Earning A World Record

by Louis Bignami

It's fortunate lake sturgeon only swim in the waters of conservative Canada and the Midwest.

The mind boggles at the behavior of hyper New Yorkers like Montauk surf casters exposed to such a piscatorial acid trip; it reels at the image of "Hey, Dude" Los Angeles fishermen chasing fish bigger than bookie boards down concrete lined river beds - assuming, of course, that LA rivers still had water. Still, sturgeon do have a "California" image with their tan, brown or golden scaleless smooth skin stretched around a sleek body. Lake sturgeon make fishermen as crazy as teenagers' hormones at a California bikini beach.

Sturgeon records may be even more crazed. Photos of Lake Sturgeon over 200 pounds exist, 300-pound fish were taken from Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, and a number of large fish have been speared over decoys suspended under holes in the ice at Wisconsin's Lake Winneabago. The speared Michigan record fish ran 193 pounds.

Jim DeOtis' World Record Lake Sturgeon.

PHOTO: Jim DeOtis

Uncharitable types suggest that only the mad would hunker down in a dark hut and twiddle a weighted wooden fish through a coffin-size hole to attract sturgeon that cautiously move in to inspect a decoy and are then speared as they move away. Saner souls might question the desire to be confined in a small hut holding onto one end of a long stick with a thrashing monster on the other too! Compared to this, rod and reel types seem staid and solid vestrymen.

Sturgeon big enough for Loch Ness may fin Great Lakes waters. Scale and other tests show a slow sturgeon growth rate, but a maximum life span of 150 years. Most of these giants are, by their very size, proof against usual tackle and techniques.

Unfortunately, sturgeon spawning in shallow waters are exposed to spearing, roping, netting, shooting and other forms of molestation even outside the few states -- the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan -- where lake sturgeon are legal species.

These huge fish simply don't practice secret sex. When sturgeon spawn in riffles and rapids in May and June they make more noise than NFL linebackers blasting backs on crossing patterns. Males often cruise with tails and snouts out of the water. The larger females -- all really big lake sturgeon are female -- are quite vulnerable at this time. Add the price of sturgeon meat, with its exquisite veal texture. Consider the "if you have to ask, you can't afford it" price sturgeon caviar fetches, and it's easy to see why poaching is a major threat.

Even rod and reel records are suspect. Several early records proved to be netted. A recent "record" fish turned out to be reeled in by two fishermen. Supposedly, it even sported rope burns. Questions arose about water clarity where the catch was claimed. These also suggested roping, and the fish might have been secured until the season opened. When the local fish and game officials called to inspect after rumors of suspicious circumstances surfaced, the fishermen who caught the fish reported unknown parties had stolen the fish from the garage freezer. Even though substantial rewards were offered, the "mystery" sturgeon submerged forever. It only surfaces as a local joke.

The Planner's Record

Jim DeOtis's record fish shines against this rather murky background. It's an exceptional example of good planning, excellent execution, exact attention to rules, and considerable luck. DeOtis isn't your typical casual outdoorsman who lucks into a record fish. He worked summers at camps as a naturalist and survival expert, and traps in the fall and winter working for a fur company. In between he camps alone in the wilderness.

His favorite camping spot, a two mile kayak paddle down the Kettle River from road access, is on a large hole where DeOtis had seen a number of large sturgeon jump. He had caught a number of sturgeon in the three to fifty pound range, but none were as large as his record. Otherwise he might have brought heavier gear than the medium-weight Berkeley rod he used to cast a number 2 Eagle Claw hook baited with a worm and the Garcia Mitchell 900 reel he had filled with 15-pound test Berkeley line.

DeOtis had kayaked in to the perfect record setting. The Kettle, a tributary of the St. Croix River, was the first, and arguably the finest, "wild and scenic" river in Minnesota. It runs clear and cold between walls of sumac, wild roses and ferns not too far from Minneapolis.

"I probably have 20 months of solo camping on the Kettle during the last five or six years," DeOtis said, "I like the Kettle because it's the closest wilderness to the Twin Cities, and it's great for survival-type camping."

Just at dusk that September 11, 1986 night DeOtis pitched his worm bait into the head of the hole where the river widened between its overgrown banks. He braced the rod on a forked stick, wired it in place and attached a bell. Then, before he retired to his tent to work on a book he is putting together on edible plants and survival techniques, he set a number of mouse traps outside his nearby supply tent. This was so mice wouldn't gnaw their way in to his food.

After a couple of traps snapped, DeOtis, now stripped down to underwear and moccasins, grabbed a small flashlight and headed out to empty and reset traps. Suddenly, the rod's bell clattered. DeOtis raced to the rod and cranked in slack, but felt nothing. The rod tip didn't even twitch. So DeOtis reset his traps and headed back to his sleeping tent. "It was a bit cool," he said, "standing there in my moccasins and underwear. And they kept announcing on the news to look at the northern lights." Only when he looked back toward the river did he notice his rod was bent, but still. He ran to the rod and set the hook, but nothing happened.

"At first it was like hauling in a log," DeOtis said, "Then the log tore off downstream. I couldn't follow the fish very far. The shore cover was too thick. "

"I was so afraid I'd run out of line that I dragged my kayak down to the river so I could follow the fish.

"I didn't have any control at all," he reported, "The fish ran all over the place. It was a miracle that it didn't break me off on a snag. Then I ran out of hands and ended up holding my flashlight in my mouth."

