Yellow perch fishing season on western Lake Erie is just getting under way, but fishermen should be aware that they might catch more than they bargained for. They might hook a sturgeon.
Just last weekend, Charles Kassay of Port Clinton was perching just outside the Camp Perry Firing Range boundaries when he latched onto a 211/2-inch sturgeon. On July 7, another perch fisherman hooked a 33-inch sturgeon near the foghorn at the Sandusky harbor.
“We've had a baker's dozen - 13 - reported so far this year,” said Dave Davies, a biologist at the state's Lake Erie Fisheries Research Station in Sandusky. Most of the fish were two to three feet long or more.
Perch anglers landed four sturgeon in June, four were landed by ice fishermen last winter, and two were landed by commercial trapnetters in May. One sturgeon was found dead in May off the Michigan shoreline.
Davies urges anglers to report their catches, and to be sure to look for and record any tag information. Sturgeon are an endangered species in Ohio's Lake Erie waters, and must be released. The Sandusky station can take reports at 419-625-8062.
“We're not seeing juveniles,” said Davies, about smaller younger fish. Juvenile sturgeon would be an encouraging sign that reproduction is taking place in the lake.
Sturgeon ultimately can exceed six feet in length and weigh more than 200 pounds. They are an ancient, primitive fish that were around when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Covered with bony plates instead of scales, they may live 100 years or more. But they must survive 15 to 25 years and grow to 55 inches or longer before they are capable of spawning.
Sturgeon numbers have declined perilously worldwide, including on the Great Lakes, according to Dr. Tracy Hill, a researcher with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service based in Alpena, Mich.
Commercial over-fishing and outright wanton waste in the 19th and early 20th centuries were two causes for decline, along with pollution and loss of spawning habitat in clean, gravel-bedded streams. Construction of dams a century ago blocked spawning runs up many Great Lakes tributaries, including those along western Lake Erie.
Hill is a leading scientist in an effort to locate and protect sturgeon-spawning habitat. He noted that two of the three causes of sturgeon decline have been addressed. The species is protected from commercial fishing and for 30 years pollution-control efforts have made great strides.
“It pretty much comes back to the dams,” he said, noting that “there is no question that sturgeon were in the Sandusky River.”
Upstream access to the Sandusky has been blocked for some 90 years by the Ballville Dam at Fremont. Possible removal of the dam is part of a long-term, controversial discussion as the city wrestles with needs for a new water supply.
One year ago a fisherman hooked and landed a 5-foot, 1-inch sturgeon in the Maumee River between Waterville and Grand Rapids, where a dam also blocks upstream fish access. It was the first sturgeon reported in modern times in the Maumee.
Lake Erie historically had the largest sturgeon production of all the Great Lakes, Hill noted, but even today its small neighbor up the Detroit River, Lake St. Clair, “is chuck-full of sturgeon.”
“We have caught (and tagged) 450 fish there since 1996 and never had a recapture,” the biologist said. “It looks like the fish are very migratory.”
Indeed, individual sturgeon have been known to wander hundreds of miles in the Great Lakes.
Hill noted that since sturgeon restoration efforts got under way in earnest in 1995, several fishery agencies have cooperated in tagging almost 4,000 sturgeon from Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay to western Lake Erie's Point Pelee.
It is critical to know the sources of sturgeon reproduction and their movements, said Hill, stressing the importance of reporting catches. He cautioned, however, that anglers should not remove any tags on the fish - just record tag information, which includes the tagging agency, and report the catch.
One of the highlights of Hill's work so far this season has been the discovery of a new sturgeon spawning site at Zug Island in the Detroit River, which lies south of the Ambassador Bridge above Wyandotte, Mich.
“There were eight historic spawning sites (in the river) and this is not one of them.”
Hill and fellow researchers have been capturing sturgeon using baited set-lines. The fish then are tagged and released.
The goal for the 2001 season is to catch and tag 40 fish; field crews had caught 31 as of mid-July. Among the captures was a 6-foot, 11/4-inch fish that weighed 118 pounds and is estimated to be 60 to 80 years old. It was implanted with a sonic transmitter, as have been some other sturgeon.
The transmitters enable biologists to track sturgeon movements to determine additional spawning grounds. Once known, Hill said that such sites can be enhanced and protected from disturbances.
It appears that sturgeon are making a comeback at least in such Great Lakes connecting channels as the St. Marys, St.Clair, Detroit, Niagara and St.Lawrence rivers, Hill said. They are “fairly abundant” there.
But he sees only “incremental increases” in numbers over the past four to five years. Some estimates place sturgeon numbers at just one percent of their historic levels. That is a better track record than the zero for dinosaurs - Jurassic Park fantasies notwithstanding, but not good enough.
“The populations are nowhere near where we want them to be,” Hill said.