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Michael Mentzer is The Reporter's managing editor. He can be reached at mmentzer@fdlreporter.com or at 907-7910.

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The forces that burst the blooms on the star magnolia in my backyard are the same ones that trigger the lake sturgeon spawning ritual on the Wolf River and throughout the Winnebago System.

Somehow they are conjoined. I noticed the connection a number of years ago and I've watched it unfold like clockwork each of the past three years. For some reason, I pay attention to things like that like never before.

The fuzzy, gray skins of countless magnolia buds split a few days ago, and snow white petals and the fragrance of magnolia emerged until the 25-foot tree was crowned in a mane of fragile white stars.

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When that phenomenon begins to occur, Ron Bruch's missives appear in my email files.

For those who don't know of him, Ron Bruch's claim to fame is his work as a fish biologist — most notably a lake sturgeon biologist — at the Department of Natural Resources Office in Oshkosh.

When his emails arrive, I pause immediately to read them. His words are the sturgeon gospel, and to a certain degree the chronicle of history and natural science in the Winnebago System.

Beauty and the beast

This spring's arrival of magnolias and sturgeon — a link of beauty and the beast — ranks among the earliest ever recorded, though admittedly the "official" records are only 62 years old.

Late Tuesday night, March 20, the first day of spring, Bruch wrote in an email to recipients throughout the area: "The 2012 sturgeon spawning season appears to have begun — the earliest on record."

He sent out a plea for "sturgeon guards" to ensure the safety of spawning sturgeon along the shorelines throughout the Winnebago System. It's one of the great environmental success stories in our part of the world — Sturgeon for Tomorrow and people protecting a species for future generations.

Sturgeon prospects are bright not only here but at points around the world because of work and research being done on the Winnebago System and also because of a commitment that binds human beings to prehistoric creatures with whom we share the planet.

Anyone who has ever witnessed the vulnerability of huge spawning sturgeon knows the need for "sturgeon guards." There was a time when the fate of sturgeon here was genuinely threatened by arrogance, greed and ignorance.

On Wednesday night, Bruch wrote: "Sturgeon are now spawning along the Sturgeon Trail west of New London on County Trunk X. We captured and tagged 75 fish there this afternoon in about three hours."

They tagged 200 in that same spot on Thursday and 300 more at various spots in New London and Shiocton on Friday.

Sturgeon Trail

If time allows, the walk along Sturgeon Trail in New London is priceless and unforgettable. Go if you can. The peak of activity will be "pretty intense and condensed," Bruch wrote Friday. Viewing will be at a premium this season.

There is a lesson to keep in mind in this progression of sturgeon spawning, magnolia-making and northward bird migrating this special time of year. We get to be a part of it for a time. We even get a chance to have a say about it and do some good and open the door for others to carry it on.

The bottom line, though, is that we are stewards — good ones or not so good. We don't really own any of these resources. We can't take them with us. Our responsibility is to take care of them and pass them along to the next generation in better condition than we received them.

I sensed some of that feeling in a surprise piece of information Bruch passed along Tuesday night.

"I am extremely pleased to introduce the person that will carry on after me as the next Winnebago sturgeon biologist — Ryan Koenigs," Bruch wrote. "Ryan's new appointment begins March 25 (today)…I am not going anywhere yet, but the day will come at some point, and I am confident the Winnebago Sturgeon Program will be in good hands with Ryan."

A day later, Bruch mentioned in passing "big Dan Folz," whom he described as "my very good friend and predecessor as the Winnebago sturgeon biologist."

Folz, a UW Badger basketball center in his day, continues to serve as a member of the sturgeon tagging crew even though he retired many years ago.

Link to the past

Bruch mentioned that the last time sturgeon may have spawned this early in the season was in 1938 when temperatures were extremely warm in late March.

"In fact, we have some adult sturgeon in our population spawning this year that would have spawned in that early warm spring of 1938," Bruch wrote. "These would be the 90 to 100-year-old and older females or the 180-plus pound fish we have in our population."

Bruch noted that Folz is the only crew member among them who was even alive in 1938.

In human terms, that's quite a while ago. In the natural scheme of things, it's not long at all.

Michael Mentzer is The Reporter's managing editor. He can be reached at mmentzer@fdlreporter.com or at 907-7910.

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