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Superior angler is the 'Sturgeon General'

The gob of night crawlers went sailing across the June sky led by a bulbous 2-ounce sinker. The whole payload landed in the St. Louis River with a significant ploop and sank to the bottom in more than 20 feet of water.

Jason Kahler and big sturgeon
Jason Kahler of Superior holds a big sturgeon he caught while fishing on the St. Louis River this spring. Lake sturgeon are different from most other fish in that they’re a primitive fish with a cartilaginous skeleton.( Jason Kahler photo)

The gob of night crawlers went sailing across the June sky led by a bulbous 2-ounce sinker. The whole payload landed in the St. Louis River with a significant ploop and sank to the bottom in more than 20 feet of water.
Perfect.
Jason Kahler of Superior put his stout muskie rod in a rod holder and sat back in his 16-foot Lund to wait. Kahler, 36, was waiting for a sturgeon.
Kahler is among the first to take advantage of a new regulation on the river that allows anglers to purposely fish for these large and ancient fish that were once effectively extirpated from the river. Under the new regulation, which took effect in March, anglers may target sturgeon on the river but must immediately release any they catch.
The early sturgeon season closed from April 15 to June 15 to allow the fish to spawn, then reopened June 16.
During the early season, Kahler and fishing partners in his boat had plenty of success.
“We caught 19,” he said. “The first two were 35 and 46.”
He’s talking inches here.
“The next time, we got seven from 33 to 51. That was ridiculous.”
Ridiculous, of course, means good.
“The next outing, we got three, including a 60¼.”
An experienced and serious muskie angler as well, Kahler is accustomed to keeping detailed records of his fishing experiences. He rattled off his spring sturgeon exploits.
“Thirty-six hours, 19 sturgeon, average size 42 inches,” he said.
Kahler caught 16 of those fish.
YouTube-taught
I was on the river with Kahler on June 17, when the season had reopened for the summer. His boat was anchored in shoreline reeds, and we had three lines out, all baited with night crawlers.
Kahler had never intentionally fished for sturgeon before this spring. Nobody taught him how to do it.
“I just looked it up on YouTube and watched some videos,” he said.
Relatives in Wisconsin had told him about sturgeon fishing on the Wolf River and elsewhere. He knew about the wildly popular sturgeon fishery on the Rainy River between Baudette and International Falls each spring.
“I’ve always wanted to do it but didn’t want to drive to International Falls,” said Kahler, a warehouseman at Coca-Cola in Duluth.
Maybe it was the muskie angler in him, but he seems partial to large fish, and sturgeon represented an extension of that kind of fishing.
“I just think it’s cool because they get so big,” he said.
He kept an eye on his lines, waiting for the telltale clicking of a level-wind reel spooled with 80- to 100-pound-test line. The night crawlers sat on the riverbed, squirming, waiting for a sturgeon to engulf the offering and their hidden 5/0 circle hooks. Kahler pinches down the barbs on the hooks, figuring it’s the ethical thing to do if he’s fishing purely catch-and-release. The hooks come out easily, and the sturgeon can be returned to the water quickly. He also uses a large net to avoid losing a fish or having it flop out of a smaller net.
His experience handling big muskies has helped him in dealing with sturgeon. Some of that experience was recent. The day we fished, he had caught his largest muskie at 10:35 the night before on Lake Vermilion near Tower. The muskie was 52¾ inches long.
Fishing as a kid
Kahler fished a lot as a kid growing up in Superior, often from Barker’s Island.
“We’d fish for pike from shore,” he said. “I figure it kept me out of a lot of trouble. And we went camping at Hayward when I was young. I caught a bunch of panfish. But I always wanted to muskie fish. I remember seeing a 30-pounder in an ice chest. That was really cool.”
He’s had a lot of success with muskies, from the St. Louis River to Lake Vermilion.
In 2011 B.F. (Before the Flood of 2012), he caught muskies of 49½ inches, 52 inches and 52½ inches on the river. In 2012, he caught 40 muskies, most of them in late fall. It’s a matter of putting in time, he said.
“My best year, I fished 414 hours on 70 different outings. I got skunked 30 of those outings,” he said. “I’m a river rat. It’s tough. It’s weird. It’ll definitely hand it to you. But it’ll reward you if you work at it.”
Kicking back
Sturgeon fishing is relaxing - at least until a sturgeon takes the night crawlers. During our morning on the river, Kahler never moved the boat. He was in a spot where he had caught sturgeon before. We sat and watched lines and listened for reels.
“It’s pretty simple,” Kahler said.
Kahler checked the lines often. Smaller fish, undetected, steal night crawlers. If Kahler seeks sponsorship for his fishing, he should start with a bait shop. His cash outlay for ’crawlers is significant. Two dozen barely gets him through a morning.
At one point, a reel began to click. Kahler popped up and began reeling - there’s no hook-setting with a circle hook. He had a fish on, but he suspected it wasn’t a sturgeon. He was right. It was a lively 2-pound channel catfish, another native of the river.
We quickly unhooked it and sent it swimming again.
No sturgeon were detained in the making of this story. But Kahler will not soon forget that day he caught the 60-incher this spring.
“That big one - there’s nothing like that,” he said. “That’s the biggest fish I’ve ever seen.”
It took him only about 10 minutes to land that fish on his heavy gear. That’s unlike the experience of many walleye anglers on the river, who inadvertently catch sturgeon on 8-pound-test line. They’re usually in for a 45-minute battle. Even on beefy gear, battling a sturgeon is exhilarating.
“They roll. They run. I had one jump,” Kahler said. “I had one up to the boat and it did, like, a figure-eight pattern.”
Kahler figures the 60-incher must have been stocked as a yearling in about 1983, when sturgeon stocking began on the St. Louis River.
“When I was sitting in school, bored, that fish was out here swimming around,” he said. “That blows my mind. That fish was swimming before I could ride a bike. That’s a lot of time. That’s a lot of presidents.”
And it’s still swimming.

Related Topics: SUPERIORFISHING
Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at cooksam48@gmail.com or find his Facebook page at facebook.com/sam.cook.5249.
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