June 01, 2012We were anchored just offshore in 35 ft. of water. The night was warm. A slight breeze gently rocked the boat under a bright moon as we waited. It wasn't long before my rod tip wiggled and dipped slightly as the giant sucked the gob of night crawlers from the bottom. Leaning back hard to set the hook, I could feel a rush of adrenaline, my own and that of the five foot fish now bolting for the surface like a cruise missile launched from a submarine.
Of the 29 species of sturgeon found worldwide, lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) is the only species found in the Great Lakes basin and is the largest fish indigenous to the system. They have the potential to reach eight feet in length and weigh over two hundred pounds. Lake sturgeon are also the longest living fish in Michigan, attaining ages of nearly 100 years. A relic from the dinosaur age, sturgeon are recognized as having existed since the Upper Cretaceous period, 136 million years ago, when dinosaurs were at their height. They are considered benthivores which means they feed on small invertebrates living along the bottom such as insect larvae, crayfish, and mussels.
As a consequence of interrupted spawning cycles, only 10-20% of adult lake sturgeon within a population are sexually active and spawn during a given season. Sturgeon are unique in that sexual maturity is not reached in females until the age of 14 to 33 years, most often from 24 to 26 years, and 8 to 12 years for males. Female lake sturgeon spawn once every 4 to 9 years while males spawn every 2 to 7 years. From April until June, when water temperatures are in the preferred range of 55-64 degrees, sturgeon will seek out areas of fast well oxygenated water with substrates compose of course rocky material where females will lay 4000 to 7000 eggs per pound of body weight. Eggs hatch in a little as 10 days. Young sturgeon can be as long as 2 inches by mid-summer. By age 1, they can reach 12 inches in length. Growth rates are variable throughout their range dependent on temperature, food availability and water quality.
Many anglers are aware of the much publicized but very limited sturgeon spearing season that occurs each winter at Black Lake in the northeastern Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Less known is an increasingly popular summer fishery occurring in the St. Clair River. Though sturgeon can be caught during the day, most sturgeon angling occurs at night due to the fact that this waterway is host to an abundance of recreational boaters. Sturgeon can be caught from shore but the river is lined primarily by residential homes and cottages. Best fishing is from a boat launched at either the public access site near Algonac or another at the end of Anchor Bay Drive near Fair Haven.
Fishing involves anchoring in an area holding fish and presenting a gob of bait on the bottom. A minimum of 100 feet of anchor line is recommended with an anchor of adequate weight and design for your boat. My sturgeon fishing tackle box is my smallest, containing some octopus hooks ranging in size from 4/0 to 7/0, a selection of sinkers ranging from 3 to 8 ounces, a few barrel swivels, a few snap swivels, and some 30 to 50 lb. test leader material. A slip sinker rig seems to work the best.
The 50 lb. test main line is threaded through the eye on snap swivel which is used to hold the sinker. A barrel swivel is then tied onto the end of the main line. A two to three foot leader and hook complete the package. With the snap swivel on the main line, weights can be changed depending on the depth being fished. An ounce of weight for each 10 feet of depth is a good starting point. If you fish for salmon, catfish or muskies you most likely have a rod capable of handling a sturgeon. An 8 foot medium-heavy or heavy action rod paired with a sturdy level wind reel is ideal. You will also need a very large net. Other recommended equipment includes a pair of gloves. Smaller sturgeons have sharp scutes that can cut quite easily. Pliers should be handy for removing hooks from their tough mouths. I have never had a sturgeon swallow the hook. A tape measure will be needed to record length and girth and a camera to take a quick picture before releasing the fish.
Be sure to bring along plenty of bait. After some experimentation I have found that a gob of enough night crawlers to cover the hook works as well as anything. One of the benefits of crawlers is that other species of fish will also eat them. It is very common while fishing for sturgeon to land various species of catfish, walleyes, sheepshead, rock bass, and suckers. It is not unusual to use a dozen crawlers per rod per hour. By ordering in advance, a flat containing 500 night crawlers can be purchased for about one third of the price per dozen you can expect to pay at the local gas stations.
