “You just get the length and girth, and you can get pretty close. That thing was unbelievably heavy.”
Sturgeon season on Lake of the Woods and Rainy River closed May 15 and reopens July 1.
On the rebound
Sturgeon populations in Lake of the Woods and Rainy River are on the rebound after nearly being wiped out in the early 1900s, the result of overfishing and declining water quality in the Rainy River where the fish spawn.
Thanks to clean water legislation enacted in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the U.S. and Canada, coupled with strict harvest regulations, sturgeon populations in both U.S. and Canadian waters of Lake of the Woods and Rainy River by 2012 had achieved short-term recovery goals set by fisheries managers in the two countries.
Those goals called for male sturgeon to age 30 and females to age 50, with fish larger than 70 inches present, and 30 year-classes – fish from a given year’s hatch – present in the population.
As the Herald reported in 2012, regular assessment work confirmed those goals had been met.
Big sturgeon like the one Dawson Erickson landed have been all over the internet this spring. Landing the fish would have been nearly impossible without the help of a Sasquatch, if only in nickname, Kevin Erickson said.
“There’s no way I could pull it in by myself,” he said. “It was way too big. We got really lucky. I don’t know what we would have done. We’d have been taking pictures in the water because I don’t know what you’d do. There’s no way one man could lift that out.”
Even with two men lifting the fish, landing it was a challenge.
“Just lifting my half with (Laumb) on the front, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh,’” Kevin said. “I mean, it was just dead weight.”
Quite a workout
Landing a sturgeon almost as big as him also was quite a workout for Dawson, who participates in both track & field and wrestling in Thief River Falls.
Was battling a 70-inch sturgeon for an hour harder than a wrestling match?
“Maybe landing it, yeah,” admitted Dawson, who weighs 130 pounds. Still, he wasn’t going to hand off the fishing rod to his dad.
“He said, ‘My arms are hurting,’ and I said, ‘Do you want me to fight it?’ And he looked at me like, ‘Are you crazy?’ He wanted to do it all by himself,” Kevin said.
The sturgeon easily topped Dawson’s previous best, which measured 38 inches, and the 47-incher Kevin landed last year while fishing off the same dock.
“Geez – I think it’s going to be a while before I beat that one,” Dawson said. “I mean, (70 inches) is a lot of inches if you think about it.”
It’s also a lot of slime. Dawson’s “Prowler Track & Field” hoodie was covered with it after he held the fish across his lap for a photo. When he and his sister laid next to the sturgeon on the dock for one last photo, the big fish was longer than both of them.
Laumb and Kevin Erickson then gently released the giant fish back into the river.
On many levels, it had been a special morning.
Barely three weeks earlier, Dawson’s and Ava’s grandpa, Carter Torgerson of Grygla, Minnesota, had died after a long battle with cancer.
He was 67 years old.
An avid outdoorsman, Torgerson was “super close” to his two grandchildren, Kevin says.
“They did a lot together,” he said. “So we sat down today and we’re like, ‘Grandpa, bring us a 60 (inch sturgeon).’ We sat here all morning until now and just nothing, not even a walleye, just a couple of snags losing lines and stuff.
“And all of a sudden, Grandpa came through.”