By Nick Simonson

It was a weekend of river blow outs, menacing ice bergs and elusive sturgeon that highlighted a trip chilled by cold temperatures and high muddy flows that weren't much warmer on Minnesota's Rainy River.
Four of us made the trek to the river which forms part of the U.S-Canadian border, with the hopes that these ancient denizens of Lake of the Woods would be willing biters, as they had been the spring before. By most recent reports, the days leading up to the Seventh Annual Sturgeon Tournament at Sportsman's Lodge on May 3 and 4 had been very productive. With my brother Ben Simonson, of Valley City, ND, and our friends Dan Ryba of Garrison, ND and Dusty Nielsen, also of Valley City, I was encouraged by the stories coming from a neighboring cabin on our first morning at the shores of the river.

Dusty's 64 Sturgeon

Dusty's 64 Sturgeon caught on the Rainy River​

"Yesterday was awesome, we boated 21, including a 63-incher," said our Wisconsinite neighbor who was loading his truck and covering up his boat for the trip home.
Buoyed by this news, we launched our boats and set out on what is quickly becoming my favorite annual adventure. The flow wasn't as fast as I had anticipated, with four- and five- ounce weights getting our payload of nightcrawlers gobbed onto a 5/0 circle hook down into the depths of the river. I was teamed with Dusty for the weekend and we began to scout out the waypoints logged onto his GPS from previous seasons. We settled on one directly in front of the lodge after some moving about.
Around mid-morning, it began to snow and a bitter breeze rose out of the north. I tucked my gloved hands into my pockets and braced for what was to come, knowing that the conditions would dictate a good deal of exposure of my hands to water, wind and chilly temps - something that always rapidly decreases my manual dexterity. Relying on our memories of seasons before we intently watched our rod tips which bobbed rhythmically with the passing water and the up-and-down movement of the boat as we tried to keep warm.
"I think that was a bite," Dusty relayed as he got out of his seat and removed his rod from the holder at the stern of the boat.
The rod tip again bumped ever so slightly in his hands and he reeled down to tighten the line between him and the near imperceptible fish at the other end. With a smooth and powerful sweep, the 9-foot rod bowed in an arc and the fish began a run at the boat, which did not give either of us a chance to gauge its size. While we knew it was a good fish, we couldn't be sure, that is, until it bulldogged up under the boat and sat on the bottom.
Dusty, a generally stoic guy, turned and looked at me as the fish powered its way from side to side; his eyes widened to dinner plate size and he smiled an excited grin as the fish made its most powerful of runs. It was then we both knew this sturgeon would be a monster.
For fifteen minutes the fish stayed down surging back and forth and around the boat, pulling my fishing buddy from port to starboard over and over. His reel paid out line, the drag hummed throughout the fight and tension built as he managed to gain back what he had lost and worked the fish toward the surface.
As he did, the sturgeon turned with the current and ran downstream, somewhere in the top half of the water column. Dusty steered the leviathan back toward the boat and we saw the first swirl of its powerful tail. Perhaps it was the dingy water or the movement of the fish, or a combination of factors, but it seemed the broken water was about 12 feet behind where the line entered the water. We knew it was huge - certainly Dusty's biggest to date.
Finally, the fish breached the water's surface rolling, twisting and wrapping itself around the line. I readied the net as Dusty backed up into the boat. Thankfully, the fish bowed as its head slid over the metal rim and into the black mesh, for if it hadn't I don't think its tail would have followed the massive body into the cradle.
Exhausted, Dusty caught his breath and warmed his frozen hands - the tips of his fingers bright white and his knuckles beaming red - as I began whooping it up and screaming in jubilation for my friend, whose largest fish of any kind, ever, rested boatside in the net. We brought the fish aboard and removed the circle hook buried firmly in the corner of its mouth. The tip of its tail extended four inches beyond the last mark on the measuring stick - a 64-inch sturgeon - seven inches bigger than Dusty's previous best. We took photos, released the fish, traded high-fives and replayed the battle from the tiny take to the big finish. I called my brother and Dan, who had stopped up at the riverside tackleshop to pick up our flat of night crawlers for the upcoming tournament - riding high on the euphoria of the fish - I figured we'd need them, as I relayed the good news to my brother.
"My news isn't so good," he said, "the guy at the tackleshop says the river up stream is covered, shore-to-shore in giant chunks of ice and trees, apparently a feeder river blew out and we might not be fishing for a while," he concluded.
Sure enough, an hour or so later, the first of thousands of menacing, jagged ice chunks came bobbing down the river - along with logs, grass mats, trees and branches - apparently the usual gauntlet that accompanies spring on the Rainy River for a couple of days. Some slabs of ice were bigger than my pickup truck, capable of ripping boat hulls, cutting anchor lines and causing not only general mayhem, but also posing a threat to life and property. Not knowing what we were up against, we got off the river; our pre-fishing day cut in half. We watched as other boats attempted to stay on the flow, but their time too was cut short, and our weekend tournament was put in jeopardy as we faced an uncertain immediate our outdoors.
(Next week, be sure to read the exciting conclusion of the 2013 Sturgeon Adventure with ice bergs the size of buses, a battle with the elements, and the author holding out hope for a redemption fish in the final hour of the tournament!)