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It was like going to a singles' bar. The comers mingled, touched each other, stayed together for a moment, then moved on. Suddenly, something clicked and their rapture exploded.
This singles' bar, though, was for fish – sturgeon, as a matter of fact – not people. And when their rapture exploded, they celebrated with such fervor that the cold water splashed up the side of the rocky riverbank and onto my face, leaving icy drops as I leaned over to get a closer look, not to mention a few pictures! The fish created such noise as they thrashed about that it sounded like a waterfall.
My friend and I were on the banks of the Wolf River north of Shiocton as volunteers with the Wisconsin Sturgeon Guards. Our mission? To prevent any harm or poaching as the sturgeons spawned and started another generation in an ongoing cycle that stretches back millions of years.
Sturgeons spawn in shallow water, right next to shore and in such large numbers that they are vulnerable to human poachers. People wading in the shallow waters might easily collect them by hand or net. Both sturgeon eggs and meat are prized foods. The eggs are easily processed into caviar that is nearly equal in quality to some of the world's best Russian caviar. Lake sturgeons are also smoked as a tasty fish. Sturgeons are huge and grow very slowly. Consequently, without protection and regulated harvests, sturgeon populations quickly diminish to dangerously low levels.
Sturgeons are considered rare species worldwide and here in Wisconsin, they are on watch status, which means they are protected with fishing and spearing restrictions. Active sturgeon management sustains strong populations of this ancient fish on the Lake Winnebago chain of lakes and tributaries, the Wolf River, the Menominee River, the St. Croix River to the Gordon Dam, the Namekagon River below the Trego Dam, and the Chippewa and Flambeau rivers. Stocking by DNR fisheries crews with help from local sporting clubs and Native Americans is also restoring populations on lakes in Washington, Dane, Waupaca and Washburn counties, on the Wisconsin, Baraboo and Milwaukee rivers, and several other waters under tribal management.
Given the number of recovery plans in so many places, it's not plausible to monitor every site during the spawning period, but more intensive efforts continue where sturgeons traditionally congregate in large numbers on the Lake Winnebago chain. Since 1987, the nonprofit organization Sturgeon for Tomorrow has cooperated with the Department of Natural Resources to put out a call for volunteer Sturgeon Guards to watch over the spawning fish during the short breeding season.
Lake sturgeons spawn on cue in a brief breeding season as warming spring weather raises the water temperature. If water flow is high and water temperatures rise slowly, spawning begins in mid to late April when the water temperature reaches 53° F. When it is drier and water flow is low, the water temperature rises more rapidly and spawning begins when the water temperature reaches 58-59° F.
To make sure that guards will be available, the DNR sends out a call for volunteers about a month in advance. Two 12-hour shifts are available: daytime from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., or nighttime, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Shifts cover a three-week spawning period that begins about the middle of April and continues through the first week in May. As you might imagine, finding volunteers for the nighttime shifts when the air can stay pretty chilly can be especially difficult. Since I wanted to maximize my chances for being assigned, I signed up for a night shift during the second week. To hedge our bets, we also offered our services for a daytime shift during the first week. We got lucky and were called to service.
On call, on demand
The Sturgeon Guard system runs a bit like jury duty. You telephone the sturgeon hotline every day and listen to a recorded message that tells you to either show up for the patrol or go ahead with your normal activities. Other messages may tell you to show up unless you are notified that you are not needed in a specific location. Thirty-six sites are staffed each night. When you are accepted into "The Guard," you receive directions to report to a central fish camp where you will be trained and assigned to a final nearby destination. When I called the hotline on April 15th, I got my marching orders and was told to report for duty at 6 a.m. on Tuesday, April 19th.
