Sturgeon Fishing in the Midwest and Great Lakes: Tips and Techniques

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Sturgeon have been calling the Great Lakes Basin home for much longer than people have been around, but when those people did arrive they found excellent fishing for these ancient giants.

Even with the onset of human fishing, sturgeon managed to live millions of years without too much trouble until the pressure intensified and they were driven nearly to extinction in the 1900s. 

Habitat loss and commercial fishing left their mark on sturgeon, but eventually conservationists got involved, and now populations of sturgeon are rebounding in their native waters.

The lake sturgeon native to the region has become a much sought after game fish due to its size and ability to fight. These giants can reach lengths between 6 and 8 feet and can weigh several hundred pounds.

While there are great fishing opportunities in the Great Lakes, when sturgeon head upriver to spawn tends to be the best action.

Studies have shown that lake sturgeon aren’t the fastest learners because it’s been reported that the same sturgeon can be caught multiple times in just a few days.

Additional species of sturgeon inhabiting the Midwest can be found from the upper  Missouri River and Yellowstone River clear through to the Gulf of Mexico, though the primary species in the lakes and rivers through this region don’t enter saltwater. 

Sturgeon Species

The likelihood of catching sturgeon in numbers at all goes up significantly the further north you travel. The very southern states that have sturgeon carry far lower numbers than the northern states. 

Lake sturgeon are readily found in the Great Lakes Basin and can be caught throughout the Missouri and Mississippi rivers as far south as Tennessee and north to Manitoba and Quebec.

Lake sturgeon also can be found in New York, Pennsylvania, and the surrounding areas as well.

Lake sturgeon can regularly be found in the 6- to 8-foot range and are the largest sturgeon found in much of the United States, except for the even larger white sturgeon caught on the West Coast.

The shovelnose sturgeon is a far smaller species that can be found throughout the Mississippi River basin, including the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri rivers and tributaries.

They are less common in the Mississippi delta and into Alabama and are more protected in those southern areas.

The shovelnose sturgeon are smaller but still frequently reach 3 feet in length.

Atlantic Sturgeon are found along the eastern seaboard from Canada to Florida, though in most areas, they don’t have sustainable numbers to encourage fishing for them.

Pallid sturgeon are found in the same range as the shovelnose sturgeon. Officially listed as endangered, these fish are few and far between.

Gulf sturgeon are found (shockingly!) along the Gulf Coast. They can get up above 5 feet and weigh over 200 pounds. 

Several smaller and even more endangered types can be found around the country, but in this article we are going to focus primarily on the lake and shovelnose sturgeon fisheries found in the Mississippi watershed and the Great Lakes Basin.

Where to Catch Sturgeon in the Midwest

Let’s take a deeper look at the lakes and rivers in the Midwest that hold sturgeon. There are some large areas of water to cover, so we’ll focus on some of the more popular locations and techniques to target them.

The most popular areas for sturgeon fishing are the upper Mississippi into the Ohio and Missouri watersheds. The Great Lakes region is the most common target, though it is a huge area. 

The Rainy River

This stream system is located in northern Minnesota and along the border with Canada. Sturgeon fishing the Rainy is a great place for introducing anglers to the fun.

The Rainy River holds one of the most concentrated populations of lake sturgeon anywhere in the country, and some of them are huge. Lake of the Woods also holds sturgeon, though they aren’t in the big numbers found in the Rainy. 

Start at the mouth of the Rainy at Four Mile Bay and head upriver to the falls. It’s about a 40-mile length of great habitat.

Try anchoring just above deeper holes and set your line out. The sturgeon tend to swim upstream to the edges of these holes to eat.

St. Croix River

The St. Croix is in Minnesota and is well known for its fantastic sturgeon fishing.

Lake sturgeon move up this river from the lakes to spawn and feed. The season starts in June, but the fishing really gets better once the water starts cooling off.

Sturgeon tend to forage in the flat, featureless sections of the river in 20-45 feet of water.

Finding the right area on the St. Croix isn’t an exact science, as these fish don’t follow the conventional feeding and cover areas of other species on the river. 

Big fish can be found, though smaller, immature fish are far more common in the St. Croix.

The smaller sturgeon will also surprise you by rolling up in your line once hooked. The sharp, bony scutes on their sides might cut your line if this happens.

Use heavy abrasion resistant line to avoid this as much as possible, and check your line after each fish caught for signs of excessive wear.

When scouting for an area, we suggest you stay away from boats bunching up together. They might be targeting other species, or it’s also possible someone caught a sturgeon, and everyone else pulled up to try their luck.

You are just as likely to catch one in your own spot without having to worry about the crowds.

Missouri River

The Missouri River flows through several states, so be sure to check on local regulations before heading out on the water.

Throughout the state of Missouri, the law allows you to harvest shovelnose sturgeon, though the lake and pallid are not legal to possess here. These regulations may change, so always check before your trip.

On the Missouri, fishing from late fall through spring can be very successful. Target the deep holes around rock dikes, which permeate the area. 

