Spring, a time of renewal, rebirth and new beginnings. It also marks the ancient migration and mating rituals of lake sturgeon from the Lake Winnebago system as they seek warmer water and the rocky substrate of the Wolf River and its tributaries.
Sturgeon are unique. They are an ancient fish that has remained essentially unchanged for millions of years. There are 27 species of sturgeon worldwide and most of them reside in the sea, migrating into fresh water only to spawn. North America is home to eight species of sturgeon and three — the shovelnose, pallid and lake sturgeon — spend their entire lives in freshwater.
Lake Winnebago's population consists of the bottom dwelling lake sturgeon, a large fish that can reach 100 years or more in age. Already this year, the state's fisheries staff has reported seeing a few females in the 230-250 pound class. It is estimated that there are over 60,000 sturgeon swimming in the Lake Winnebago system, making it the largest and healthiest lake sturgeon population in the world.
Each spring, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources solicits volunteers to guard these ancient gems as they carry out their mating rituals along the rocky embankments of the river. Unfortunately, this practice makes them vulnerable to poachers, who seek to harvest the sturgeon for its roe, which eventually becomes caviar.
In an effort to deter this action, every year more than 300 volunteers sit in pairs along the riverbank spawning sites for a 12-hour shift. Many of the spawning sites are along the shoreline of private lands and it is through the grace and generosity of these landowners that this program is functional.
Guards wear hats as identification, armed with only a cell phone, and are instructed to notify a warden if they spot any suspicious activity. A meal is provided before and after the shift along with a sack lunch. In an effort to defray the costs, Sturgeon for Tomorrow, a conservation group, assists in funding the Sturgeon Guard program and has done so for more than 20 years.
Water temperature triggers this annual passage — about 54 degrees Fahrenheit, give or take. Last year I missed my opportunity to be part of this program, as the sturgeon had completed their spawning before my scheduled date. This year, the cold weather and snow of last week sent water temperatures plummeting and suspended any spawning activity. I have another shot this week and I hope Mother Nature is cooperative.
While many of the spawning sites are off limits to the public, there are some viewing locations where the interested viewers can catch a glimpse of these giants. The dam at Shawano, Bamboo Bend in Shiocton and the Wolf River trail near New London are prime areas.
There are also two webcams offering above and below water views of fish at the dam in Shawano. For more information on the sturgeon spawning go to dnr.wi.gov/fish/sturgeon/sturgeon_spawning.html.
James Krutilla is a local outdoors enthusiast