Column: Like old timesLake sturgeon rank as Wisconsin's largest and oldest fish: A record 195-pounder was speared in Pokegama Lake in Vilas County in 1979; a 170-pounder was caught with hook and line from Yellow Lake in Burnett County in 1979; and an 82-year-old was taken from Lake Winnebago in 1953.
By: By Paul Smith, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Superior Telegram
WISCONSIN DELLS -- The dark, languid river rolls past, its surface splashed with the light of a rising moon. Towering sandstone cliffs rise on both sides, marked only by pine and oak trees.
It's tempting to say the view is timeless.
Many of the same elements are likely in place from the time the first American Indians stood along these banks of the Wisconsin River.
And we know it looks similar to when photographer H.H. Bennett captured the scene in the late 1800s.
Proof comes not just from oral history or images of steadfast rock. It's also swimming in the water.
"I think you ought to pick up that rod," said Dave Ehardt, my fishing partner. "Someone's home."
The visitor knocked not just once, but three times, and was still there when I answered.
The rod quickly doubled to significant weight and line peeled from the reel.
"Just let me know if it takes out too much," said Ehardt. "Sometimes we have to pull up and follow 'em."
As the coolness of an autumn evening settled over the river, we anchored in a scenic stretch downstream from the Wisconsin Dells dam. In summer, tour boats work the water here.
On this night, we had it to ourselves. Just us, we hoped, and Wisconsin's oldest and biggest fish.
After several minutes of give and take, the fish was at the boat. Ehardt reached over the gunwale and hoisted the object of our quest into the lantern light -- lake sturgeon.
With a long tail, large pectoral fins and without scales, the fish looked more like a shark than anything else in our waters. It stretched 48 inches and weighed perhaps 35 pounds.
We admired it briefly and Ehardt slipped it back into the water, water inhabited by its kind for eons.
Lake sturgeon are living fossils, relics from the Mesozoic era.
They retain many primitive characteristics, including a long snout and a tubular mouth with no teeth. They cruise lakes and riverbeds, using barbels that hang in front of their mouth as feelers to sense snails, insects, leeches, crayfish and small clams.
Lake sturgeon rank as Wisconsin's largest and oldest fish: A record 195-pounder was speared in Pokegama Lake in Vilas County in 1979; a 170-pounder was caught with hook and line from Yellow Lake in Burnett County in 1979; and an 82-year-old was taken from Lake Winnebago in 1953.
Historically, they were found throughout the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basin. They flourished in Wisconsin's boundary waters including the Mississippi, Wisconsin and Menomonee rivers, Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Green Bay.
"Fossil records show lake sturgeon have been around for 100 million years," said Ron Bruch, a Department of Natural Resources sturgeon biologist. "Whatever killed the dinosaurs didn't kill the sturgeon."
Dams, pollution, habitat degradation and over-harvest dramatically reduced lake sturgeon populations in some Wisconsin waters over the past 100 years, and eliminated them entirely from others.
The fish are easily overexploited by harvest -- female sturgeon don't reproduce until they are 20 to 25 years old. And then they spawn only once every three to five years, according to the DNR.
But thanks to enlightened fisheries management and support from conservation and angling clubs, Wisconsin has the largest, healthiest population of lake sturgeon in the world in the Lake Winnebago system.
The DNR is working to improve the populations of fish in other areas of the state. In 2008 the department instituted a statewide minimum length limit of 60 inches for the hook-and-line fisheries, including here on the Wisconsin River.
Dedicated funding from license and harvest tag sales for the Lake Winnebago system, and for the sturgeon hook-and-line season in the rest of the state, supports research to effectively restore, reintroduce and manage this species.
The statewide hook-and-line lake sturgeon season began Sept. 5 this year and ends Wednesday.
"We've got the foundation in place to keep building this fantastic natural resource," said Karl Scheidegger, fisheries biologist with the DNR. "We want to provide sturgeon harvest on waters that can handle the demand while restoring populations of these awesome fish to their original range in other areas of the state."
I've fished sturgeon with Ehardt in the Dells since 1990 and come to regard the experience as one of Wisconsin's most extraordinary angling opportunities. Ehardt, 54, is a South Milwaukee native who moved to the Dells area a quarter-century ago to work as a fishing guide.
He now lives in Baraboo and guides on a limited basis. The years spent working the river have etched his mind with a GPS-like knowledge of its shoals, holes and currents.
We started our recent outing with a late afternoon, downriver foray for walleye, sauger, smallmouth bass and northern pike followed by an evening of sturgeon fishing among the sandstone bluffs.
Sandhill cranes "kadoodled" overhead and a bald eagle watched our efforts from a riverside cottonwood.
We landed six species, including a pair of 4-pound smallmouth bass, in one spot before moving up for the main event.
"Right size, wrong flavor," said Ehardt, releasing a 5-pound redhorse sucker.
The sturgeon tend to feed more actively after sunset. Or maybe that's just what we tell ourselves so we can spend long hours anchored on the peaceful river in a quest to connect with an ancient fish.
"I don't know if I think they are beautiful," Ehardt said of sturgeon. "But I am prone to things with whiskers."
The sturgeon fishing is as basic as it gets -- gobs of nightcrawlers or red worms fished on the bottom. We've parked above a flat that drops into a 23-foot-deep hole.
We cast out four rods and waited. The lantern sizzled and we talked, keeping at least one eye on the rod tips.
In two hours we had a dozen bites and six hook-ups. One was a sheepshead, another a channel catfish. But four were sturgeon.
The biggest sturgeon of the night started out "acting like a catfish," said Ehardt. After 15 minutes of give and take, we pronounced it a sturgeon.
Its pedigree became certifiable when I eventually worked it toward the boat and into our small circle of light.
Some 5-footers appear longer than their length. Five-foot par putts, for example, never seem that short. Nor do 60-inch game fish.
The sturgeon circled and dived several more times before it relented to pressure. I led it to the starboard side and Ehardt reached over and popped the hook out of its vacuum-cleaner mouth.
He briefly cradled it in his arms, inches above the water. The fish was at least 60 inches long and, with a rounded belly, perhaps 80 pounds.
Ehardt and I exchanged a quick glance and nodded. It was better to put this one right back in the water. After just seconds the fish strongly thrashed its tail and swam into the blackness.
Given the chance, nature has a way of inspiring optimism.
To float within these weathered dells and know that our most ancient fish -- even older than the hills -- can thrive in the 21st century is especially reassuring.
-- Copyright (c) 2009, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.