Andy Fronek very well could have caught a Minnesota state record for lake sturgeon, but he’ll never know for sure.
And that’s fine with him.
“At first I was a little bit disappointed, but then you know what? It just adds to the story,” Fronek said. “Fishermen have these stories where they sort of enlarge the truth or whatever. I’ve got my story, but I’ve also got five witnesses.”
Fronek, 41, a financial coach from Eden Prairie, Minn., caught a 71-inch sturgeon on the Rainy River along the border between Minnesota and Ontario.
It likely was a state record, but there are strict regulations protecting the delicate sturgeon, and Fronek’s fish was caught during a catch-and-release season. After snapping a few pictures, Fronek and his party released the monster.
“Even if it was a time of year when you could buy a tag and keep it, I don’t even know if I would have kept it,” he said. “I mean, you’re killing this animal that is almost 60 years old, probably. But I’ve gotten my 15 minutes of fame from it, definitely, with the picture in the paper, posting on Facebook and things like that.”
He may not have been able to keep the fish at any rate. In Minnesota, anglers can keep one sturgeon per year during seasons that run April 24-May 7 and July 1-Sept. 30. However, the fish must be 45-50 inches long or longer than 75 inches.
“So you’ve got to actually break the record by 5 inches to even claim the record?” Fronek said. “That’s weird.”
Lake sturgeon are slow-growing and late-maturing, and they only spawn intermittently.
Females spawn once every 4-6 years and typically reach sexual maturity at 24-26 years old. Males spawn every 2 to 3 years and typically reach sexual maturity at 8-17 years. Only 10-20 percent of adults within a population is sexually active and spawns during a given season.
Fronek’s experience fishing for sturgeon is limited, to say the least.
“This was my first time ever fishing for sturgeon,” he said, laughing. “I’ve always been a decent fisherman. My parents have a cabin on a lake in northern Minnesota and we fish for bass and walleye and northern (pike). My two brother in laws have been chasing big (sturgeon) for years and they invited me on this trip.c
“They’re always showing me these pictures of these big sturgeons they catch, but nothing even near what I caught on this trip.”
Even before the Fronek’s big catch, it had been a successful trip, with several in his group taking fish larger than 50 inches. On the first day, Fronek caught a 41-incher, the biggest fish of his life.
“Later that day, we saw these two boats were casting into this deep hole,” Fronek said. “So we marked that spot on GPS. Saturday we got up at 4:30 so we can get to that spot early. We said a little prayer and then we started fishing and, yep, caught a 38-incher, caught another in the 30-inch range that got off right at the base of the boat. A buddy on another boat caught a 55-incher, a huge fish.”
Then fishing with a ball of night crawlers on the bottom, Fronek hooked his big fish.
“You could just tell it was a horse,” he said. “I was kind of being a little big braggadocios, but at the same time thinking, ‘Oh my gosh! This thing might be a record! A 70-incher!’ But then again, I’ve never caught a fish bigger than that 41-incher.
“I said to the boat owner, ‘Hey, Pat! Do you have one of those captain chairs where you can strap me in?’ Sort of playing around. The other guys were kind of getting annoyed. ‘You’re setting the drag too light. Bring this thing in already.’ I’m like, ‘Guys, you’re not getting it. This thing is huge.’ Until it finally surfaced, then we all knew.”
After an exhausting, 35-minute battle during which the net man was quite nearly pulled into the water, Fronek’s big fish was finally landed.
“We had one of those soft tape measures that you use for sewing,” he said. “So you’d measure it 60 inches, mark a spot and measure the rest of it. Then we did the girth, which was 29 inches -- about the size of an adult’s waist.
“Kind of slim, right? But it’s someone’s waist size. Amazing.”
Minnesota’s lake sturgeon record weighed 94 pounds, 4 ounces and was caught in the Kettle River in 1994, measuring 70 inches with a 26.5-inch girth.
A Minnesota Department of Natural Resources chart used to estimate weights based on girth and length puts Fronek’s 71-inch fish at about 91 pounds.
But the same chart estimates the state record fish at just 82 pounds -- 12 pounds less than its actual weight.
“I’m not really upset about it,” Fronek said. “It’s more of a curiosity than anything else. I mean, I already know it’s a great fish.”