By Nick Simonson

In the first part of this article, the author and his brother, Ben Simonson of Valley City, ND and their fishing buddies, Dan Ryba of Garrison, ND and Dusty Nielsen, also of Valley City, faced cold temperatures and tough conditions on the Rainy River, in pursuit of lake sturgeon leading up to the Seventh Annual Sturgeon Tournament at Sportsman's Lodge on northern Minnesota's Rainy River.

We waited anxiously as the tournament directors gathered in front of the group of 140 or so anglers in the lodge's bar area who were watching the never-ending flow of ice, downed trees and other debris moving down stream. The event director took the microphone and announced, much to our relief, that the Little Fork River had blown out some nine hours earlier, and what we were seeing in the now elevated flows of the Rainy River was the last of the debris. The tournament would go on as planned, but we were warned to be extra careful when dealing with any leftover ice or logs that would make their way down the following day.
With a solid night's rest, we headed out bright and early into the snow and cold. Weather conditions had not changed much from the day before, and Dusty and I settled on the spot where he had landed his 64-inch fish in front of the lodge. Despite the fact that early catch reports came across the marine band radio from anglers and judges up near the lake end of the designated fishing area, we stayed put and dodged the occasional car-sized ice chunk and gave warnings to those anglers downstream from us. At about mid-day, a jumping rod tip startled me out of a daydream and I came to in time to reel down and set the hook.
My upward sweep connected and the rod thumped with life just long enough for Dusty to holler out "HOOK UP!" before the arc sprung upright and the battle ended almost before it began. After a few choice words for myself and the fish, I sat down dejected, having lost my first sturgeon on the river after going a perfect five-for-five the season before. We waited out most of the afternoon in the same spot before heading down to where all the fish had been caught, but there was no room in the jam-packed field. Cold and disappointed, we returned to the launch and loaded the boat as the judges announced the end of the first day without a fish for our boat, or my brother and Dan's.
We went in for the night to trade stories about better fishing days with fellow anglers and friends from the year before, and as we did, we learned that the Big Fork River had followed its sibling's lead and shed its ice cover under increased flows during the day. The bigger feeder river assured us more ice and debris would be on its way down the Rainy for the next day, and under the weight of this news, I retired to the cabin while my friends continued to socialize.
"NICK…GET UP, YOU GOTTA SEE THIS," boomed Dan's voice from the front of the cabin, waking me from a deep sleep induced by the harsh day I had endured along with a big dinner.
Groggily, I clicked my phone on and the time came up - 1:37 a.m. I put my glasses on and stumbled out to meet him and my brother on the small wooden deck on the river side of our lodging. I opened my eyes wide and took in all of the light that the waning half moon could provide. The entire river from shore to shore was covered in massive icebergs that cracked and thundered as they slid their way down the flow. In awe and frustration I surmised aloud that we wouldn't be fishing the next day. I stumbled back into the cabin and hit the hay, dreaming of packing up and going home, as if it was a certainty.
The next morning, I woke in the gray dawn light to the singing of stalwart robins who still sounded for spring. I stuck my index finger between the slats of my room's blinds and opened a small triangle to the outside, only to see snow falling once again. I went to the front room and shook off the very real nightmare from a few hours before - a good majority of the Big Fork's ice had passed, and we'd once again be able to fish. Any thoughts I had of heading home vanished, and I woke my cabin mates up for day two, mustering a smile and forcing a "let's go get 'em" attitude as I did.
We hit the water and headed downstream to where all the action had been the day before. About five minutes prior to the start, and after our third attempt to stay put, Dusty and I anchored on a hole in the main river channel, about 50 yards from the Canadian border. The river roiled around us, and the occasional chunk of ice zoomed by, bouncing off other boats or causing them to take evasive action.
Our four- and five-ounce weights would not hold our offerings in the racing current, so we added to them, coming to combinations of eight and nine ounces that would. In an effort to vary our presentations, we tied on 30-inch leaders to replace the shorter ones we'd tried the day before, which were prone to taking on the leaves, grass and other debris that wrapped around the line and deposited on the weights above our circle hooks. Dusty managed a 38-inch fish which placed him third on the leader board a few hours into the day, but he was quickly bumped as a 46 incher was caught a few minutes later.

