Wednesday, June 26, 2013

CORRECTED Truncated version: Rare lake sturgeon catch more rare than one might think

A pair of Lake County anglers set out to catch one of Lake Erie's most common fishes but what hung on until the very last moment was one of the lake's most rare specimens.

And the pair not only have cell-phone photographs to prove it, one of the anglers is a minister.
Both of those details should dispel any thoughts that what they have, Rev. Evan Nunnally of Madison Township and Evan Price of Perry Township came across a rare lake sturgeon, officially listed as an endangered species in Ohio.

It was Price who actually fair-hooked the beast, first thinking he had snagged a submerged tree instead of a bottom-dwelling lake sturgeon.

The two anglers were fishing in 44 feet of water when Price hooked into the sturgeon. It was actually the first fish of the day for Price.

Having his fishing reel's drag set light and using 30-pound test braided Fireline, Price took a good 15 minutes to bring the sturgeon to the lake's surface, Nunnally said.

At that point the quick-thinking Nunnally reached for his cell phone and began taking several digital photographs.

It was a good thing, too, as the lake sturgeon wanted no part of being netted anymore than it wanted to be hooked.

“As we got it to the boat I tried to lift it by the line, but the hook straightened out and the fish swam away,” Nunnally said.

With the image of the fish recorded on the cell phone Nunnally and Price went looking for someone to make a positive I.D. That is, only after both men had caught their respective 30-fish daily limit of Lake Erie yellow perch.

Turns out the fish was, in fact, a rare lake sturgeon, perhaps as long as five feet, Nunnally said.

The lake sturgeon was the most commercially important Lake Erie fish species from the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, says Kevin Kayle, manager of the Ohio Division of Wildlife's Fairport Harbor Fisheries Research Station.

Spawning sturgeon were known to have followed their call to duty up Maumee River tributaries as far upstream as Lima.

Likewise the lake sturgeon was common to the Ohio River drainage system with reports of specimens making spawning runs up the Scioto River as far as Columbus. The last known Ohio River-caught lake sturgeon was in 1971, however, a Wildlife Division document says.

“Sturgeon were once so abundant that when they made their spawning migrations into the lake's tributaries people would spear them,” Kayle says.

What's more, often times these fishers would simply gut any spawning-run female they caught, remove the eggs for sale as caviar and then leave the fish's carcass to rot, Kayle says.

Sturgeon also are Lake Erie's most long-lived fish species, capable of aging to as much as 150 years and having the potential of growing to six feet in length.
A few specimens are even known to have grown to eight feet in length, according to data available from the Wildlife Division.

Weights of 50 to 100 pounds were common, too, while the largest-ever recorded lake sturgeon taken in the Ohio waters of Lake Erie weighed 216 pounds and was caught in 1929.

With an egg-depositing cycle of five to seven years for female lake sturgeon it did not take long for the ever-improving commercial fishing industry to over-exploit the increasingly vulnerable lake sturgeon.

Between that exploitation and degraded stream spawning habitat the lake sturgeon's population had no where else to go but down, and down hard.

As for today's lake sturgeon management the Wildlife Division is monitoring what few fish that anglers catch while at the same time observing the on-going rehabilitation efforts in the Upper Great Lakes along with stream habitat improvements being taken in the Detroit and St Clair River systems, Kayle says.

As for the dimensions of Price's catch, there seems to be some disagreement there between the minister and the biologist.

While Nunnally is of the firm conviction the lake sturgeon went five feet, the best estimate that Kayle is willing to make is that the fish was probably about four feet long and weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, and likely was (still is since it made its great escape) 10 to 25 years old.

“So the fish that Mr. Price caught was really something unique,” Kayle said. “They have quite a fishing tale to tell.”

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

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