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Long odds, short season: Michigan sturgeon a zany conservation success

ONAWAY—Few of the February fish tales on Black Lake end with a freezer full of fillets. But a lot of them come this close.

There’s the time Mary Paulson watched a monster lake sturgeon drift across the windshield-sized hole she and her husband, Jim, sawed through the ice, and hollered “Spear it!” a moment too late.

 

Or the time 15-year-old Gavin Green looked down into the blue-green water beneath his shanty, two hours after the season ended, to see a gray mass fill its frigid window. Green burst out, “Oh my gosh, sturgeon, sturgeon!” and felt a rush that has kept him coming back for more.

Or the three years in a row that Tracy Sears sat one shanty over from someone who speared a keeper. Sears, meanwhile, has still never seen a sturgeon in the water, despite 11 years of trying.

If success is measured by fish hauled from beneath the ice, most people who set out to bag a sturgeon on Black Lake fail miserably. With an annual fishing limit of just six fish, the odds are about 100-to-one, and the state-managed season is over within hours. 

Yet hundreds of fishers show up at this 10,000-acre lake near the tip of the mitt year after year, shutout after shutout, in pursuit of a fish so iconic, it has its own security detail, an annual festival, and a hulking metal statue of its likeness downtown.

And occasionally, they get lucky. 

Early Saturday, after 10 years of near misses, Jim Paulson of Riverdale speared the first fish of the 2021 season that began at 8 a.m.: A 26-pounder that drifted into the middle of his spearing hole just before 8:30. 

“I’m ecstatic about it,” Paulson said. “There’s people I’ve talked to out here who’ve been coming 20-30 years and never got one.”

The scene is a testament to the allure of Michigan’s oldest and biggest fish species, and to the success of a conservation effort that has enlisted recreational fishers (the sturgeon’s February foes) as champions of their recovery.

The Sturgeon General

At the center of it all is Brenda Archambo, the “Sturgeon General” of Black Lake.

Archambo, 58, remembers the first time she encountered a sturgeon, decades before her quest to save the ancient fish and preserve a local fishing tradition earned her the nickname and turned this small community into the Sturgeon Capitol of Michigan.

She was in kindergarten, ice fishing on Cheboygan County’s Burt Lake with her grandfather, and ran out of the shanty when she heard “a hoopla going on outside.” 

“Looking into the eye of that fish was just ... something,” she said. The elongated pupils reminded her of dinosaurs she’d seen in books. “You never forget it.”

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At the time, five decades ago, Michigan’s sturgeon population was already struggling due to decades of human-caused habitat loss and overfishing. 

By the millennium, biologists say adult sturgeon were all but gone from Burt Lake. That prompted Archambo to spearhead an effort to revive the struggling population in Black Lake, about 30 miles to the east, while fighting off a state proposal to end the spearfishing her family had practiced for generations.

Sturgeon, a state-listed threatened species, are “living dinosaurs,” said Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Tim Cwalinski, and have been on earth some 136 million years.

They look it, too. Cartilaginous bottom feeders that consume leeches, snails, larvae and the like, sturgeon look like freshwater sharks, without the teeth. They’re gray with white bellies, whisker-like barbels that dangle from their snouts, and spines lining their sides and back.

Female sturgeon, which are larger and longer-lived than males, can grow to more than 200 pounds, seven feet long, and live for more than a century.  

But like many large, long-lived animals, they reproduce far less frequently than their smaller, shorter-lived counterparts. Female sturgeon take about 25 years to begin reproducing, and only spawn once every four years or so. 

These traits are what makes a sturgeon so iconic. They also make them sensitive to overfishing.

“When you have a population that lives a long time and takes forever to mature,” Cwalinski said, “the more you take out of that population, the harder it is to rebuild.”

Disco balls and potato peels

Black Lake’s sturgeon season is technically five days long, but fishers typically hit the season’s quota in a matter of hours.

Fifteen minutes into Saturday’s season, Archambo and her two sisters, Debbie and Cathy McCall, discussed the best way to dress a sturgeon while they waited for one to swim under their shanty.

“A 60-pound fish gives you 20 pounds of usable meat, because the head is all cartilage,” she said.

