It is early October. After a rare day of sun in the middle of a long gray spell, clouds have moved in again. At our scheduled meeting time of 6 p.m. in Afton, the temperature is 47 degrees. It will drop another degree for each of the three hours we’ll be out on the St. Croix River.
Our fishing guide offers a friendly greeting at the dock. Trimmed beard, early 60s, Master Captain Brian Klawitter wears bright red StrikeMaster jacket and pants, with a camo baseball-style cap that reads SPAM in large letters across the brow.
He deftly backs his trailer to the landing and off-loads his Lund Angler SS into the water, then hands us two CO2 life vests, designed to self-inflate if you hit the water. They’re thin and lightweight, easy to layer over our warm jackets. “The Coast Guard requires that life jackets be on board, but it’s hard to get people to wear those,” he notes, pointing to the neat stacks of orange horse-collars visible under the boat’s gunnels. “So I invested in these Float-Tec vests. Wearing them is required by me,” he says with a smile.
We motor out from the marina. Klawitter tells us that we’ll be traveling about 45 minutes before dropping anchor at the first of many stops. That turns out not to be exactly true. Let’s just say he sets up somewhere between the I94 bridge and the mouth of the Kinnickinnic, dropping two anchors in about 47 feet of water at the edge of a steep drop-off visible on his bathymetric screen, where shallower water is shown in blue, deeper in white.
I am here because I’ve wanted to see a sturgeon since I first learned that these legendary behemoths were in the St. Croix, and because I want to learn about them from Klawitter, a fishing guide who knows the sturgeon in this river as well as anyone. I’m also interested in Klawitter’s own story. For over a dozen years, he’s been the foremost catfish and sturgeon guide operating in the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers, and he’s planning to retire from his guiding business in 2019.
My good friend Marty McKelvey will be joining us. Marty enjoys fishing and has a wonderful sense of adventure. We all have licenses, but if we get a fish on a line, she’ll be the one to bring it in.
It begins to drizzle. “I don’t call this rain, do you?” Klawitter asks. No, we don’t. The wind is out of the east and light, 3 to 4 miles per hour at most. “That’s what you want,” he says, “because sturgeon and wind don’t mix, or at least sturgeon fishing and wind don’t mix.” He likes to go out at night, when both wind and boat traffic tend to be lighter. Tonight, we’ll see only two other boats, both passing by within the first hour out. After that, it feels as though we have the river to ourselves.
First, a Lake Sturgeon primer:
Often called “living fossils,” Lake Sturgeon belong to an ancient family of fishes. Sturgeon first appeared in the fossil record during the upper Cretaceous (between 66 million and 100.5 million years ago), but the earliest members of the group are thought to have evolved during the Triassic, more than 200 million years ago. The species has retained many primitive features, with a mostly cartilaginous skeleton, heavily armored skull, and scale-less body protected by lateral rows of large, bony plates (skutes). Bottom dwellers, they feed by “vacuuming up” insect larvae, small fish, snails, leeches and other invertebrates from the beds of lakes and rivers. They can grow very large—in 2015, one netted and tagged by the DNR in the St. Croix was 79 inches long and maxed out a 100-pound scale (they estimated it at 125 pounds, based on length and girth). They can also be very long-lived, females reaching 150 years or more. As reported by University of Georgia researchers Peterson, Vecsei and Jennings (see More on Lake Sturgeon, below), “the historic range of the species extended from the Canadian waters of the Hudson Bay in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, east to the St. Lawrence River estuary. To the south, U.S. populations were found primarily in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins.” Its current range is greatly diminished. Today, it is a Special Concern species in Minnesota and Wisconsin, with carefully regulated fishing seasons.
Second, a Klawitter primer:
Brian Klawitter holds a U.S. Coast Guard Master Captain’s license with the Coast Guard that would allow him to operate a 30-ton boat with up to 50 passengers (not that he intends to). He started guiding in 2005: first for channel and flathead catfish, later adding sturgeon.
To his knowledge, from 2005-2017, Klawitter was the leading—if not only—Coast Guard licensed guide operating in Minnesota and Wisconsin specializing in catfish and sturgeon.
Most of his guiding work has been in Lake St. Croix and the Mississippi (Pools 3 and 4), but he was also instrumental in the launch of the “Sturgeon Excursion” up in Lake of the Woods and the Rainy River, now a major April destination for fishermen across the region. He founded the Minnesota Catfish and Sturgeon Alliance, and is active in numerous Minnesota and Wisconsin DNR working groups related to the fishery. Oh—and his full name is Sir Master Captain Brian Klawitter. The “Sir” originated when he was knighted in 2017 by Sir Can-a-Lot as part of the 80th anniversary of SPAM in Austin, Minnesota. Thus the SPAM cap.
Yes, Marty and I are in the presence of royalty.
We are also fortunate to be out with Klawitter on one of his last official outings as a professional fishing guide. To be clear: it’s not for lack of demand. He’s had a steady stream of clients, and interest in sturgeon fishing, in particular, is on the rise. He’s just looking to set a different—less hectic—pace.
