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Hundreds race to catch "dinosaur of a fish"

Feb 13, 2018

This month, hundreds of spear fishers went to Black Lake in northern Michigan. They competed to catch just six lake sturgeon before the fishing season ended. Sturgeon are a state threatened species, and their harvest is tightly regulated.

A race on the ice

The day the season started, at dawn, a procession of big trucks and snowmobiles drove across the ice toward villages of fishing shanties.

There were more than 400 people fishing on the ice.

At 8:00 a.m., the Black Lake sturgeon fishing season started, and within three minutes, the first fish was speared.

Someone radioed it in to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ trailer at the edge of the lake. Black Lake is big: six miles long. The radio calls are necessary to make sure people don’t go over the harvest limit.

Tim Cwalinski is a senior fisheries biologist for the DNR.

“That’s a quick way of us knowing, boom, one of the six fish is taken,” he said. “So we can update our phone lines basically within a minute or two.”

Anglers call a hotline to see if the harvest limit has been reached and the season is over. DNR officials say people are pretty good about checking in and respecting the limit.

The harvest limit is so low because lake sturgeon are a state threatened species. Cwalinski said the population declined over the last hundred years or so because of overfishing and dams.

“Sturgeons need access to big rivers with lots of cobble, gravel to spawn on,” he said. “And dams basically cut their spawning grounds off.”

For years now, the DNR and other organizations have worked to rehabilitate the native fish. DNR officials say the population on Black Lake is slowly rebounding and can withstand a limited harvest every year.

The first fish

The angler who caught the first sturgeon arrived with the fish in his truck bed. People crowded around to see the stiff and bloody fish.

Sturgeon pretty much look like small sharks.

They’re gray and prehistoric.

"They’re a dinosaur of a fish," said Cwalinski. "One of the most ancient freshwater fishes that we have in Michigan."

At the inspection table, the DNR staff weighed the fish. It was 45.8 pounds, and they measured it at just under five feet long.

Research biologist Ed Baker cut a small hole in the sturgeon’s belly to check its gender.

“It’s a girl,” he called out.

John Stiles, the angler who caught her, looked on. He said he likes the thrill of catching sturgeon. I asked him if he plans to eat it, and he said yes.

“We just fry them up,” said Stiles.

Tim Cwalinski with the DNR said even though the harvest limit is so low, people still come out to fish because it’s a strong part of the local culture around Onaway and Cheboygan.

“People like big fish. These aren’t bluegill. They’re fish that weigh as much as some of the people coming in to register,” he said.

Spectators crowded around the fish. They took pictures of it and posed next to it.

Out on the ice, the second sturgeon was caught, then the third, and so on, until the final fish was caught. After two and half hours, the season was over.