Though she’s royalty among the Black Lake sturgeon fishing community, Archambo hasn’t sat in the shanty in years. Normally, she’d be busy overseeing the annual Sturgeon Shivaree, a celebration of the fish that coincides with the season. Proceeds from the party, hosted by the Black Lake Chapter of Sturgeon for Tomorrow, help fund sturgeon research and conservation programs. 

This year, COVID-19 restrictions put the Shivaree on hold. With a global pandemic still exacting a deadly toll in Michigan, it wouldn’t be safe to cram hundreds of people into standing-room-only tents on the ice for food and drinks, poker games and musical acts.

So Archambo took the opportunity to sit with her sisters. Cathy was the official spearer. 

Their shanty, a faux-brick cabin decorated with sturgeon decals and labeled “Sturgeon General'' in big red letters, is filled with mementos from a lifetime on the lake. Their grandfather’s spear, and that of their deceased brother. Faded family photos of people posing with prizewinning fish. Decoys carved by the 92-year-old uncle of Archambo’s husband, Gil.

“We’re fourth generation ice fishers,” said Brenda, barely visible in the darkened shanty, where lights were kept off to reduce glare on the water. Moments later, she offered a toast: “Here’s to a 2021 that is happy, fun, exciting...and Cathy, get a lunker.”

Shanties speckled the lake, with red and orange flags indicating those vying for the chance to spear a sturgeon. Every fisher has a signature tactic: A few potatoes or handfuls of rice thrown to the lakebottom to create a backdrop against which it’s easier to see a fish glide by. A coffee can, bowling ball, deer antler, disco ball, colander, or  old-fashioned carved wood decoy dangling in the water to entice a curious fish. 

Some submerge cameras underwater to get a better view.

It looks like carefree outdoor fun. But state officials said they went to great lengths to preserve the sturgeon season amid COVID. The key, said Cwalinski, the DNR biologist, was to eliminate opportunities for people to congregate. That meant nixing the on-ice trailer where DNR staff usually register sturgeon after they’re caught. People tend to crowd around it to gawk.

“It’s like a big buck pole,” he said. “We have to literally fight through the crowd to get to the fish.”

This year, successful fishers called a designated number to notify conservation officers they’d speared a fish, then hauled the catch to a DNR field office a mile south of the lake. They waited outside a guarded gate while state workers disappeared inside with the fish, reemerging minutes later to return it to its owner.

Fishers still on the ice received a text message each time someone caught a sturgeon. 
Just after 9 a.m., it was Bryan Wilson’s turn. The Cheboygan man nearly poked a hole in the shanty roof while wrestling with the 54-inch, 37-pound fish, which thrashed around the shanty floor as it fought to escape. 

“What a rush,” Wilson muttered as he fastened the sturgeon to a four-wheeler to transport it to the DNR office. “The water was so cloudy, I barely even saw” the sturgeon. 

From the brink

The sturgeon ice spearing season, one of only two in the U.S. (the other is on Wisconsin’s Lake Winnebago), is an annual tradition that almost disappeared. Fishing poles are allowed, but spearing is part of the Up North cultural tradition, Archambo said.

After decades of habitat destruction and overharvest, Black Lake’s adult sturgeon population, which biologists believe once numbered above 1,600, had plummeted to a few hundred by the late 1990s. 

That concerned species managers. Black Lake was one of few remaining sturgeon strongholds in Michigan. If sturgeon couldn’t survive there, where could they?

Once common to waterways throughout the Great Lakes region, the fish were wiped out across large portions of their range following European settlement. People built dams to control flooding and provide electricity, blocking the migratory fish’s access to spawning grounds. Black Lake sturgeon are hemmed in by a downstream dam on the Lower Black River, and two upstream dams on the Upper Black River.

Overfishing and habitat destruction compounded the problem. 

By 2000, DNR had banned sturgeon fishing at Mullett and Burt lakes. Black Lake was next on the list.

That angered Archambo. She sent letters to DNR leadership every month protesting the proposal. Recreational fishers were not to blame, she insisted. Poachers were.

Lake sturgeon’s spawning habits make them easy targets. As water temperatures warm in the spring, the massive creatures leave the deep, cold lakes where they spend most of their lives and swim upstream to spawn in the rivers of their birth. Hellbent on reproducing, the fish become indifferent to danger. Poachers could simply wade into the shallow water and grab them by the tail.

