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Survey nets plenty of sturgeon, no sign of spawning

Each year at this time, big sturgeon gather below the Fond du Lac Dam on the St. Louis River. They sometimes exhibit spawning activity, but so far no evidence of spawning has been documented.

Nick Frohnauer
Nick Frohnauer, DNR assistant fisheries supervisor at French River, brings a netted sturgeon out of the St. Louis River on Wednesday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Each year at this time, big sturgeon gather below the Fond du Lac Dam on the St. Louis River. They sometimes exhibit spawning activity, but so far no evidence of spawning has been documented.

One of these years it will happen, and biologists with the Minnesota and Wisconsin Departments of Natural Resources will celebrate a milestone in the river's sturgeon recovery effort.

On Wednesday, a team of fisheries biologists with the Minnesota DNR were at the dam, capturing, measuring, weighing and tagging sturgeon. They also were inspecting a $150,000 project that improved spawning habitat for the long-lived fish.

Last summer, about 400 truckloads of rock were arranged in windrows across the river to break up the current and create pockets where sturgeon could spawn and their eggs would be washed as they lay in gravel.

The project was a cooperative effort of the DNR and the Nature Conservancy. Luther Aadland, a DNR river ecologist from Fergus Falls, Minn., had designed the rock placement, and he was at the river Wednesday morning to check his project.

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"I'm real happy with it," Aadland said. "I think it looks real good in terms of habitat."

Dennis Pratt, Wisconsin DNR fisheries biologist in Superior, saw the results of the rock work this spring.

"I'm impressed with the rock project," he said. "It creates three very nice pools with varied habitat that I think a lot of species will use to spawn."

DNR crews had an excellent day netting and examining sturgeon on Wednesday. They captured 14, the largest a 51-incher.

All of these efforts are aimed at restoring a self-sustaining sturgeon population to the river. The DNRs have been stocking sturgeon on the river for 27 years, but that's a short span of time for fish that can live to be more than 100 years old and weigh 150 pounds or more.

Aadland donned a wetsuit and snorkeling mask Wednesday morning and went looking for sturgeon eggs. He found none, but biologists say it's still early in the spawning season. It's also possible that none of the fish are mature and they won't spawn at all this year.

Sturgeon are native to the St. Louis River estuary. They were all but extirpated by the mid-1900s, victims of over-fishing, massive logging runs, habitat destruction and polluted water.

Minnesota and Wisconsin have stocked just-hatched fry and fingerlings through the years from 1983 to 2000. Stocking was discontinued in 2000 so that if young sturgeon are found in the river, biologists will know they are from natural reproduction.

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Although anglers often catch sturgeon in the river now, there is no open season for them, so they must be returned immediately to the water. Fisheries biologists say it will be another sturgeon generation -- perhaps 25 years -- before an open sturgeon season might be implemented.

Related Topics: FISHING
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