He cuts the engine. One by one, he sets up four rods. For each, he threads 2-3 night crawlers onto a 4-ought circle hook (with the barb bent down for easier releasing). Prepared for whatever the night might bring, he uses 80# leaders, test swivels and Team Catfish “Tug-O-War” braid, with Garcia 6500 reels on Team Catfish rods. He explains as he works: “We’re going to be using a 4 oz. no-roll, flat sinker. It’ll hit bottom and just lay there.”
As he sets the last rod in its cradle along the gunnel, he points out the reflective tape wrapped on the tips, which will show up in our headlamps when the sun sets. “If we’re lucky enough to catch a sturgeon—and I promise nothing— it’ll look like a sunfish bite, little taps. See that, you need to pick up the rod to set the hook, and take the slack out. Then, it’s the sturgeon dance—they always lead, you hang on.”
If we hook a sturgeon tonight, it’ll be catch-and-release. This year, seasons set by the Minnesota DNR for the St. Croix River from Taylor’s Falls to the mouth of the St. Croix (including Lake St. Croix) allowed catch-and-release from June 16 to September 1, 2018, and from October 1, 2018 to March 1, 2019. From Sept 1-30, 2018, anglers were allowed to harvest one sturgeon (limited to one per calendar year), 60” minimum, with purchase of a sturgeon harvest tag. March through mid-June, to protect the sturgeon during the spawning season, fishing for sturgeon—even catch and release—is prohibited, and the rules further specify that you can’t have one in your boat. The rules in Wisconsin differ (for example, related to bait and number of hooks), highlighting the challenges of conservation management in a bi-state waterway like the St. Croix. Fishermen are obligated to pay attention to their GPS to know which state’s territorial waters they’re fishing in, and honor regulations of that state.
Even when he legally could, Klawitter doesn’t keep sturgeon he catches. He’d rather have them back in the river, where they can grow old, help to build the population. “I won’t ever keep a sturgeon. I mean, a female sturgeon isn’t sexually mature until it’s about 25 years old, and then they only spawn once every 4-6 years. Males, they might not spawn until they’re 14 years or older (ranging from 8-17 years). And they don’t spawn every year, either.”
Lake sturgeon, he explains, were once nearly extirpated from Minnesota due to pollution, habitat degradation and overfishing. “They’re so full of oil, people used to use them as fuel for steamboats, stacking them like cordwood. Nearly did them in.” The fishery has improved, but is still subject to careful management. “People don’t always speak well of the DNR, but I can tell you the DNR has done a great job when it comes to sturgeon.” As a guide, Klawitter respects the rules because he knows they’re in the best interest of the fish.
A rod tip dip-dip-dips.
Klawitter jumps up, hands the rod to Marty, says “Game on.”
Marty whoops and laughs, takes the rod, which is now bent sharply down. “Dang, Brian. Holy Moses! You’ve got to be kidding me!” Reeling, pulling, reeling, she soon wrangles the fish up near the boat, close enough for Klawitter to net.
It’s a sturgeon. Once he’s lifted it into the bottom of the boat and out of the net, Klawitter slides out the unbarbed circle hook and we get out the tape measure—40.5 inches— “A little one!” says Klawitter. He doesn’t weigh it, but estimates 15-20 pounds. “Touch the skin, feels like sandpaper. See the scutes on the side? And here, down its back, feel those spines? With a younger one, they would be sharp enough to cut your fingers.”
The fish is gray-brown above with a white underside, and has small eyes for its size. With its flattened head and long, torpedo-like body, it’s understandable that larger sturgeon are sometimes mistaken for sharks, another cartilaginous fish with an ancient lineage. But any such thought is quickly dispelled. Unlike a shark’s, a sturgeon’s dorsal fin is near its tail. There is also the matter of teeth, which sturgeon lack, as demonstrated by the fish Marty just landed. The sturgeon’s mouth suddenly telescopes out from beneath its head, a surprisingly long, white, flesh-covered Slinky with gelatinous-looking lips. Jaws it is not.
Lifting the fish for a quick photo and return to the water requires special care. Klawitter instructs Marty as he places the fish in her arms: “You need to support it, hold it horizontally with one hand under the belly, the other under the tail. If you plan on releasing a fish, the worst thing you can do is pick it up by the gill plates. People say, Well, it swam away. Sure, it might swim away, but three days later it’s dead.” It might be how people learned, he adds, but if they care about a fish’s future, they won’t lift it by the gill plates.
As he gently lowers the it over the port side, the fish emits a loud burp. “Hear that?” says Klawitter with a smile. Sturgeon—like paddlefish and lake trout—have a duct connecting the swim bladder and gut. They can fill and empty their swim bladders through their mouth, enabling them to dive and ascend quickly. He loosely supports the sturgeon until it swims off with a splash.
“That was fabulous,” Marty raves, “the chance of a lifetime. Thank you, Brian.”
But she’s far from done. Half an hour later, in darkness, she’ll land a channel catfish that Klawitter estimates at 3-4 pounds, and an hour after that, a second sturgeon. As Klawitter hands her the rod, he says, “This one’s heavier. I’m a little worried. Good worried.”
