Article authored by multitude of WDNR biologists
By: Ryan Koenigs
Lake sturgeon are the largest and longest lived fish species in the Great Lakes drainage and were historically abundant throughout their native range of the Great Lakes, Mississippi River and Hudson Bay drainages. However, overharvest, migration barriers, pollution, and habitat destruction have resulted in a significant decline in fish populations throughout their range and extirpation of many populations. Wisconsin is right in the heart of the lake sturgeon’s range and remains home to some of the species most successful management programs (http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/fishing/sturgeon/lakesturgeonidentification.html). In fact, Wisconsin boasts vibrant recreational hook and line fisheries and a spear fishery for lake sturgeon in many locations, while most populations in other states are protected from harvest to aid recovery programs.
Many of Wisconsin’s largest rivers have provided hook and line harvest opportunities for decades, but management strategies and regulations have evolved as angling pressures increased. As a result of high harvests under past 50” minimum length limits (MLL), the WDNR implemented a more restrictive 60” MLL in 2007. This regulation reduced harvest to at or below sustainable levels, but still provides recreational angling opportunities.
Anglers looking to target lake sturgeon during any of the open seasons must possess a Wisconsin fishing license. Anglers interested in harvesting a lake sturgeon must purchase a harvest tag ($20 for residents, $50 for non-residents) that allows for the harvest of a single fish per season. All harvested fish must be registered at a designated registration station no later than 6 PM of the day after the fish was caught.
So you might be asking, how do I go about pursuing a lake sturgeon with rod and reel? Well first, make sure you have suitable equipment including heavy tackle such as high pound test line and a good sturdy rod and reel. As for bait, most anglers find the best success with a large gob of nightcrawlers, but cutbait can be effective as well. Typically, these baits are presented along the bottom in either deep holes or areas with swift current, making sure to use an adequate amount of weight to hold the bait in place. Some of the best fall fishing is often found in the tailraces below dams, as fish are drawn to current.
Below are summaries of some of the lake sturgeon populations that provide hook and line angling opportunities for this prehistoric fish. So make plans to get out on the water this fall and wet a line in quest of the fish of a lifetime!
Green Bay Tributaries (Menominee, Peshtigo, Oconto, and Lower Fox)
Manager: Mike Donofrio – Peshtigo, WI
Menominee River Grand Rapids Upstream: Sept. 3rd – Sept. 30th; 1 fish/season; 60” MLL
Menominee River Grand Rapids Downstream: Sept. 3rd – Sept. 30; catch and release only
The major Green Bay tributaries (Menominee, Peshtigo, Oconto and Lower Fox) were known spawning and nursery sites for lake sturgeon and historically sustained the largest population of lake sturgeon in the Lake Michigan drainage. However, overharvest and habitat loss severely reduced the number of lake sturgeon in Green Bay and these rivers. Fortunately, the Menominee River had a sustainable sturgeon fishery and was opened to hook and line fishing in 1946. Wisconsin DNR jointly manages this boundary water with the state of Michigan, and the two states have conducted regular assessments on the river since the 1960s.
Presently, these waters are managed in 4 sections related to landlocked populations created by several hydroelectric dams. These areas are known as Sturgeon Falls (70 river miles from Green Bay and the historic natural barrier for upstream migration from Green Bay), White Rapids, Grand Rapids and the lower river below the first dam. The Sturgeon Falls section is the only stocked area and has received fish raised at Wisconsin’s Wild Rose hatchery since 1982. Tagging has demonstrated little (1-5%) downstream movement within the river and dams block upstream movement. Recent research demonstrated that 18% of the harvested sturgeon from the Lower Menominee River were genetically identified to other Lake Michigan populations, and additional research has indicated movement of adult sturgeon between the 4 major rivers. An abundant population of lake sturgeon in the lower Menominee River has encouraged several fish managers to work with Eagle Creek Renewable Energies to build fish passage around the lower two dams of the Menominee. To date, over 100 sturgeon have been moved upstream to areas of the river with large areas of underutilized spawning and juvenile rearing habitat.
Population: Flambeau River and Upper Chippewa River
Manager: Jeff Scheirer – Park Falls, WI
Sept. 3rd – Sept. 30th; 1 fish/season; 60” MLL
The Upper Chippewa and Flambeau rivers, along with their major tributaries, have consistently sustained lake sturgeon populations that offer anglers both catch-and-release action and opportunity to harvest large fish. In 2015, hook-and-line anglers kept six sturgeon from the Flambeau and one from the Chippewa, while in 2014 they harvested seven in the Flambeau, four in the Chippewa, and one in the Jump River. The largest fish was 68 inches and 83 pounds in 2015, and 70 inches and 70.5 pounds in 2014.
