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Published: Friday, 1/18/2013

Sturgeon get special treatment at Black Lake

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR

A unique fishing season will open on Michigan’s Black Lake on Feb. 2. What makes it so unusual?

■ The fish being pursued have ancestors that date to about 130 million years ago.

■ The season will likely be over in just a few hours.

■ The fish are not actually caught, but instead speared.

■ All of the fishing occurs through the ice.

■ Some of the fisherman use decoys to try to lure the fish near holes in the ice.

Black Lake, near Cheboygan in the upper reaches of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, has a resident population of lake sturgeon. The sturgeon is a primitive fish that seemingly decided long ago to sit out a few rounds of the evolutionary process.

It has a hide with very few scales, and is covered to a degree with bony plates. Its skeleton is made up mostly of cartilage, and its toothless mouth is set back on the underside of its head. Barbels hang below its mouth to help the sturgeon locate its food, which is primarily small fish, snails, crayfish, and larvae.

Sturgeon, which are also present in very small numbers in Lake Erie, can live to be more than 100 years old. The females do not have the ability to reproduce until they are about 20 years old, and then spawn only every three to seven years. Males are mature at about 15 years of age.

Historically, sturgeon were harvested from Black Lake without strict regulations, but about 15 years ago that changed as concerns over the dwindling numbers of sturgeon mounted. Dams on the adjacent Black River had severely limited the sturgeon’s ability to spawn.

“We’ve seen a whole change in the understanding of the fish in the lake and river system,” said Tim Cwalinski, fisheries biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Cwalinski said the anglers in the area worked with the MDNR, which initially closed the season, and then instituted a very low harvest quota, beginning in about 2000. For the last few years, that total harvest number has been based on an estimate of what one percent of the adult sturgeon population would be. A population count takes place during the sturgeon spawning run in the spring, which is closed to fishing.

In keeping with the terms of an 1836 treaty, the harvest is split between the licensed fishing public, and five Native American tribes with a historical presence in the region. The tribes have a more liberal season in which to harvest their fish.

The total harvest limit for the open 2013 sturgeon season on Black Lake is six fish, so the tribes will receive an allotment of six additional fish. The public fishing season on Black Lake will close immediately once a sixth fish harvested, or at the end of any fishing day after five total fish have been harvested.

Last year, with a harvest limit of just two fish, the sturgeon season ended in only two hours. The 2011 quota was so low because an over-harvest of four fish occurred in 2010, reducing the 2011 take, but improved methods of signaling anglers that the quota has been reached should eliminate that.

There is no limit to the number of fishermen allowed on the ice, and Cwalinski estimated that last year’s event drew about 200 anglers, while the 2011 season saw more than 300 fishermen on the ice. In that 2011 season, the harvested sturgeon ranged from 29 to 68 inches in length, and from five to 73 pounds in weight.

The Michigan state record for legally harvested lake sturgeon came from nearby Mullett Lake, a 193 pound fish that measured 87 inches and was harvested in 1974.

Black Lake, which with about 10,000 acres is Michigan’s ninth largest inland body of water, is one of the few places in the state where sturgeon can be legally caught, and the only place where the fish can be taken with a spear. There is highly restricted lake sturgeon fishing on Lake St. Clair in the St. Clair River, on Otsego Lake, and in the Michigan-Wisconsin boundary waters. Elsewhere throughout the state all sturgeon must be released immediately.

Black Lake, has a special season and special regulations that go along with its historical special relationship with the sturgeon. Individuals and agencies teamed up to address the population decline of the sturgeon by opening a hatchery along the Black River, southwest of the lake.

A partnership of the northern Michigan hydropower producer Tower-Kleber, working in conjunction with the MDNR, biologists from Michigan State, and the Black Lake chapter of Sturgeon For Tomorrow, support the facility. Each spring, individuals from Michigan State and the MDNR collect eggs and larval fish from the Black River and raise juvenile sturgeon at the hatchery.

Cwalinski said the hatchery’s role is vital, since natural reproduction in the river system is very limited.

“These are big system fish and there are some spawning grounds left, but many of them might just be going through the motions,” he said. “This is not like the walleye running up the Maumee River.”

About 3,200 sturgeon are stocked in Black Lake each year, with Mullett and Burt lakes receiving from 100 to 500 fish each.

WILD GAME MEALS: The Fort Meigs Sertoma Club will hold its 39th Annual Wild Game Dinner at 6 p.m. on Jan. 25 at Holland Gardens. The table fare will include wild hog, venison, moose, wild turkey, gator, walleye, pheasant, and rabbit. For tickets and information, contact George Damasco at 419-740-0675.

South Side Sportsmen’s Club hosts its wild game dinner on Feb. 16 at 5:30 p.m. at Glass City Boardwalk in Moline. There will be pheasant, buffalo, elk, venison, rabbit, boar, and turtle soup served, along with a cash bar. Live entertainment will be provided by Johnny Rodriguez. For tickets and information call: Bob Summerskill at 419-836-2046, Jeff Wright at 419-467-4187, David Theiss at 419-320-3584, or Keith Michalski at 419-466-7627.

URBAN BIRDING: The Toledo Naturalists Association is hosting an urban birding field trip on Jan. 20 to view water birds, with the hope of seeing Glaucous, Iceland, and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, among other species. The ice conditions on Lake Erie and along the Maumee River will dictate where the tour heads, but interested parties should meet tour leader Tom Kemp at 8:30 a.m. at the public fishing access on Bayshore Road in Oregon, just east of the power plant. Updated information will be posted on the www.rarebird.org or www.toledonaturalist.org websites to relay any last minute weather-related announcements on cancellations.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068 .



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