Best Minnesota fish story ever? The monster sturgeon of Lake Lida

A photo from 1948 shows Harold Rice and Dick Swenson proudly posing.
A photo from the 1948 Press in Pelican Rapids shows Harold Rice and Dick Swenson proudly posing with the sturgeon.
Courtesy of The Press in Pelican Rapids

It was big and strong, and apparently angry it got caught. The giant sturgeon of Lake Lida was front page news in Pelican Rapids in late December 1948.

"Excitement reigned supreme on Sunday in the lake country," the Pelican Rapids Press exclaimed. "Word spread quickly that a huge 102-pound sturgeon was speared in Lake Lida."

It's a great fish story, one that's survived 70 years around Pelican Rapids and will resurface in a celebration this weekend thanks to the efforts of local enthusiasts who have created a sort of monument to that most Minnesotan of rituals: telling, and maybe embellishing, fish stories.

What follows might be true, mostly.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Karen and John Borg stand beneath the original mount of the 1948 sturgeon.
Karen, the daughter of fisherman Harold Rice, and John Borg stand beneath the original mount of the 1948 sturgeon on May 24, 2018 at their home on Lake Lida near Pelican Rapids.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Harold Rice and his brother-in-law Dick Swenson were in a wooden shelter peering through a hole in the ice with a spear at the ready when a monster swam into view.

Harold Rice flung the spear which was attached to the fish house by a rope. He hit the 6-foot-2 inch lake sturgeon just behind the head.

The roped twanged and the house boomed in resonance, rocking on its skids like a boat on rough water. "Get another spear!" Rice yelled, according to an account at the time.

But there was no other spear.

"There's a story that says when they put the spear in that fish the fellow that was with him — that Dick Swenson — he didn't open the door," said Bob Bowers, a local man who was 4 1/2 at the time. "He went kind of right through the side and he went and he got this other fellow, this old fella, he came over he put his spear into it before they could land it."

Bob Bowers, 73, remembers seeing the 102-pound sturgeon.
Bob Bowers, 73, of Pelican Rapids, remembers seeing the giant sturgeon after it was pulled through the ice on Lake Lida back in 1948. He has helped raise money and interest in a project to showcase a replica of the sturgeon.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

Bowers said that monster fish is one of his first memories. His dad took him to a local bar as word spread about the monster of Lake Lida.

"I remember the place being full," he said. "The fish was in a walk-in beer cooler. So, I was looking, trying to see that fish between people's legs. I was just a little guy. And there that big fish was."

Karen Rice Borg was 2 years old when her dad heaved the 102-pound fish out of the water and wrestled it through the broken fish house door into the light.

Reports at the time said Rice went blind from the excitement. Good story, maybe just a tad exaggerated.

"My mom would tell about how my dad came in and his eyes were real, real puffy and she said, 'What's wrong with you?' He said, 'Well, if you had seen what I saw you would break out in hives too!'"

Few people had seen a sturgeon. Once common across the Red River watershed, the fish were disappearing by the early 1900s as dams and erosion limited reproduction of the slow growing fish.

Taxidermist Curt Markgraf used a foam form to craft a sturgeon replica.
Taxidermist Curt Markgraf, 50, of Pelican Rapids, Minn., used a foam form to craft a replica.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

The big sturgeon was stuffed with wood shavings and hung for decades above the bar in Perry's Place, drawing the eye of everyone who entered and becoming part of local lore.

Borg says her dad never embraced the fame. "He was not a teller of fish stories. If he had seen it and not gotten it he probably wouldn't have said anything about it. He was that type of person."

When the bar closed, the fish was put away in storage. Family members tracked it down a few years ago. The bedraggled brown behemoth now sits atop a cabinet in the garage at the family cabin on Lake Lida, missing part of its tail and stuffing visible through cracks in the skin.

Borg said the fish was not allowed in the house when her parents lived here during their retirement years.

"You know, different people would say to him, 'Well don't you want that fish?' And he would say, 'Where would I put it?' And my mother would say, 'Not in my living room.'"

Painter’s tape clearly defines the tail and fins of a replica sturgeon.
Painter's tape clearly defines the tail and fins of a replica of the sturgeon pulled through the ice by two fishermen on Lake Lida in 1948.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

Local residents decided to breathe new life into the legend. Bob Bowers spearheaded a fundraising drive, family members contributed, and Curt Markgraf was enlisted to create a replica of the 74-inch fish.

"Make my living doing taxidermy, so that's how I got roped into this. And Bob's my neighbor, so he knew a guy," Markgraf said.

He was less than enthused at first. A bottom feeding sturgeon is not the most beautiful fish in the lake.

"I said, 'Really? You want a sturgeon? Really?' Cause you ain't gonna paint it pretty, that's for sure."

The completed replica sturgeon fresh from its final coat of paint.
The completed replica sturgeon fresh from its final coat of paint on May 24, 2018 at Northwoods Taxidermy in Pelican Rapids, Minn.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Now the replica is painted a dull gray. It looks more like the real thing than the real thing does.

A local woodworker built a case to display it and Saturday morning the Legend of Lake Lida will be unveiled at the Pelican Rapids Chamber of Commerce.

"People will read about the story, maybe it'll bring them to town have a look at it you know or at least when they see Pelican Rapids they'll think, 'Ah, that's where that sturgeon was from you know. It's a fish story that will live forever.'"

Thanks to Louis Hoglund at The Press in Pelican Rapids for his help with this story and for reading excerpts from the archives.