When the weather warms up, target tailwaters, the current side of sand bars, and the mouths of tributaries. 

Since shovelhead sturgeon aren’t often over 3-4 pounds, smaller hooks in the 2/0 – 3/0 range should be sufficient. Use a braided 10-12 pound test and a two-foot leader. 

Mississippi River

Several sections of the Mississippi River hold sturgeon throughout the massive waterway and into its tributaries.

Since it is such a large area to cover, be sure you check local regulations before heading out. The upper river will hold lake, shovelnose and pallid sturgeon. 

Mid- and lower river sections hold shovelnose and pallid, though the occasional (and rare) lake sturgeon may show up. In the lower section and delta region, it is possible to get onto a gulf sturgeon as well. 

The upper Mississippi has some fantastic areas to target, such as the St. Croix River confluence. The number of sturgeon in the area aren’t that high, but the ones that are there often are giants. Fish over 50 pounds are not a rarity here. 

Wisconsin River Systems

Wisconsin has several rivers that maintain a naturally occurring lake sturgeon population. Since these fish don’t respond well to overfishing, there are specialized regulations on them. Check the local regulations to ensure you follow the law.

The state has a hook and line season for sturgeon as well as a spearfishing season.

The angling season affects the Wisconsin River from the dam at Wisconsin Dells and downriver, Chippewa River, Flambeau River, Yellow River and the Jump River. All of these rivers hold decent populations.

Other Areas 

Although sturgeon can be found in good numbers throughout the region, take a close look at regulations.

Rivers and lakes in New York hold multiple species of sturgeon, though intentionally targeting them is illegal, except under certain circumstances.

Several fisheries in other places follow these same guidelines. 

Gear 

Fishing in the Midwest already requires most anglers to be armed with heavy-duty fishing equipment for blue and flathead catfish and big pike and muskies.

It’s likely your existing larger rods and reels should work for sturgeon as well. The techniques are different, but the heavier gear is a great start.

The most important component you’ll need is the reel. It needs to hold lots of heavy braided line and a great drag system. The drag needs to be easy to adjust and strong enough to battle a giant.

Your rod should have a sensitive tip and a strong backbone. Something in the 7’6” medium-heavy category should do the trick. A musky setup should be strong enough. Make sure it is capable of handling 80-pound test line. 

Use as heavy a line as possible for the reel. A heavy braided line that is abrasion-resistant is a must as well. 

Rigging

Depending on what conditions you are fishing in, you’ll need to use weights to get your line to the bottom. If the current is strong, you’ll want to use heavier weights that can hold in the current. 

If fishing in a strong current, use a heavy enough weight to ensure it stays on the bottom. Don’t go too heavy, but make sure you’re on the bottom.

Use a strong leader. Mono in the 100-pound range will be strong enough and thick enough to avoid being cut.

Sturgeon have terrible eyesight, so a heavy leader won’t reduce your bites.

Tie a swivel to your mainline and add at least 18 inches of leader.

The hook needs to be big enough to hold a whole bait fish, large cut baits and other common baits, so a safe option is a circle hook or an octopus hook. A good size is from 5/0 up to 8/0.

Best Sturgeon Bait

The best baits to use vary by region, though the general rule of thumb is to use as fresh as possible.

Nightcrawlers are typically the best bait for shovelnose sturgeon, though bear in mind that lots of other fish species may want in on that action. 

Nightcrawlers also work well for lake sturgeon, as will gizzard shad, emerald shiners and other naturally occurring baitfish in their area. A combination of a nightcrawler and a baitfish is excellent.

Additional baits that can work for sturgeon include lamprey, shrimp and crawfish and several cut-baits with local fish species such as suckers. 

How to Catch Sturgeon

It’s pretty common to see anglers trying to catch sturgeon using similar techniques they use for flathead catfish.

They cast out, set the rod in the holder with the line released, and wait for something to pick it up.

Except that flatheads will pick up the bait and then move. Sturgeon don’t do that. 

Sturgeon have a light bite. You’ll see the pole tip bounce, but the line won’t start screaming off the reel in most instances.

There are occasions when a sturgeon will take the bait while moving, which has been known to yank the rod right into the water. 

Once you feel a hard pull, set the hook as hard as you can, and then set it again. They have rubbery, leathery mouths that aren’t easy to hook. 

It can be super disheartening to lose a giant because your hookset wasn’t strong enough. Make sure your hooks are sharp, and buy the best hooks available. Watch out for cheap hooks that may break under strain.

Helpful Tips

  • Bring along a net that is capable of landing a giant fish. Using the wrong net can hurt the fish, and with these slow-growing fish that’s a real shame. 
  • Smaller sturgeon haven’t worn their scutes down yet, so make sure to bring along gloves. The smaller the fish, the sharper the scutes.
  • Pack pliers to help remove the hook. Sturgeon slurp up their food, so the hook will be inside the mouth more often than not.
  • Use a wet towel to cover the head of the sturgeon to keep it calm. 
  • Make sure to take note of any tagged fish and record the tag numbers.