The camp at Shiocton is a staging ground and was only the kick-off point for our adventure. This training site is owned by the Department of Natural Resources and consists of an old farmhouse, a large barn and a couple of other farm buildings. Since we were traveling to sturgeon camp on unfamiliar roads in the dark, we left ourselves plenty of travel time. We arrived around 3 a.m. We had previously been offered a bunk, but declined and chose to stay in our camper since we were unsure about our arrival time. We slept for about three hours, then were greeted in the morning with a hearty home-cooked breakfast, compliments of Sturgeon for Tomorrow. The organization kept us well-fed, providing the fixings for sack lunches and a hot dinner at the end of our 12-hour shift. They also gave each of us a must-have fire engine red baseball cap emblazoned with "PATROL Sturgeon for Tomorrow 2005" across the front. Generally I dislike wearing caps because they leave indentations in my hair, but this one came in handy to identify me to potential poachers and to break the ice when welcoming visitors, meeting property owners and contacting helpful DNR wardens. We were off after breakfast, hats in hand, with directions to reach our patrol spot.
Staffing our post
We were assigned to guard "our" sturgeons from a rocky shore along the Wolf River just north of Shiocton. The shoreland property is privately owned and contains some spawning habitat where rock riprap was being added to a steep shoreline to protect the area from further erosion. The owner lamented some delays in his project, but was grateful that improvements were finally underway. Truckloads of rock were still piled near the shore. Our access to the river followed a trail from his house almost a mile through a woods at the edge of the property. The owner drove down on his ATV to see how we were doing, visit us and then do some fishing. Since he could not fish where the sturgeons were spawning, he took off in his motorized rowboat. Except for the splashing fish, it stayed pretty quiet as the morning progressed.
Male sturgeons arrive at the shallow spawning grounds before the females and mill around in groups of eight or more. They come so close to the surface that their snouts, backs and tails pop right out of the water. Spawning begins as soon as a ripe female arrives. The males crowd around her, thrashing about releasing clouds of sperm (called milt) while the females start dropping eggs. Each egg is only about an eighth-inch in diameter. Fertilized eggs get quite sticky and they drop in the fast current adhering to rocky crevices, under branches, river bottoms and onto any other solid surface. While a female may produce anywhere from 50,000 to 700,000 eggs during the short spawning season, only a very small percent survive to hatch in 12-14 days. In addition to human predators, suckers follow the sturgeons as they spawn for the sole purpose of eating the freshly deposited eggs.
The sturgeons are especially vulnerable during their first few years when they are smaller and slower than many fish that prey upon them. It helps that their bony armor develops quickly, but they grow slowly and it takes decades before young sturgeons join the breeding population. The males typically spawn about every other year starting about age 15. They can live about 40 years in the wild. Females don't mature until around age 25 when they are about 55 inches long and they only spawn every three to five years. They can live 80 years or more if they don't succumb to disease, pollution or human harvest.
Fossil records of sturgeons date back about 100 million years and the fish maintain many primitive features that contributed to their success over the millennia. They are very interesting looking creatures, three to five feet long with tails that look like small shark fins. Four feelers called barbels hang in front of their mouths and alert them to food as they cruise along the bottoms of the waterways. Sturgeons have no teeth. Their mouths and lips actually pop out, lower and work like vacuums to suck up and filter food detected by their barbels. Sturgeons have no scales but develop a firm, shell-like body armored with five rows of bony, overlapping plates.
As we kept an eye on our fishy charges from shore, other human visitors stopped by during the day to watch the mating rituals from the riverbank or from their fishing boats. We watched the boaters carefully too. The DNR equipped us with cell phones, thanks to U.S. Cellular, to report poachers or note other problems.
A DNR warden was among those who visited. We had a nice chat with him and learned that the spawning period had an unusually early start in 2005. He mentioned that staff scrambled to line up enough volunteers to cover the weekend patrol, but he expected the annual spawning run would be finished by week's end. He was right. I subsequently called the DNR hotline and learned that the fish camp would close for the season by the next Friday.
We were lucky to get even one shift on patrol, but I got hooked by the experience, and we have a clearer idea of what to expect this year when we sign up once again to reserve a date to "chaperone" as sturgeon meet, mix and mosh in their annual, ancient dance.
Frankie Fuller volunteers for the American Hiking Society and the Friends of the Horicon Marsh with her friend, Kent Wahlberg. She writes from Madison.