ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Spawning spectacle in Otter Tail River is big news in efforts to restore lake sturgeon to Red River Basin

Sturgeon – dozens upon dozens of them – congregated in an obvious act of spawning, the first verified sighting in more than 100 years of lake sturgeon actively spawning in the Red River Basin.

Sturgeon photo 2.jpg
Lake sturgeon by the dozens congregated to spawn Thursday, May 19, 2022, in the upper Otter Tail River. The effort marked the first verified spawning of lake sturgeon in the Red River Basin since efforts to re-establish the species began in the late 1990s and marks a huge step in the ongoing recovery program.
Contributed / Nick Kludt, Minnesota DNR
We are part of The Trust Project.
Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken

GRAND FORKS – It had been just another day at the office last Thursday, May 19, when Nick Kludt got an email suggesting he check out a spot along the upper Otter Tail River.

Red River fisheries specialist for the Department of Natural Resources in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, Kludt had a good idea what he was going to find and soon witnessed a spectacle of nature unlike anything he’d ever seen as a fisheries biologist.

Sturgeon – dozens upon dozens of them – congregated in an obvious act of spawning, the first verified sighting in more than 100 years of lake sturgeon actively spawning in the Red River Basin.

The photos and video he shot are a sight to behold.

“Seeing something that hasn’t occurred in a century, at least, is always a really, really neat thing in the life of a biologist,” Kludt said.

ADVERTISEMENT

READ MORE FISHING COVERAGE:

The spawning effort Kludt witnessed along the upper Otter Tail River above Otter Tail Lake marks the latest chapter in a recovery effort that began in the late ’90s, with the stocking of “a few hundred” juvenile lake sturgeon in various lakes and tributaries in the Red River Basin.

Once abundant, lake sturgeon in the Red River Basin were all but wiped out by the early 1920s, the result of factors such as pollution and the construction of dams that blocked access to crucial spawning habitat.

Nick Kludt 3rd_reproductive_female.jpg
Nick Kludt, Red River fisheries specialist for the Department of Natural Resources in Detroit Lakes, Minn., holds a reproductively mature female sturgeon sampled in May 2021 in the Red River Basin. The presence of reproductively mature sturgeon bodes well for reintroduction efforts in the Red River Basin.
Contributed/ Nick Kludt, Minnesota DNR

Getting to this point in the lake sturgeon recovery really was a team effort, Kludt says, and partners are many, including the DNR, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, the Red Lake Nation DNR, White Earth Nation staff, Rainy River First Nations in Ontario, Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Manitoba Sustainable Development.

Last, but certainly not least, Kludt says, are the Minnesota voters who approved the constitutional amendment in November 2008 that provided dedicated funding for clean water, wildlife and parks and spawned the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.

LSOHC administers the funding dedicated to restoring, enhancing and protecting habitat for fish and wildlife and has been a key player in funding fish-passage projects in the Red River Basin and elsewhere. Efforts to modify lowhead dams within the basin to accommodate fish passage also have played a crucial role in the sturgeon recovery, Kludt says.

“So many people have been working on this for 30 years,” he said. “You just can’t overstate what a big team effort this is. It has been an extremely large effort to get to this point.”

While early stocking efforts focused on juvenile sturgeon, the DNR in 2002 began stocking even more aggressively throughout the Red River Basin, Kludt says, using eggs collected by Rainy River First Nations and raised to fingerling size at the Valley City National Fish Hatchery in North Dakota.

ADVERTISEMENT

Staff from Red Lake and White Earth also have stocked sturgeon in waters within their boundaries.

The DNR hasn’t stocked lake sturgeon for the past two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, an outcome that coincides with efforts to “pivot to more natural reproduction anyway,” Kludt says.

Now, he says, the plan is to shift from stocking the various lakes and instead focus on stocking lower reaches of Red River tributaries, the goal being to establish site fidelity among sturgeon in the tributaries and the mainstem Red River.

Using stock from the Rainy River on the Minnesota-Ontario border, the DNR began stocking juvenile lake sturgeon in the Otter Tail River and other Red River tributaries in 1997 in an effort to reintroduce the species to the Red River Basin.

The first evidence of natural reproduction of lake sturgeon in the Red River Basin occurred in the spring of 2019, when DNR crews sampled the first sexually mature female in the upper Otter Tail River; they sampled two more in the spring of 2021.

“Now in 2022, we document this natural spawning event by a large aggregation of fish, and we were able to verify that, ‘Yes, we see the behavior, eggs are being produced here, this is an actual spawning event,’ ” Kludt said. “This is really big news in terms of hitting a key checkpoint in this whole recovery program.”

It also should be noted, Kludt says, that the sturgeon he witnessed last week had to pass through several road crossings to reach the spawning grounds from Otter Tail, Rush, Big Pine and Little Pine lakes, where they likely spend the rest of the year.

Had the culverts been too small, they likely would have blocked fish migrations in the same way a lowhead dam does, Kludt says.

“You don’t get these big-ticket wins without doing the little things right,” he said. “And those road authorities did the right thing – they sized the culverts appropriately so fish can get through.”

ADVERTISEMENT

The verified spawning run is a “major milestone,” to be sure, Kludt says, but the highway to recovery still has many miles to go.

“We now have reproductive-age fish,” he said. “We’ve established the females are sexually mature. We’ve established that there is habitat that they will attempt to spawn on. Now, the next step is verifying natural reproduction and re-establishing natural reproduction at such a rate that it can support a population into the future.”

Efforts to re-establish lake sturgeon in the Red River Basin began in 1997 and 1998, when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources stocked juvenile sturgeon into the Red River and several tributaries, using fish from the Rainy River.

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
What to read next
The 119-year-old Stormy Kromer torch is passed to a woman for the first time.
Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.
The border between Minnesota and Wisconsin here was formed by a combination of molten lava and melting glaciers over the past billion years. The St. Croix River Valley's hugely popular public access site features hikes along the bluffs and down to the river, and ways to see these stunning rock cliffs from water level.
Improper handling of fish increases the odds they may swim away, but die.