WDNR Fishery crews conduct assessments to monitor population status and assure that anglers take no more than 5% of adults annually. In 2015, gillnets were used to capture, tag and release 34 fish (40-60”) in the Flambeau River and 26 fish (50-72”) from the East Fork Chippewa River. Recapturing these tagged fish in later surveys or harvests will yield important information on growth, movement and harvest.
Gillnet surveys in the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage captured some of the area’s largest and oldest fish, including an 83.2 inch fish with 39-inch girth in 2015. However, young fish have been conspicuously absent from surveys for many years. To rehabilitate the remnant sturgeon population in the headwaters of the Flambeau River, WDNR collects eggs from the native population and rears those fish to 8-inch fingerlings before being stocked into the Manitowish in fall. The hook and line sturgeon season is closed to angling upstream of the Turtle-Flambeau Dam, and recommended operational changes at an upstream dam would allow sturgeon to use their traditional spawning grounds.
A nature-like fishway, built in 2011, allows fish to swim around the only dam on the East Fork Chippewa River. Submerged antennas near the fishway record the movements of 94 sturgeon carrying electronic tags. Six tagged sturgeon passed through the fishway in 2014, but none were detected in 2015 and 2016. The fishway operates 6 weeks in spring and 2 weeks in fall.
Population: Lower Chippewa River (Downstream of Lake Holcombe)
Manager: Joseph Gerbyshak – Eau Claire, WI
Sept. 3rd – Sept. 30th; 1 fish/season; 60” MLL
The lake sturgeon hook and line fishery on the 109 miles of the Lower Chippewa River has remained popular among anglers, even as regulations have become more conservative over time. The Lower Chippewa River is segmented by six impoundments (Lake Holcombe, Cornell Flowage, Old Abe Flowage, Lake Wissota, Chippewa Falls Flowage and Dells Pond) over 49 river miles prior to flowing freely for 60 miles to the Mississippi River. Since the establishment of the 60 inch MLL in 2007, 91 lake sturgeon have been harvested over nine seasons with the highest percentage of fish caught downstream of the Dells Dam (45%). The fisheries at Dells Pond (28%), Lake Holcombe (11%), and Chippewa Falls Flowage (11%) have also contributed to the harvest, while the remaining three impoundments only comprised 5% of the harvest. Trophy caliber fish have been caught throughout the river system with the largest sturgeon (82 inches and 155 pounds) being registered in 2010.
DNR fisheries staff use gillnets and dip nets to assess the Lower Chippewa River lake sturgeon population when flow conditions provide safe working conditions. Captured fish are measured and weighed and all untagged fish are tagged with internal PIT tags and external Floy tags to evaluate movement and growth. Typically, the larger fish observed in surveys are around 65 inches and 60 to 80 pounds, while the average fish is in the low-mid 50 inch range and weighs around 30 pounds. Gillnetting surveys downstream of the Dells Pond Dam typically yield 20-50 fish, and tagging data indicates that fish from various populations, St. Croix and Wisconsin River most notably, mix at this location. Another survey is conducted downstream of the Old Abe Flowage Dam in Jim Falls. These fish migrate upstream from Lake Wissota and over 150 fish can be captured during this survey in good years. Tagging data indicate that about 15% of the fish tagged at Jim Falls move further down river, likely over the dams during high water events. Additionally, anglers have provided movement information via tag returns. Just recently an angler caught a lake sturgeon below lock and dam 6 of the Mississippi River and that fish was tagged at Jim Falls ten years prior. Therefore, that fish traveled at least 137 miles and passed over or through seven locks and dams to get to Pool 7. Future tagging and recapture data will help managers better manage this population in the future.
Population: Lower St. Croix River
Manager: Marty Engel – Baldwin, WI
St. Croix River Downstream of St. Croix Falls: Sept. 3 – Sept. 30; 1 fish/season; 60” MLL
St. Croix River Upstream of St. Croix Falls: June 16 – March 1; Catch and Release
The St. Croix River is home to a substantial self-sustaining lake sturgeon population. The lower 127 miles of the St. Croix River serves as the boundary between the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota and can be subdivided into two units; the Upper St. Croix and the Lower St. Croix. These units are separated by the St. Croix Falls hydroelectric dam, which prevents upstream movement between sections of the river. The Lower St. Croix River is approximately 51 miles long and enters the Mississippi River at Prescott, Wisconsin, meaning that lake sturgeon can move freely between the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers. Few fish are harvested during the harvest season on the Lower St. Croix, but there is potential to produce fish over 70 inches.
