Fast and furious. Those words describe this year’s lake sturgeon spawning run on the Wolf River.
The run started Monday, April 29, but was over by Thursday, May 2, according to April Dombrowski, a state Department of Natural Resources conservation warden supervisor who coordinates the agency’s Sturgeon Guard program.
This year’s run of 3 1/2 days is considerably less than the average seven to 10 days. It also started a month later than last year’s run.
The DNR keeps an eye on more than 50 spawning sites. Most of them are on the Wolf River from New London upstream to Shawano, but some are also located on the Little Wolf and Embarrass rivers, which flow into the Wolf in Waupaca County.
Dombrowski schedules volunteer Sturgeon Guards that work 12-hour shifts – 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. or 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. – to keep an eye on the spawning sturgeon, which are fairly oblivious to nearby human activity and very susceptible to illegal harvest. The spawning fish – some of them more than 6 feet long – often draw large crowds of onlookers.
Popular viewing spots include Wolf River Sturgeon Trail near New London in Waupaca County, Bamboo Bend on Shiocton’s west side in Outagamie County and below the dam in Shawano in Shawano County.
“Our guards are a deterrent for people to think about doing wrong things with the sturgeon, but they also help us with public safety,” Dombrowski said. “When you get large groups of people looking at sturgeon, the sturgeon come right up to the rocks. You’ll have little kids getting as close as they can. They’re intrigued by them. In the past, people have lost their balance and fallen forward. The next thing you know, they’re smashing their face on the rocks. They’re there to warn people to be safe and not harass the fish.
“Once the media got the word out and through our social media, people came out of the woodwork and were shoulder to shoulder at some of the public viewing areas,” she said. “The word spreads fast and a lot of people want to be a part of it. We have a couple sites that are really enhanced for public viewing and provide a little more accessibility for people who want to come and see the sturgeon.”
Eighty-five volunteers participated in this year’s run, Dombrowski said.
Most of them signed up online.
“We still have a number of people that prefer to do it by filling out the registration form and e-mailing, faxing or mailing it to me,” Dombrowski said. “I just plug that into the online program and that creates a database. That’s something I can draw on for future guard programs.”
A late start
Weather played a role in this year’s late run, according to Dombrowski.
“We had a really cool spring,” she said. “Last year, we had a very warm spring and had sturgeon showing up three weeks ahead of time. They were in the system this year, but the conditions have to be right for the staging and spawning process. They prefer about 54 degrees for a water temperature for spawning.
“With our cool spring, the late snow and the runoff, it took a little while for that water to warm up,” she added. “We had some really warm days earlier that week and that’s what really triggered the sturgeon to go. They went hard and nonstop for that period of time, which led to that 3 1/2-day run. The sturgeon were hanging on a little longer than they were used to, so once that temperature was right, they took care of their activities.”
Once the run began, there was plenty of activity along the river.
“We had a suspicion that because the sturgeon had to hold on until the end of April and into May that they were going to go, go hard and be done,” Dombrowski said. “It was nonstop with a lot of fish in a lot of different spots up and down the system. We were running nonstop just trying to keep track of everything. It was pretty intense. We had a lot of interesting fish to see. I was checking a couple of sites and there was one big female. Just looking at it from the bridge, it was one of the biggest fish that I’ve ever seen. The girth was just huge. It’s always neat to see things like that first-hand.”
The sturgeon, which travel up the Wolf from lakes Winnebago, Poygan, Butte des Morts and Winneconne, often travel more than 100 miles before turning around and heading back. Distances from the Main Street bridge in Oshkosh include 82 miles to Manawa dam on the Little Wolf, 110 miles to the Pella on the Embarrass and 125 miles to the Shawano dam on the Wolf.
“Primarily, we work the Wolf River up to the Shawano dam and the Embarrass River,” Dombrowski said. “There’s a little bit on the Little Wolf (River), but our primary focus is the Wolf and Embarrass.”
The Sturgeon Guard program wouldn’t be possible without the financial support of Sturgeon for Tomorrow, Dombrowski said.
“We have a really strong Sturgeon Guard program, but there are other states that are similar to ours,” she said. “Not only do our volunteers make up the program, but for us to be able to have the program, we get funding from Sturgeon for Tomorrow. That really helps us out to run the camp. It covers Sturgeon Guard hats that the guards wear when they’re out on patrol.”
Sturgeon Guard members check in at Sturgeon Camp north of Shiocton before heading out to their spawning site.
“We have a camp cook that comes in and caters all the meals to the guards,” Dombrowski said. “We wouldn’t be able to do it without Sturgeon for Tomorrow.”
Illegal harvest of sturgeon continued after Wisconsin enacted laws protecting the prehistoric-looking fish. Besides using bare hands, people also used spears, gaff hooks, handlines, lassos and setlines. Protecting the fish used to fall completely on the DNR’s warden force until the Sturgeon Guard program started in the late 1980s.
“The success of the Sturgeon Guard program is really about the volunteers that come in because this program wouldn’t be what it is without them,” Dombrowski said. “My hat really goes off to them. They were very patient this year. We scheduled guards from April 1 to April 30. When that didn’t happen, there were a number of cancellations that took place. They were eager to do whatever they could to get scheduled in and really be a part of the protection of the resource.”
“It’s always interesting to be involved with the guards because when they come in, they have stories to tell,” Dombrowski said. “They did a really good job this year as far as stepping up to the plate when the green light went on.”
Sturgeon Guards include high school students and senior citizens.
“It’s couples that have been doing it together for 15 years and new people that heard about the program for the first time,” Dombrowski said. “They really come from all over. You have some locals from Shiocton, New London, Shawano, Green Bay and Oshkosh, but they come from as far as Kenosha, Racine and Madison. We had one group of five or six 18-year-olds from Appleton doing it as part of their conservation class in high school. It’s good to see that we’re having younger folks taking part in the protection of sturgeon. We have 18-year-olds, families and retired couples.”
Dombrowski originally scheduled guards from April 1-30, but it soon became apparent that the run would be put on hold.
“Because they spawned so early last year, we decided to schedule for the whole month and do updates and cancellations as we saw fit,” she said. “It’s easier to call people off than call people in unexpectedly. They were scheduled ahead of time. It was a matter of when the trigger date was going to be and when is the first day we’re going to start. Once we knew we were going to go, that word spread like wildfire.”
The guards provide a report after they return to Sturgeon Camp at the end of their shift.
“Our big thing with the guards is if they’re coming in, we want them to see fish,” Dombrowski said. “If there’s no activity, we’ll have them give us a call and get them to a site that has fish. We want our volunteers to be part of that experience.”
It’s an experience that they won’t forget anytime soon.
“We’re pretty spoiled here because this resource is right in our backyard,” Dombrowski said. “When you’re able to take a few seconds to step back and really appreciate what we have, it’s something that’s not only unique to Wisconsin and the United States, but worldwide. It’s fun to be a part of that process.”