“People were just thunking them, putting them in the back of their trucks and selling the caviar,” Archambo said. So she told state officials: “It’s not OK for you to close our season and let that poaching continue.”

Ultimately, the state spared Black Lake’s sturgeon season, but enacted stringent harvest limits. Today, the harvest is split between the state and five Native American tribes — the Bay Mills Indian Community, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians and Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. 

Lake sturgeon, whose Anishinaabe name is nmé, is a known as the king of all fish among Great Lakes tribes, and was historically a key subsistence food. Maintaining a fishing season, said Dan Mays, a fisheries biologist for the Grand Traverse Band, “gives people the chance to connect to their culture.”

“Black Lake is a good example of how the state, the tribes and recreational fishers can work together with a fishery that gives people a chance to see the value of that fish,” he said.

Determined to keep the season open, Black Lake fishers enlisted as volunteer bodyguards to ward off poachers. They call themselves the Sturgeon Guard. For two decades, they have patrolled the Upper Black River from dusk to dawn through the month-long spawning season. Their ranks now include hundreds of people from across the state. 

“Sturgeon are such a gentle giant when they spawn,” said Mary Paulson, who coordinates the guard. “It’s scary to think people use that against them.”

Having limited fishing and dealt with poachers, the state partnered with Michigan State University, the Black Lake Chapter of Sturgeon for Tomorrow, and the Tower-Kleber Limited Partnership to boost the lake’s population. 

Tower-Kleber, which owns dams that block the fish from all but the first 9.5 miles of their spawning grounds, constructed the rearing facility as part of a settlement with the state. 

Workers collect juvenile fish when they hatch in the Upper Black River, then raise them in a riverside facility until they’re big enough to survive in the lake. 

The combination has worked. Today, there are well over 1,000 adult sturgeon in Black Lake. And with the fish they stocked 20 years ago now reaching reproductive age, managers expect recovery to surge in the coming years.

“We have a lot of fish waiting in the wings,” Cwalinski said, “they just haven’t hit maturity yet.”

There’s hope among the fishers that once that happens, the DNR will increase the season’s cap. State fisheries managers are aiming for an adult population of 1,600 to 2,000 by 2030 — a target they expect to hit. Eventually, they hope the population can flourish without help from the stocking program. 

But that goal may be difficult to achieve. Dams that block the fish from prime spawning grounds are “the biggest culprit” in sturgeon decline, Cwalinski said. A state management plan for the lake recommends “restoring a free-flowing, barrier free system,” in the Black River, but dam removal is a complicated and often politically-fraught topic. 

Tower-Kleber’s federal license to generate power at its Upper Black River dams expires in 2024. It’s unclear what will happen after that.

Happy with the initial success in Black Lake, the DNR began using its sturgeon as broodstock to repopulate struggling sturgeon colonies in Burt and Mullett lakes. And in 2018, the agency expanded those efforts into Saginaw Bay, a once abundant sturgeon fishery that now contains only a small, remnant population.

“Skunked”

Allowing fishers to target a threatened species might sound odd to some, but recreational fishing is important to sturgeon recovery, Cwalinski said. Not least because hunting and fishing licenses fund species conservation in Michigan. 

And there’s another, more important benefit, Archambo said: The people who flock to Black Lake for the slim chance to spear a fish are invested in protecting the sturgeon so that they can get another shot next year. 

“The fishermen are the ones who rose up and said, ‘Look, in order to protect our sport, we have to protect fish,’” she said. “That’s why we’re here now.”

The sisters kept up their spirits Saturday as the texts kept rolling in. With one fish left to catch before the season would shut down, their only action had been a perch that briefly swam into view. 

“Now it’s a nail-biter,” Brenda said. 

The final DNR text message came through just after 10 a.m.: “SEASON IS CLOSED! The sixth and final fish at the 2021 Black Lake sturgeon season has been harvested.”

(One more sturgeon would be caught before every angler received the text message — an eventuality DNR officials plan for by keeping the season’s limit one fish below their true quota.)

Cathy allowed herself a quick “darnit!” and then stood up, grabbed a jigging rod from a bucket nearby, and slid a minnow onto the hook. Might as well try for a perch or walleye, now that the sturgeon were off-limits.

“Well, it won’t be the first time I was skunked. Probably won’t be the last,” she said. 

“But at least it’s still fishing.”

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