Currently, sturgeon are captured with dip nets during springs where flows are suitable for sampling. All captured sturgeon are measured and weighed before being marked with internal and external tags. A total of 245 fish (21.0-63.9 inches) were captured during 2015-2016 surveys, which is comparable to the 300 fish that were captured using similar methods in 1986-1987. However, 2015-2016 surveys captured more larger fish than the 1986-1987 surveys. Tag return data indicate a great deal of mixing in the Lower St. Croix, with fish from the Upper St. Croix and as far away as Lake Pepin, on the Mississippi River, being captured. Future sampling and tag returns will further increase understanding of lake sturgeon movement throughout the system.
Population: Mississippi River
Manager: David Heath (La Crosse), Pat Short (Prairie du Chien) and Brian Brecka (Alma)
Mississippi River downstream of Red Wing Dam: June 16-April 14; Catch and Release
Mississippi River upstream of Red Wing Dam: June 16 to March 1; Catch and Release
The Mississippi River historically contained a healthy lake sturgeon population, but human factors such as overharvest, pollution and loss of habitat have significantly reduced the population. However, prudent restoration efforts over the last couple of decades are starting to show some benefit and lake sturgeon are making a comeback. Within the last year a catch and release hook and line season opened up for lake sturgeon on the Mississippi River. The season is open most of the year, but closed during spring spawning periods.
DNR fisheries staff have deployed trammel nets to sample lake sturgeon, with the majority of captured fish being less than 30 inches. Some fish over 50 inches have been captured with graded mesh gillnets and commercial catfish anglers have reported catching some fish greater than 60 inches along riprapped shorelines during the fall. Suggested hot spots include fishing the tailraces below Lock and Dam 8 (Genoa), Lock and Dam 9 (Lynxville), and Lock and Dam 4 (Alma).
Population: St. Louis River and Lake Superior
Manager: Paul Piszczek – Superior, WI
St. Louis River: June 16 – April 14; Catch and Release
Lake Superior: Year-round season; 1 fish/season; 50” MLL
A naturally reproducing population of lake sturgeon existed in the St. Louis River and western Lake Superior, prior to the mid-late 1800s. Abundance declined nearly to the point of extinction around the turn of the 20th century. Fish were exploited, preferred aquatic habitats became less available, and water quality declined with the industrial expansion around the St. Louis River and western Lake Superior. Environmental stewardship and interests in re-establishing the lake sturgeon population began to increase by the mid to late 20th century, which included water pollution control in the lower St. Louis River. Currently, the population is recovering from the fishing and environmental pressures of the past. Individual lake sturgeon grow approximately one inch per year and even slower as they age. Incidental catches, by anglers fishing for other species, have been reported during the past few years, and some of those fish have exceeded 50 inches. 2016 is the first year that the catch and release season on the St. Louis is in effect, so angling pressure is likely to increase.
From 1983-2000, Wisconsin DNR and Minnesota DNR stocked nearly 900,000 fry, fingerlings and yearlings that represented 14 discrete year classes. These fish were spawned from brood stock from Lake Winnebago, WI and the Sturgeon River, MI (Upper Peninsula). Lake sturgeon assessments by Wisconsin DNR, Minnesota DNR and other agencies over the last 10 years have found that adult lake sturgeon migrate throughout western Lake Superior, along the north shore near Thunder Bay, Ontario and near Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. Other assessments in the past five years have found larval lake sturgeon, which was the first observation of natural reproduction in the St. Louis River and Lake Superior.
Population: Yellow Lake Chain
Manager: Craig Roberts – Spooner, WI
Sept. 3 – Sept. 30; 1 fish/season; 60″ MLL
The Yellow Lake Chain in Burnett County includes Yellow Lake, Little Yellow Lake and the Danbury Flowage. The system supports both an angler and tribal fishery for lake sturgeon. Yellow Lake’s 2283 acres are the focus of sturgeon angling and hold a healthy population. However, it is still considered a recovering population from past overfishing. During the September hook and line season, there is a strong catch and release ethic among anglers and harvest is low with a long term average harvest of eight fish per season. Sturgeon sampled between 2010 and 2015 have ranged from 38.0 to 79.8 inches and averaged 57.0 inches.
