By Sue Schneider
Northwoods lakes were once teeming with lake sturgeon, a species so perfectly adapted to its environment that it has remained virtually unchanged since prehistoric times.
People have been fascinated with the fish for its large size, long life and strange appearance, including pointed snout, hard, spiny plates and dangling whiskers. Now, an ongoing area project of propagation and stocking may be bringing the big fish back.
The Waswagoning people, or Lac du Flambeau tribe, traditionally harvest walleye and musky each spring with spears, and will take sturgeon if they can. Lac du Flambeau is a French name meaning “Lake of Torches.” The use of flaming torches to lure fish to the surface during the night-time spring harvest caught the imaginations of French explorers and fur traders.
A record-breaking sturgeon was speared in 1981 by tribal member Butch St. Germaine, Sr. At 7 feet, 1 inch long and almost 200 pounds, it was the largest recorded fish ever taken by spear. The fish was mounted and is now on display at the museum in the village of Lac du Flambeau.
Now president of the tribe, Butch recalls the catch. “It was this time of year, and we were going for muskies,” he says. “I speared it and just hung on until it was played out. We had to go to shore to get it into the boat and back.”
“People were excited; everyone wanted to see it,” he says. “We took it over to the school the next day so the kids could see it and touch it. They couldn’t believe something that big came out of our lake. It was a female and full of eggs; they say she was over 80 years old.”
The Waswagoning have respect for the sturgeon, just as they do for all living things, but in the past few decades, sturgeon haven’t been seen often. “Once in a while, you’ll see them at the old village down by the dam,” Butch says. “But now we’ve stocked them into the channel lakes and in Sand Lake, so we hope they’ll be here again.”
For centuries, the Lac du Flambeau chain of lakes had everything the fish needed: fast moving rivers for spawning, lake beds full of tasty larvae and worms for sustenance, and connecting streams and wetlands for traveling long distances.
But as in many other areas, human-built dams interfered. In 1910, a hydropower dam was constructed on the Bear River which, in essence, stopped the sturgeon life cycle. Like salmon, lake sturgeon return to their birthplace to breed, and fast-moving water is necessary for the spawning process.
Ten years ago, the Lac du Flambeau Natural Resources Department began an effort to breed and stock lake sturgeon with help from a federal grant. At that time, a healthy population of fish was thriving to the east in the Wolf River, aided in part by the Menominee tribe in that part of the state. But that was no help, according to department director Larry Wawronowicz.
“We are in a separate system here,” he explains. “Our waters and our fish are part of the Mississippi system where our rivers drain. We can’t mix the strains of sturgeon.”
They began to search for mature fish in their own waters. Sturgeon do not reach breeding age until they are around 15 years old, and even then only breed every two or three years. But they did find some, and for the next four springs, staff at the tribal natural resources department took their equipment to the area just below the Turtle/Flambeau River dam.
“There is flowing water and a few sturgeon gather there every spring,” Larry says. “They are a neat animal, so docile, almost dog-like in attitude. Nothing seems to bother them.”
The team had to work quickly, however, as the power company shut off the flow of the water for just 20 minutes. Staff waded in and netted the fish, stripping the eggs and sperm for propagation.
“We mix the sperm to make sure we get good gene diversity,” Larry says. “Two methods are used, wet and dry. The water will trigger it very quickly; there is just a 30- or 40-second window.”
Back at the Lac du Flambeau hatchery, the work continued. “The fertilized eggs have a sticky coating on them,” Larry explains. “In nature, that’s a good thing; you want the egg mass to cling to rock surfaces in the flowing water. We don’t want that in the hatchery, though, so the coating is removed with a wash of clay particles.”
Steady water temperature, flow and oxygen are vital for good growth of the tiny young. “Once the yolk sacs are absorbed, we have to start feeding them. They won’t take fish meal; we need to grow brine shrimp for them and we also give them blood worms that we buy frozen.”
Compared to other fish raised at the hatchery, sturgeon are difficult and expensive. But with care, in about four months, a good batch of five- to seven-inch fingerlings are ready to release into the wild. “In 2005 through 2008, we stocked thousands of them, at .5 fish per acre in our chain of lakes,” Larry says. “Each one had a PIT (personal identification tag) inserted into it for tracking.”
Twice during this time, 10 fish were kept at the hatchery and grown until they were 2 years old. “We performed sturgeon surgery using an anesthetic mixed with water and pumped into their gills on the operating table,” Larry says. “By placing radio transmitters in each one, we were able to release them into Pokegama Lake and track their movements.”
What they discovered was somewhat surprising. “They go deep in the winter and in summer months they stay in the shallows,” he says. “But the substrate didn’t seem to matter. They moved and fed in a variety of conditions.”
What lake sturgeon feed on is completely different than other game fish. “Unlike walleye or musky who have terminal mouths, sturgeon have mouths that open below and feed off the bottom,” he says. “They are not scavengers, but collect worms, larvae and other small animals they find in the muck.”
And since there have been very few sturgeon in residence for many years, there is now plenty of prey for the growing fish. “Lakes here are relatively unfertile,” Larry explains. “Compared to lakes to the south, cooler temperatures and sandy surfaces with less nutrients mean our sturgeon will not grow as fast. That’s why we stocked only a few fish.”
For now, Larry and his team have been monitoring the situation. “While netting walleye for breeding in April, we pulled up a sturgeon from Pokegama Lake,” he says. “Checking the PIT, we realized this was one we stocked in 2007 as a fingerling. It is now 38 inches and healthy.”
Last fall, one of the tribe’s sturgeon was captured off-reservation in Benson Lake, 10 miles north as the crow flies and even further as the fish swims. “One day, it’s possible that one of ours will make it all the way down to New Orleans,” Larry says.
Given the difficulty and expense, why has the tribe gone to such lengths to re-establish the lake sturgeon? “The more species included in a system, the healthier it is,” Larry notes. “And, simply put, clean air, water and land are needed for all species, including humans.
“Economic development is important in any area,” he continues. “But it cannot be at the expense of the environment. Bio-diversity is necessary; we need balance.”
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. Her articles also appear in Northwoods ‘boomers and Beyond and Northwoods Commerce magazines.