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Possible 125-pound, 70-inch record sturgeon drags fisherman in circles on Mississippi

WINONA, Minn. -- James Yerhart has caught only one sturgeon in his life. But it was the sturgeon of a lifetime. On Friday night, Yerhart, a 34-year-old truck technician from Brownsdale, Minn., found himself in a Hemingway-esque struggle with a pr...

James Yerhart, 34, a truck technician from Brownsdale, Minn., hooked and landed this 70-inch sturgeon on 10-pound-test line Friday night, May 9, 2015 on the Mississippi River below Lock and Dam No. 5, north of Winona, Minn. while walleye fishing. Photo courtesy of Elias Mathias.

WINONA, Minn. - James Yerhart has caught only one sturgeon in his life.

But it was the sturgeon of a lifetime.
On Friday night, Yerhart, a 34-year-old truck technician from Brownsdale, Minn., found himself in a Hemingway-esque struggle with a prehistoric monster: a lake sturgeon as long as he is tall, and perhaps twice his age and 10 times the weight for which his rod and reel were designed.
Once nearly wiped out by overfishing (caviar is sturgeon eggs) and habitat alteration from dams, sturgeon have been staging a steady comeback in the Upper Midwest for decades. For the first time this year, Minnesota offers a statewide catch-and-release season for them, and subcultures of anglers target them with heavy tackle on the St. Croix River in the east metro and the Rainy River along the Canadian border.
But they’re still a curiosity for most, including Yerhart and his two boatmates, who motored up the Mississippi River north of Winona on Friday morning in search of more traditional quarry: walleye. (Although the statewide walleye opener was Saturday, the season is year-round on that stretch of the Mississippi.)
They were aboard a 14-foot Lund owned by buddy Elias Mathias of Austin. The other passenger was Yerhart’s uncle, Jim Bennett of Clarks Grove.
They started fishing at 7 a.m.
“It was fairly slow,” Yerhart said. “Nothing exciting. A few small walleye and northern (pike).”
As the day waned, they moved upstream, close to Lock and Dam No. 5, where lighting from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers infrastructure would “help us see what we were doing.”
Around 9:30 p.m., Yerhart was tossing a quarter-ounce, 3-inch Mister Twister green jig. No minnow on the end. Ten-pound test Fireline on the reel.
His retrieve stopped dead.
“I had gotten a couple of snags. I thought I had another snag,” he said. “Fishing below the dam, it was like being under a bunch of streetlights. I could see my line heading north, toward the dam. It was definitely moving.”
Not a snag.
“Hey, I got a big fish on!” Yerhart yelled.
So the battle began.
Some level of mayhem ensued as three grown men scrambled around the cozy craft, risking entanglements of rods and lines.
There was an episode where the fish, unseen in the inky depths, began to swim circles around the boat’s anchor line - a maneuver that might have succeeded were it not for assistance from Yerhart’s comrades.
And there was the line, a silky thread that seemed inconceivably thin and irrelevant to whatever was on the other end. It was rapidly disappearing from Yerhart’s reel.
“The drag was zinging like you wouldn’t believe,” he said. “I had 150 yards on the reel, but I swear I got down to my last 20 yards.”
That’s when Mathias fired up the 50-horsepower outboard, and the battle turned into a pursuit, with the fish leading the craft upstream and downstream.
“Basically, all we were doing at that point was following the fish. I thought it was either a big catfish or a sturgeon. After it had taken us 600 or 700 yards, I knew it had to be a sturgeon.”
After 30 minutes, the beast came topside. Its identity was confirmed, but the outcome was far from certain.
“He wasn’t slowing down at all. He didn’t care. He was just going wherever he wanted. After about 45 minutes, that was the first sign that he was slowing down. But then he ran up toward the dam and got into the current.”
Fatigued or not, the behemoth, aided by the current, headed for Iowa, and the Lund followed.
“I’m saying he took us a mile downstream, but I bet it was even farther than that. We couldn’t even see the lights of the dam anymore.”
About an hour after being hooked, the fish was tuckered out. But so was Yerhart. And he worried about that 10-pound line. So much stress between the line and the line guides on the rod, so much reeling in only to have the fish reclaim the distance, it was taking its toll.
“The end of my rod looked like a cotton ball,” Yerhart said. “I mean, it really looked like a huge cotton ball. When I looked at it later, I realized it was all little bits of line.
“The fish was done swimming away, but he was like a huge log. I couldn’t physically get him in with the rod and reel. I didn’t want to just grab the line with my hands because something was gonna break, the line or the hook.
“So we started looking for a beach. We found one and Elias just ran the boat up on shore, and we pulled him in, very slowly.”
It worked. When the fish came shallow, Mathias and Bennett helped hoist the thing onto Yerhart’s lap, where Mathias snapped a series of grainy photos with his iPhone.
“Let me say something: I can promise you that I don’t get this fish without those guys,” Yerhart said of Mathias and Bennett.
Lake sturgeon season is currently closed on the Mississippi. Even when it opens in June, all fish must be released.
“We couldn’t weigh the fish, so we have no idea how heavy it was,” said Yerhart, who is 5 feet 10. “I know it was just over 70 inches long and had a girth of 27¾ inches.”
Yerhart knows that growth charts estimate such a fish at somewhere between 85 and 125 pounds.
“I’ve got a boy who’s about 110 pounds, and (the fish) had to weigh every bit of what my boy does.”
The official state record sturgeon, caught on the Kettle River in 1994, weighed 94 pounds, 4 ounces. It was 70 inches long and had a girth of 26½ inches.
Yerhart’s is one of a number of fish caught in past few years that might have broken that record, according to anglers and biologists. But like those other fish, Yerhart’s needed to be set free. After the men cradled the fish in the water to ensure it was healthy, it swam off into the night.
Yerhart said he didn’t sleep much Saturday night.
“And my back and my neck are killing me.”
But it was worth it.
“All I do is hunt and fish,” he said. “I go out west elk hunting and I fish all the time, and I can tell you this was the most spectacular thing I’ve ever done.”


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