After the first hard runs, DeOtis hit on a plan. He'd reel in against the line -- there was never slack -- as he moved downstream 25 to 30 feet to the edge of impassable timber. Then use his fingers on the spool to increase the drag as he slowly backed upstream. Again and again over the next two hours, DeOtis repeated this pattern. He gained line, and confidence enough so, as his flashlight dimmed, he was able to edge away from the water to his tent to get a larger flashlight and his pants.

Then, as the long, dark shape of the sturgeon finned just out of reach, DeOtis kicked off his moccasins and waded in. He knew the giant fish would spook when handled so, "The first couple of times I touched the fish I intended to scare it, he said." The fish surged away, then, ever so slowly, returned."

The third time he pumped the fish back he was able to grab the small of the tail with one hand and jerk his prize up on the bank. He dropped his rod, grabbed the fish with both hands and hauled it six feet away from the water.

As DeOtis tells the story, "I let go of the fish, as I had to take a couple of steps to grab a rope. Instead of trying to get back in the water, the fish slowly raised and turned its head toward me and repeatedly, viciously swung its tail at me."

"I hopped on its back and started wrestling the fish, trying to turn it over so I could stick a rope in through its gills and out its mouth. It took about five minutes to do it, but I got a rope through, knotted it about 20 times and then ran another rope through the other gill, just to be on the safe side. I picked out a very large tree next to the shore and attached both ropes to the tree. Then put the fish back in the water. Only then could I relax, but I was so excited.

I kept getting up every hour or so to check that the fish was still roped." DeOtis continued. "The next morning I untied the ropes from the tree and went to attach the fish to my kayak so I could paddle up the river to my car. The fish blasted off downstream. I pulled, fought and struggled. It was no use. I got dragged right into the river. I was nearly in over my head before the fish gave up and I could secure it to my kayak for the trip to the scales."

It took DeOtis several hours to paddle his kayak back upstream against the current with the huge live sturgeon lunging this way and that on the end of its rope. DeOtis could not kill the fish by bashing it on the head because he knew any damage might suggest the fish was clubbed or otherwise illegally taken.

Exhausted after getting up through the night to check his fish, and by the tough paddle upstream against the Kettle's current and the sturgeon's attempts to break free, DeOtis dragged the fish to his car. He notes, "I still feel bad that the fish eventually suffocated in the truck. But I couldn't bash it. There had been too many stories about clubbed sturgeon."

It was only a short drive to nearby Hinkley, Minnesota and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Office. DNR officials quickly determined the old Minnesota lake sturgeon record, set on the St. Croix River, was 91 pounds. Unfortunately, they didn't have a scale. So as word got round and a crowd gathered, everyone headed over to the local Super Value Grocery Store where DNR officers weighed and witnessed the fish. Then DeOtis, aware of the "fine print," noticed that the Super Value scale had not been certified within the last year as the IGFA standards require. One gets the feeling that DeOtis had read the fine print very carefully indeed on slow nights in his camp on the river!

A few calls turned up a currently certified scale in nearby Hinkley. In the meantime, helpful DNR officers found a stock tank, stuck it on a truck, filled it with water, and used it to transport the fish to its legal weighing. The sturgeon ran a record 92 pounds 4 ounces with a 69-inch length and a 30-inch girth.

DeOtis clearly had the new Minnesota lake sturgeon record. He also applied to IGFA and NFWFHF for certification. DeOtis had selected 15-pound test line because the IGFA record in that class was lower than that in the 12-pound test class. Unfortunately, the IGFA refused a line test record for 12-pound test because the existing 12-pound test record was a 168 pound white sturgeon -- IGFA only split white and lake sturgeon classes three years later. The NFWFHF gave DeOtis its all-tackle and 15-pound line test records based on their line tests.

DeOtis feels the difference between the IGFA 12-pound test line rating and the NFWFHF 15-pound test line rating came because he sent the first section of line off his reel to IGFA. That section was abraded by his sturgeon during the long fight. His abraded line, and the IGFA delayed split of sturgeon records cost DeOtis his chance at the $1,000 prize TrileneĀ® offered for IGFA line class records caught on their line.

This doesn't seem to bother DeOtis. He still kayaks and camps alone on the Kettle. He still fishes and traps his favorite waters, and he still holds the records he sought. His 15-pound line class record may stand for decades, but his all-tackle records seem at risk.

Perspectives

The Michigan state record fish mounted in the state's tourism office weighed 193 pounds when it was speared through the ice by Joe Maka on February 16, 1974. Even larger records of 212-, 220-, 236- and 275-pound lake sturgeon are noted by Canadian biologists. Since improved electronics make it easier to locate the few monster sturgeon that survive from a once flourishing Great Lakes fishery, and a growing number of fishermen seek them out with gear stout enough to drag these massive fish off bottom, we may see the all-tackle record head north to Canada.

However, this kind of high-tech, low technique approach clearly does not interest Jim DeOtis. He hasn't even kept his mounted fish which, considering DeOtis's favorite footwear, appropriately hangs on the wall at the Moccasin Bar in Hayward, Wisconsin near the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame. Jim DeOtis is into more elemental things -- like sporting tackle and wrestling a fish that's only an inch shorter than his five foot ten inches -- and all this miles from nowhere.