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Sturgeon Fishing in the Red River


There was a time in North Dakota when giant sturgeon swam the waters of the Red River. These were ‘lake sturgeon,’ which could grow to be six feet long and over 99 pounds, with a typical maximum life span of 55 years for males and more than 100 years for females.

Sturgeons were renowned for their massive size and for the rows of bony plates down their backs rather than fish-scales; and for their shark-like tails. The lake sturgeon wintered in deep, slow pools or migrated from Minnesota’s Red Lake each spring via the Red Lake River. On this date in 1904, the Grand Forks Herald reported that a “sturgeon weighing over a hundred pounds was caught in the Red River near Pembina.”

The earliest sturgeon fishing report came in 1808 when Alexander Henry the Younger got “775 sturgeon, weighing from 50 to 150 pounds, caught from April 20th, to May 20th.”

As settlers came into the Red River Valley, some sought the sturgeon. In 1886, reports said the sturgeon came “down the river in large numbers,” with the largest catch being 50 pounds. Billy Jarmin got a 40-pound sturgeon in 1889 that was “5 feet 6 inches long.” In 1900, an angler from Pembina County captured a 100-pounder. Mr. H.A. Wallace, known as a man who devoted all his time to fishing in the Red River, landed an 80 pounder and a 97 pounder 10 miles north of Grand Forks in 1903.

The big ones were typically smoked, and smaller ones broiled. Some anglers sold the eggs as caviar. But they depleted the resource.

Sturgeon fishing in the Red River declined after 1910 due to overfishing and reduced water quality, but also because cities built eight dams on the river. These dams restricted movement of the sturgeon between the deep, slow pools and the spring spawning areas, thus strangling the fishery. In 1918, the Grand Forks Herald reported that Ross Greenash had landed an 80-pound sturgeon, but noted that such a catch, once commonplace, had become a rarity.

After being wiped out by the 1950s, the fisheries experts began planting lake sturgeon in the river in 1997, so that these bottom-feeding giants are again swimming in the Red’s muddy waters.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

SOURCES: “Sturgeon Weighing Over A Hundred Pounds,” Grand Forks Herald, July 10, 1904.

“Sturgeon Weighing 100 pounds,” Grand Forks Herald, June 10, 1900.

“Landed Eighty-Pound Sturgeon,” Grand Forks Herald, May 21, 1918, p. 3.

“Good Fish,” Grand Forks Herald, May 22, 1886, p. 4.

“A Sturgeon: Monstrous in Size Caught in the Red,” Grand Forks Herald, April 10, 1889, p. 4.

“Broiled Sturgeon,” Grand Forks Herald, May 10, 1895, p. 1.

“Tried And True Recipes: Smoked Sturgeon,” Grand Forks Herald, March 21, 1913, p. 5.

“Fear Of A Caviar Famine,” Grand Forks Herald, August 28, 1902, p. 3.

“Neither Fish Nor Game,” Grand Forks Herald, June 25, 1904, p. 3.

“H.A. Wallace,” Grand Forks Herald, May 23, 1903.

Greg Breining, “Rapid Changes on the Red River” Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, November-December 2003,
accessed on June 3, 2013.

Ken Stuart and Douglas A. Watkinson, Freshwater Fishes of Manitoba (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2007), p. 45-47.

Elliott Coues, ed., New Light on the Early History of the Greater Northwest: The Red River of the North, Alexander Henry and David Thompson Journals, Vol. I (New York: Francis P. Harper, 1897), p. 144.

Joe Barrett, “Standing Guard for the Sturgeon,” Wall Street Journal, May 6, 2013, p. A6.