Cover photo, Big, Old, Ugly and Fascinating. Michiganís lake sturgeon are being closely monitored by the MDNR Fisheries. MDNR photo
Lake sturgeon can be found throughout the length of the North Channel of the St. Clair River. On warm summer nights they can be observed jumping from one side of the river to the other. It has not been determined why they do that. Fish will hold in areas that concentrate food and provide a break from the current, much like any other fish that occupy rivers. Using a fish finder we can sometimes locate sturgeon or we may just look for a concentration of fish indicating a food source. We will anchor just upstream and lower a bait back to them, usually along shoreline areas in 30 to 40 foot of water, outside of the fairway used by most boaters.
Having a friend on board is enjoyable and essential to safety and proper fish handling. Landing a fish that commonly weighs more than 60 lbs. is much easier with two people. A fishing partner can clear rods from the water when a fish is hooked, can make sure the deck is cleared of obstructions and is a second set of eyes to watch for other boaters that may venture too close. Your boat must be properly lighted to assure you can be seen and should be equipped with a spotlight and loud audible signaling device to warn off boaters approaching too closely. Life jackets are a must. Safety always comes first.
As the 60 lb. sturgeon cleared the water I knew I was locked in battle with a heavyweight. Reeling furiously I tried to collect slack line as the fish was now back in the water, powering his way upstream past the boat. The line tightened and the fish turned back downstream bulldogging toward the bottom and peeling line from the reel. As always, he was dictating the fight. All I could do is hang on and hope that the resistance of the drag and the pulsing of the rod would tire him out or make him want to stop. He was in control.
There is a possession season for Lake Sturgeon in Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River from July 16 to September 30, immediately followed by a catch-and-release season which is open until November 30. During the possession season, anglers in Michigan waters who have an all species fishing license and sturgeon harvest tag can legally keep one fish per year between 42 and 50 inches. However, few sturgeon are harvested. Most angler practice catch and release. Anglers who keep a sturgeon must immediately affix their harvest tag to the fish and register it with the Department of Natural Resources within 24 hours. Further information is available on the DNR website. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and other management agencies have captured, tagged and released a significant number of sturgeon in the St. Clair River. If you catch a tagged fish, you should record the tag number, date and location (as close as possible), length and girth of the fish to the nearest 1/8 inch and weight if possible. Anglers reporting the catch of a tagged sturgeon to the DNR will receive a letter with information about the individual sturgeon and a Sturgeon Management Cooperator Patch Ė compliments of St. Clair-Detroit River Sturgeon for Tomorrow.
In the 1800's lake sturgeon were found in all of the Great Lakes and were one of the most abundant species in lakes Huron and Erie. Information gathered at archeological sites along both the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers indicates that Native Americans harvested many of them. When the first Europeans arrived, lake sturgeon were not sold and were considered to be a pest by commercial fishermen because of the damage they would cause to equipment. These large fish were removed from the nets and "stacked like cordwood" on beaches to dry before being used as fuel in steam ships. By the late 1800's, as Europeans developed a taste for smoked sturgeon and caviar, a targeted commercial fishery intensified. During the heavy fishing years from 1879 to 1900 the commercial catch of lake sturgeon in the Great Lakes averaged over 4 million pounds. In 1885 a maximum of 8.6 million pounds were harvested of which 5.2 million pounds came from Lake Erie.
By 1929 Commercial fishing for lake sturgeon in Lake Michigan was closed after the catch declined to only 2000 pounds compared to 3.8 million pounds harvested in 1879. Consequent to the decline, only a remnant population of lake sturgeon remains today in most of the Great Lakes basin. Lake sturgeon are listed as endangered, threatened or special concern in 19 of 20 states throughout their range. The population of lake sturgeon is stable and is believed to be increasing but is still impaired with relation to historical abundance. Today interest in the restoration of lake sturgeon has increased greatly. Natural resource agencies, commercial and recreational fishermen, and conservation organizations are working together to increase lake sturgeon populations and protect their habitat.
The see-saw battle lasted an intense 25 minutes before the fish, barely more exhausted than I, was laying quietly near the boat. The fish was treated gently and with the due respect as he was brought into the boat for a quick measurement and picture before being returned to the water and held upright in the current to recover until swimming away on his own. I reminded myself that I had fought him for fun; he had fought me for his life. We both had won. Because these fish live for such a long time, I wondered if one day this same fish might be caught by one of my children or even my grandchildren.
Jim Felgenauer is the President-St. Clair-Detroit River Sturgeon for Tomorrow for more information; www.stclairsturgeon.org