Wisconsin’s efforts to re-establish the lake sturgeon in its natural range continue to advance, even as public interest grows in the majestic and valuable fish.
Wisconsin’s hook-and-line season runs from Sept. 6-30 and this year the state has issued more than 28,000 licenses to anglers who intend to take to lakes and rivers of the state in pursuit of the fish. Interest in hook-and-line sturgeon fishing has been strong in recent years as the state Department of Natural Resources’ efforts to rebuild sturgeon populations continue to gain traction.
“Sturgeon are an iconic fish, especially in Wisconsin, and we are seeing more citizen interest in general about the fish, as well as in sturgeon sport fishing,” said Ron Bruch, DNR fisheries director and a former Lake Winnebago sturgeon biologist. “Thanks to the successful restoration efforts under way in many Wisconsin waterways, sturgeon enthusiasts have more opportunities to see or recreate with this prehistoric fish than they’ve had in the last 100 years.
“While it may take 33 to 45 years for the fish we are rearing today to reach the 60-inch limit for legal harvest in the fall hook-and-line fisheries, anglers tell us they are enjoying the excitement of catching and releasing fish stocked from our hatcheries only a few years ago,” he said. “At the same time, we’re providing numerous opportunities for students and volunteers to participate and learn more about the sturgeon, part of our state’s rich natural heritage.”
Streamside rearing stations, which use river water flowing through tanks to help young sturgeon grow and imprint on proven habitat, have been producing an average of 1,200 fingerling sturgeon for release in the Milwaukee River each year since 2004 and 1,120 per year in the Kewaunee River since 2009. Neither river offers a sturgeon harvest season, but educational programs at the fish rearing facilities host thousands of visitors interested in sturgeon each year.
The Wild Rose State Fish Hatchery serves other waters in the state and has been producing as many as 40,000 sturgeon each year since the second phase of its renovation was completed in 2010.
“Fish from the Wild Rose hatchery now support restoration efforts in the upper Menominee River, the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage, several upper St. Croix tributaries and much of the Wisconsin River,” hatchery supervisor Steve Fajfer said.
A complete list of inland waters with a hook-and-line sturgeon season can be found in the 2014-2015 Fishing Regulations.
Wisconsin stands near the center of the lake sturgeon’s historic range, which extends west into the Dakotas, east through the Great Lakes region, south through Missouri and Tennessee and north through Ontario to Hudson Bay.
“Lake sturgeon are Wisconsin’s largest and longest-lived fish, capable of reaching 250 pounds and living 150 years,” said Ryan Koenigs, chairman of the DNR’s sturgeon team and sturgeon biologist for the Lake Winnebago system. “Through effective harvest management, stocking efforts and attention to habitat, we’re seeing populations on the rebound. However, since the female sturgeon won’t begin spawning until age 21 to 34, we’ll be looking to document the ultimate success of our efforts, natural reproduction by stocked fish, 30 years from when stocking was initiated on a body of water.”
In the meantime, people of all ages appear drawn to the sturgeon for a variety of reasons.
Scott Stromberger, a fisheries team member at the C.D. Besadny Anadromous Fish Facility on the Kewaunee River, said the hatchery started a sturgeon adoption program two years ago that allows citizens to help stock and track the fish through passive integrated transponder or pit tags inserted shortly before young fish are released. In years to come, if the fish are captured or harvested, the tags will provide insight into their growth and movement.
“For $5, people are able to adopt a sturgeon and send it down a fish slide into the river when they are ready to be released,” Stromberger said. “Historically, the Kewaunee River provided excellent habitat but through over-fishing, the population was reduced. In another three to four years, we expect to see some males from some of our initial stocking efforts 10 years ago make their way back into the river from Lake Michigan, where they have been maturing.”
Funds raised through the sturgeon adoption program are dedicated to restoration efforts.
In addition to the stocking efforts and habitat improvements, DNR fisheries biologists credit the more restrictive length limit of 60 inches instituted in 2007 for aiding in the rebound of the sturgeon population. Prior to establishment of the 60-inch limit, the annual harvest exceeded 30 percent of the adult population on some waters, an unsustainable level. With the limit, less than 5 percent of the adult population is now being harvested each year, a level considered safe to maintain natural reproduction.
The minimum length for harvest remains at 60 inches this year. However, there are catch-and-release only seasons downstream from the Hattie Street dam on the Menominee River in Marinette and on the St. Croix River between Wisconsin and Minnesota from Oct. 1-15.