The fish leaps into the air and then dives. “It’s going down, Brian, way down,” Marty leans back, knees bent, as if sitting in an invisible chair. She’s doing her best to keep herself in the boat and hang onto the rod. “Brian, you going to help me?” Klawitter coaches: “You got it. Lift up, reel down. Lift up, reel down.”
Again, with Klawitter netting, it’s soon in the boat. He was right, this one is larger—42”—and it’s tagged. That’s exciting: we’ll be able to find out more about this sturgeon’s history in the days ahead. We quickly photograph the tag, and return the fish to the St. Croix. Klawitter shakes his head in wonder. “See that jump? You can see why people call them river rockets.”
In the quiet between fish, we talk, water lapping against the boat. The river at night feels like a place apart, more wild than you’d expect. Klawitter muses, “They take forever to grow. I mean, that tagged fish we just caught? My granddaughter Ella is 5 years old now, and she could catch it when she’s 50 years old.”
It turns out that “our” tagged sturgeon was first caught and tagged by the DNR in the lower St. Croix on 8/26/05 when it was 36.18 inches long, then caught again and reported by an angler on 9/19/07, more than ten years ago.
According to Metro Fish Specialist Joel Stiras at the East Metro DNR office, nearly 37% of the 715 sturgeon tagged by the program in the St. Croix between Taylor’s Falls and Prescott have been recaptured at least once. “It’s not uncommon for them to be recaptured in the same general location they were tagged, but they’ve also shown a fair amount of movement.” Tags have revealed some serious travelers. One tagged sturgeon, he relates, “traveled 17.3 miles down the St. Croix, 32.5 miles up the Mississippi (Pools 2 and 3), 116 miles up the Minnesota River, and 12 miles up the Blue Earth River, for a total of 177.8 miles.” The most recent population estimate for Lake Sturgeon in the St. Croix puts the population at 5967, with a 95% confidence interval range from 4414 to 8067. But Stiras believes that these figures greatly underestimate the actual population. He is hopeful that a forthcoming sturgeon management plan for the Minnesota, Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers will include a well-defined study to better estimate the number of lake sturgeon at large in the rivers.
For Klawitter’s part, he’s enthusiastic about a method of tracking tagged fish that doesn’t require recapture, instead using transmitters along the river to pick up their locations as they move. The transmitters are expensive, around $400, but he figures maybe if he donates one to the DNR, others will, too.
Next year will be very different for this longtime guide. “I’ll be cutting off guiding completely, except for a few trips donated to charity. I’m sure there are parts of it I’ll miss. Watching you catch that fish?” he says to Marty, “that’s what I’m all about: seeing those smiles, people catching their first big fish. I love that piece. But I also love spending time with my granddaughter and my wife (but don’t tell her that).”
He might be baiting fewer hooks, but his advocacy for the sturgeon fishery will continue unabated. “What I want is for people who fish for the sturgeon to take care of them. Remember they’re a long-lived fish that doesn’t spawn very often. These fish are mostly cartilage; they have a nerve that runs down the length of their body, so you have to handle them with that in mind. Truth is, we’ve got a world-class fishery for sturgeon here. I think more people would enjoy it if they knew, and fishing licenses support a lot of important work that benefits the fish and their habitat.”
The drizzle finally turns to rain as we approach three hours on the water. We may be done but the fish are not. One more fish, the smallest sturgeon yet. We don’t measure, but it looks to be 20 inches at most. “There, see its spines? Careful, now these are sharp,” says Klawitter. “Extra protection for the young ones.” On the sides of the sturgeon’s head, its gill plates open and close, the light from our headlamps revealing the feathery, fragile red gills beneath. Klawitter cups one hand around the tail, holds the other under its belly as he had taught Marty. He leans down, lets this last one go.
_ _ _ _ _
Sincere thanks to Brian Klawitter for sharing his time and expertise for this story. Klawitter has now officially retired from guiding for catfish and sturgeon, but suggests that people interested in going out contact his friend Darren Troseth of 3 Rivers Fishing Adventures, who recently acquired a Coast Guard license. Klawitter is already dreaming up ideas for other ways to spend time on the water, one of which is leading river-wildlife tours under the name Red Wing Bald Eagle Tours. Check out this link to his new endeavor, as well as his favorite YouTube video, of gar in winter below the ice in the Mississippi.
Thanks to Joel Stiras for the tag report, the good work, and all the info on Lake Sturgeon in the St. Croix.
Thanks, also, to Marty McKelvey, who can always brighten a dark night. No doubt, the fish are still talking about her.
All photos © Laurie Allmann, except as labeled.
More on Lake Sturgeon:
Read this interesting report on Lake Sturgeon by Konrad Schmidt from the MN DNR Rare Species Guide.
Dive even deeper with this great research paper,“Ecology and biology of the lake sturgeon: a synthesis of current knowledge of a threatened North American Acipenseridae” by Douglas L. Peterson, Paul Vecsei and Cecil A. Jennings.