Yellow Lake sturgeon are assessed annually by both electrofishing and dipnetting during their spring spawning migration in the Yellow River. Sturgeon are measured, weighed, sexed, an aging structure is removed and marked with both internal and external tags. In addition to yearly monitoring, Yellow Lake sturgeon are used every other year as a brood source. Sturgeon are spawned on the bank of the Yellow River and the eggs are transported to Wild Rose Hatchery where the fish are hatched and grown to fingerlings. In the fall, sturgeon fingerlings are stocked in rivers in Northwest Wisconsin to aid recovering sturgeon populations.
Population: Wisconsin River from Merrill to Wisconsin Dells.
Managers: Tom Meronek (Wausau), Jennifer Bergman (Wisconsin Rapids), David Seibel (Antigo)
For nearly 100 years the lake sturgeon had disappeared from the central portions of the Wisconsin River above Wisconsin Dells due to overharvest, loss of habitat, fragmentation and pollution. However, the WDNR started restoration of lake sturgeon in the sections of the Wisconsin River near Stevens Point in 1991. Restoration started with the stocking of adult lake sturgeon transplanted from Lake Wisconsin, but fish exhibited a tendency to move back downstream following release. The next step, stocking of lake sturgeon fingerlings and yearlings, began in 1997 and has been successful, largely because of the cooperative efforts of the WDNR and Alliant Energy. To date, more than 220,000 lake sturgeon have been stocked in the river at Stevens Point and areas upstream. In addition, 2,900 yearlings have been stocked since 2004. So far most of the Wisconsin River population down to Petenwell Lake has been established through these upriver stockings. Only in the last three years have we started stocking directly into Petenwell Lake.
Gillnet surveys commenced in 2006 to monitor success of the stocking program. The results of gillnetting have been positive with catches of 40-100 fish (20-44 inches) annually in the Stevens Point Flowage, while fish larger than 50 inches have been captured in Petenwell Lake. Further, 24 mature male lake sturgeon were captured below the Nekoosa Dam in 2016 and biologists are hopeful that females will be captured within the next 5-10 years once they reach maturity. Although lake sturgeon harvest is not allowed in the restoration area at this time, anglers throughout the restoration area report incidental catch of sturgeon, especially when they are fishing for walleye in the spring.
Population: Lower Wisconsin River (Kilbourn Dam Downstream)
Manager: Nathan Nye – Poynette, WI
Sept. 3 – Sept. 30; 1 fish/season; 60” MLL
The Prairie du Sac (PdS) Dam at Prairie du Sac and the Kilbourn Dam at Wisconsin Dells are the first two barriers to fish migration on the Wisconsin River moving upstream from the Mississippi River. Despite this habitat fragmentation, which is so often detrimental to sturgeon populations, self-sustaining lake sturgeon populations continue to survive and thrive in the lower Wisconsin River. The dams divide the Lower Wisconsin River into two distinct management areas; the PdS Dam tail water and Lake Wisconsin.
Mark-recapture data indicate a stable population in Lake Wisconsin (1,512 lake sturgeon ≥ 50 inches in 1981; 1,597 lake sturgeon ≥ 50 inches in 2008) despite high harvests under more liberal size limits from 1983-2006. The average harvest has been less than 1 fish per year since the 60” MLL was implemented in 2007, including zero harvest since 2012. Much of the decline in harvest may be attributable to a growing catch and release ethic among Lake Wisconsin anglers. The tail water below the PdS Dam is accessible to fish from not only the Lower Wisconsin, but also the Mississippi River. However, there are fewer fish ≥50 inches (125-300 fish) here than in Lake Wisconsin. There also is a larger harvest below the PdS dam (average 8 fish/year), but the 60” regulation limits annual exploitation to around 5% of the population, which is believed to be sustainable. In addition to conducting surveys, yearling lake sturgeon are also stocked in the middle Wisconsin River and the Baraboo River as part of ongoing restoration efforts.
Good shore fishing below the Prairie du Sac dam is available immediately below the dam with access provided by Alliant Energy. An additional shore fishing opportunity exists further downriver at the VFW Park in Prairie du Sac. Boat anglers often concentrate on the river from the dam downstream to U.S. Highway 12. Lake Wisconsin anglers often concentrate on the area at the upper end where the river enters the lake, most often pursuing sturgeon by boat. Anglers in the Wisconsin Dells area can find numerous shore fishing spots between the Kilbourn Dam and Mackesey Rapids, or may choose to fish the same area from a boat.