In the blasts of snow, sleet, rain and sometimes a mixture of all three, an angler around us would hook up with a fish. We were in the right spot, as the sturgeon that would end up winning day two of the tournament came just fifty yards upstream of us, and we held out hope through the rising north winds and roiling waters that the next strike would come on one of our lines.
The hours slowly peeled away. The wet grass, twigs and debris accumulated in the boat as we painfully cleaned our rigs and old night crawlers were discarded in favor of new gobs of worms. The punishing conditions grew nastier and we hunkered down, eventually switching back to shorter leaders as we saw fish landed on similar presentations around us. I lived and died with the excitement in other boats as anglers hooked, battled and landed, or sometimes lost in dramatic fashion, sturgeon of various sizes. I wondered, as the second-to-last hour ticked away, whether our time would come.
"I'm going back to a long leader," Dusty said as he deployed his backup rod with the longer rig.
I chose to do the same right after Dusty hooked up with a fish which he lost halfway to the boat. With only an hour left in the event, I figured it couldn't hurt my chances, especially with the recent connection. I loaded the white-and-blue KingKat rod and fired off the nine ounces of lead and three foot leader into the churning chocolate water and waited for the weights to hit the bottom. I closed the bail and set the rod in the holder to my right and watched the rod tip intently through my sunglasses, which shielded my eyes from the annoying sleet that was falling.
In between the rhythmic bob of the boat, and the corresponding pulse of the rod tip came a slight disturbance in between beats. I stood up and watched as the rod tip bent slightly once again and declared my first "for sure" hit of the day to my fishing buddy as I pulled the rod out of the holder and reeled down. I swept the rod back, and to my dismay, did not feel the solid connection I had been holding out hope for against the tough conditions and dismal odds the weekend had brought.
"It's not there," I said disappointedly as I reeled up on the line, suddenly pausing at the dead weight I felt in the middle of the retrieve… "yes it is! YES IT IS!!" I exclaimed as I hauled back again, this time feeling the firm connection with my quarry which must have been headed toward the boat on my initial hookset.
Instantly, the fish turned and pulled all but thirty yards of line off the spool. It ran so far with the current that I begged the boat in front of us to pull their anchor so the sturgeon would not tangle in it. They graciously did so and I was able to turn the fish, and the battle began. Digging into the current, the fish refused to show itself or give up the line it had taken.
I tucked the rod under my right shoulder, and braced it with my left hand on the base of the reel, occasionally gaining line when I could, but most of the time I was content to hold the fish steady after getting back the line lost on the incredible run bit-by-bit. Time slowed and then stopped. It was me, the rod bent to its maximum, creaking and groaning with each pulse and run, and the unseen force now directly below the boat. A haze of gray and brown settled in around me and my boatmate's advice seemed to be a tiny whisper on the edge of my perception - "you've got to gain line…it'll run again…stay with it."
As the give and take continued, the only thing that mattered was the inkling that the fish was beginning to tire. My right bicep throbbed and my shoulder twinged as I relied more on my left hand, while hoping my entire body could outlast my opponent. Slowly, I made more gains on the fish and it struggled to make a run with the current away from the boat. Once again, I turned the sturgeon and its next run toward the boat brought it to the surface. I knew it was the biggest fish I had ever had on when the nose of the beast breached the water.
Dusty's instruction came through loud and clear - back up into the boat. He lowered the net and the sturgeon slid over the mesh. He pulled up on the net and its tail just cleared the metal rim. There it was in a gray that matched the weekend's unchanging sky, hanging at the side of the boat as the judge's Alumacraft approached - my biggest fish ever.
It was 2:30 p.m., over 30 minutes had passed since I had set the hook. I paused for a quick photo and handed the sturgeon over to the judge and began screaming out the residual adrenaline which remained in my body, high-fiving and celebrating with my stoic net man, who mustered a smile of tolerance, or perhaps concern, for my celebratory antics. The marine band crackled a minute later with the announcement from the judge's boat: "we have a new third place fish at 56 inches, Boat 21, Nick Simonson." I was on the board, and my biggest sturgeon ever would hold that position for the remainder of the tourney and redeem the weekend entirely.

third place fish at 56 inches

we have a new third place fish at 56 inches, Boat 21, Nick Simonson.​

The cold in my hands was replaced with the warmth of satisfaction. My contempt for the conditions which had persisted for three days was replaced with confidence in my ability to stay the course despite my environment. The adrenaline rush was replaced by the calming breaths and the post-mortem with Dusty of another incredible fight, which bookended the trip with another personal best for our boat and another irreplaceable sturgeon adventure…in our outdoors.