Chippewa River Offers Excellent Sturgeon Fishing
Zach Mohr takes pains not to offend muskie hunters when asked why he spends every minute possible in September chasing sturgeon up and down the Chippewa River around Eau Claire.
“I enjoy muskies, but I like catching fish that take more than two minutes to land,” Mohr said. “I know some big muskies take longer than that, but when you hook into a sturgeon 60 inches and bigger, the fight averages 10 to 12 minutes. Even the 40- to 50-inchers take three to six minutes to land. Most muskies don’t last that long.”
Mohr, 24, of Elk Mound, works as a conservation technician for Pepin County by day. But when the annual month-long hook-and-line season sturgeon opens each September on the Chippewa River, he’s on the water daily after 5 p.m. Once on site, he threads nightcrawlers onto 3/0 to 5/0 circle hooks, and casts them into the river’s deeper holes behind 4-ounce sinkers.
Another thing Mohr likes about sturgeon: Unlike the fabled muskie, sturgeon don’t require 10,000 casts per strike. Mohr averages one sturgeon for every hour spent on the river, which means he catches 50 sturgeon per season. Of those, he usually lands three 60 inches or longer, the legal size for keepers, one of which can be kept per season. Mohr said he’s kept only two in recent years, and his many guests combined to keep three more.
Mohr got hooked on sturgeon fishing at age 15 while fishing for yellow perch below the paper-mill dam in Eau Claire with “Grandpa” Wayne Meyers, a close family friend. After hooking, fighting and landing a sturgeon that hit his perch bait, Mohr became fascinated with the prehistoric fish.
“Grandpa Wayne was out there to catch perch, but I wanted to keep trying for more sturgeon,” Mohr said. “I eventually went off on my own and developed my own style for catching them. I like using big, long saltwater rigs with 65- to 100-pound (test) braided line and 30- to 50-pound monofilament leaders. It’s hard to control sturgeon if you go much lighter than that. They’re too powerful.”
Wisconsin’s hook-and-line sturgeon season opens the first Saturday of September, and runs through Sept. 30 on the Chippewa River from its sources in Sawyer and Ashland counties to its mouth at the Mississippi River. The season is also open on parts of the St. Croix River, Menominee River, Flambeau River, Butternut Lake, Jump River, Yellow Lake, Little Yellow Lake, Danbury Flowage, Yellow River, and downstream of the Wisconsin Dells dam on the Wisconsin River.
The hook-and-line season is open year-round on Lake Superior, and much of summer through winter on sections of the Mississippi River.
The state’s most famous sturgeon fishery, of course, is the “Winnebago System” in east-central Wisconsin, which includes lakes Winnebago, Poygan, Winneconne and Butte des Morts; and vast stretches of the upper Fox and Wolf rivers. The Winnebago System offers a spearing season each February, but no hook-and-line season.
Mohr concedes it’s possible to catch sturgeon in nearly every section of the Chippewa River, but he focuses mostly on fast-water sections, and holes and eddies 12 feet and deeper. He considers the Chippewa’s water volume and flow rates when deciding where to fish, as well as annual and seasonal water levels.
“I like the deeper, faster stretches, but I know guys who catch sturgeon in 5- to 10-foot depths,” he said. “You can find them just about anywhere. The best time to catch them, though, is around dawn and dusk, and that first and last hour of darkness.”
Some of Mohr’s favorite spots are within view of downtown Eau Claire and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire campus. Even so, he fishes everywhere from the dam in Eau Claire to several miles beyond the I-94 bridge south of town.
“You’ll see the heaviest fishing pressure the first week, but very few guys are out here the final week or so,” he said. “I can’t get enough of it. How many other fish can be anywhere from 12 to 60 inches long? With sturgeon, you never know what you’ll catch next.”
Mohr and a handful of other “volunteer” anglers work with the Department of Natural Resources to monitor the population by tagging and measuring each sturgeon they catch and release. They also record the ID numbers of each tagged sturgeon they catch, as well as its length, before releasing it.
“We catch sturgeon as small as 12 inches,” Mohr said. “That gives the DNR data on young sturgeon that they can’t capture with their gear, which catches sturgeon longer than 30 inches. That data helps the DNR monitor growth rates and the population’s health. From everything I hear, the Chippewa River’s sturgeon are in very good shape.”
That’s in contrast, of course, with sturgeon numbers a century ago when the Chippewa, Eau Claire, and many other state rivers were emerging from the logging era. Between heavy loads of bark stripped and shredded from log booms, and tons of sawdust from riverside sawmills, the sturgeon population plummeted by the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“It took a long time for sturgeon to recover, given that it takes female 30 years to reach maturity,” Mohr said. “Many Wisconsin rivers offer good sturgeon habitat, but they require clean, quality water to thrive. They’re doing much better these days, and the harvest pressure from fishing is really light. I think fishermen only keep about eight to 15 sturgeon each year on the entire Chippewa River.”
Zach Mohr of Elk Mound, Wisconsin, admires a 49-inch sturgeon he caught in the Chippewa River near downtown Eau Claire. — Patrick Durkin photos
Zach Mohr plays a large sturgeon while fishing Sept. 21 on the Chippewa River in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.