Jeff Birkett of Poynette caught and released a monster sturgeon while catfishing on Lake Wisconsin in March. / Contributed Photo
FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT:
Karl Scheidegger (608) 267-9426; Ron Bruch (920) 424-3059; Dave Rowe (608) 635-5143
POYNETTE - The 240-pound, 7-foot 3-inch sturgeon that state fisheries crews netted Tuesday, April 10, during surveys on the Wolf River near Shawano isn't the only big one cruising around the Lake Winnebago system, nor in other Wisconsin waters for that matter.
A Poynette man reported to DNR last month that he and his daughter caught a lake sturgeon in an impoundment on the Wisconsin River while fishing for catfish and walleye on March 13. They measured the beast to the best of their ability and came up with 86 inches, or 7 feet 2 inches. Then they released the fish.
"I figured it was big cat or carp, but soon figured it must be a sturgeon," said Jeff Birkett in an email to the Department of Natural Resources. "I have caught a few in the fall but this fish had power unlike anything I have ever felt. It just would not come up off the bottom. I did not think we would ever see it and figured it would find something to break off on."
But the line didn't break and Birkett and his 17-year-old daughter Taylar held on for nearly 90 minutes before bringing the fish to the side of their boat and taking pictures with a cell phone. The hook and line season for sturgeon is closed and accordingly they released the fish.
"I figured I would grab her (fish), pick her out of the water for a few quick photos. I am a pretty strong guy, but it was all I could do to drag her in the boat," Birkett reported.
"I knew when we saw it was the fish of a lifetime. I told my daughter to savor the moment because it was bigger than anything we would ever see again. I felt privileged to hold such a giant. My only regrets are that Taylar could not be in the pictures and that we didn't get to put the fish on a scale. It felt good watching her swim away knowing someone else might get to touch her."
Sturgeon management efforts yield more big fish stories
Such big fish tales are becoming more common in Wisconsin as the state works with partners to update its sturgeon management plan to build on the success and lessons learned over the last generation, said Ron Bruch, who co-leads Wisconsin's sturgeon team who co-leads DNR's statewide sturgeon management team and heads up the sturgeon management program on the Winnebago system.
"The management program we've developed statewide for sturgeon is providing the fish the best opportunity since the 1800s to show us how big they can get and how long they can live," Bruch said.
The result is that while other states' sturgeon stocks dwindle, Wisconsin's populations of older bigger fish and populations in general are gaining for reasons detailed in A State for Sturgeon, in the February 2012 Natural Resources magazine.
Winnebago boasts the world's largest self-sustaining population of lake sturgeon, small but stable populations of lake sturgeon live on major inland waters like the Wisconsin River, the Menominee, Peshtigo, Flambeau and Chippewa rivers. Sturgeon are also being restored to other waters in their native range, like on the St. Louis River, where for the first time last year scientists documented offspring of lake sturgeon stocked in the 1980s and 1990s by Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The fish netted Tuesday, April 10, is the biggest fish captured during Wisconsin's half-century of surveys on Lake Winnebago, and would have been considerably heavier had it not already dropped most of what Bruch estimated to be 30 of the 80 pounds of eggs it was likely carrying before it began. It's considerably bigger than the biggest fish harvested in recent times, a 212- pound sturgeon taken by Ron Grishaber in 2010. A 478-pound, 9-foot, 2-inch fish was reported harvested in Green Bay in 1875 in the Oconto County Reporter and is perhaps the largest fish reported.
"There are other fish like the one we caught Tuesday out there on the Winnebago system," Bruch says. "We've seen them but we haven't been able to get our nets on them. And she wasn’t the only big one we saw this spring."
Winnebago System best suited to grow big fish, but others produce as well
On the Wisconsin River below the Dells dam, DNR crews have captured numerous fish over 70 inches in the last decade during population surveys, and an angler harvested a 79.4 inch fish in 2004 by the Dells dam. Below the first dams on the Menominee and Peshtigo rivers, DNR crews have captured about five sturgeon per year from 70-80 inches in length in the lower sections of these rivers.
Bruch said that Wisconsin waters with the greatest potential to grow big fish are ones where the river flows into large impoundments or lake with abundant food including insects, snails, clams, and crayfish. They eat fish too. On the Winnebago system, lakefly larvae and gizzard shad are key food items.
The Lower Wisconsin River likely can grow fish that big, as fish have access to the Mississippi River and the big water impoundments on that system created by the locks and dams, says Dave Rowe, DNR fisheries supervisor for the area that includes Lake Wisconsin and the lower Wisconsin River.
A 73-inch sturgeon was harvested in Lake Wisconsin in 2008, and DNR surveys have also turned up big fish as well in that impoundment and the Wisconsin River below the Dells dam, although the nets tend not to capture sturgeon at either end of the size spectrum, notes Mike Rennicke, DNR fisheries technician.
It's amazing that the sturgeon Birkett caught hadn't been harvested earlier by a sturgeon angler, Rennicke agreed.
Birkett was glad to have caught the fish of a lifetime -- and let her go. "It felt good watching her swim away knowing someone else might get to touch her."