a use for trashy Erie gobies: sturgeon bait
By Steve Pollick
Published June 12, 2005
Michigan fisheries biologist Mike Thomas has found a great
use for the pesky round goby - sturgeon bait.
Thomas and a research crew are amid a three-week effort
to catch as many Great Lakes sturgeon as possible in the
North Channel of the St. Clair River, where it flows into
Lake St. Clair's Anchor Bay off Mount Clemens, Mich.
They are using long set-lines, which resemble overgrown
catfishing trotlines, anchored off buoys to the bottom,
down where these ancient fish live.
"We started this project to get a handle on what
the sturgeon population was like here," Thomas said
during a run Tuesday aboard the Channel Cat, a 46-foot
steel converted trapnet boat used by the Michigan Department
of Natural Resources. The vessel generally operates out
of the agency's Lake St. Clair Fisheries Research Station
at Anchor Bay.
"We bait with round gobies," Thomas noted.
Gobies have become a widespread pest in the Great Lakes,
having been introduced here from overseas in the dumped
ballast-water of a freighter. They prey on fish eggs,
such as those in unguarded smallmouth bass nests. At least
sturgeon, and most gamefish, like to eat them.
The goby bait works. Sturgeon don't even mind if they're
half rotten. Last Tuesday the MDNR crew hauled in eight
fish in its daily check of eight sets. The catch ran from
28 to 61 inches and weighed from about 5 to about 61 pounds.
On their best day this spring the crew has taken 22 sturgeon.
The fish are weighed and measured, a pectoral fin sample
is removed for an aging study, and blood is drawn for
DNA analysis and other tests. Afterward, each fish is
"burped" like a baby to relieve internal air-pressure
built up from being brought up from the deep, before being
released. The ancient sturgeon does not have the more
sophisticated air bladder of more modern fish species,
and has a vented opening through which air can be burped
back up the throat.
"They spawn very intensely for a very short time,"
Thomas said. The key is water temperature of 13 degrees
Centigrade (about 55 degrees Fahrenheit). So for about
a three-week period during and immediately after spawning,
the Channel Cat crew prowls for the Loch Ness monsters
of the Great Lakes.
Sturgeon, which trace to the age of the dinosaurs, may
grow to more than six feet and weigh more than 200 pounds.
They can live more than a century. Sturgeon have bony
plates instead of scales, shark-like tails, pointed snouts,
and four long barbels to locate prey in front of a downturned,
suction-like mouth. The upper body is olive to gray, graduating
to yellow or milky white.
The species fell victim to pollution, damming of their
spawning streams, and commercial netting. Lake sturgeon
provided a lucrative commercial fishery for caviar and
smoked fish in the 1800s, and Lake Erie led the way on
the Great Lakes. But, by the early 1900s, it was all but
About a decade ago the MDNR began a sturgeon rehabilitation
and monitoring project with an eye to keeping the St.
Clair population stable and to maintain a limited sport
A Michigan-licensed sport angler is allowed one sturgeon
during a July16-through Sept. 30 season, taken from Lake
St. Clair or the St. Clair River. Only a fish between
42 and 50 inches may be kept. All others must be released
On western Lake Erie, where sturgeon reports have increased
in the last 10 to 15 years, the fish still are protected
as an endangered species and any caught incidentally must
The results of nearly a decade of St. Clair sampling
showed it is the honey hole for sturgeon on the Great
Lakes. It has a combination of clean water, a deep swift
channel in the river, a river delta into Anchor Bay, and
nearby broad shallows of the lake that make for a sturgeon
heaven, according to Thomas. "Everything is just
right for them here."
The strong flow of relatively clear upper Great Lakes
waters sluicing down the St. Clair channel keeps the system
cleansed and well-flushed. Sturgeon do not do well in
But a few sturgeon spawning sites also have been identified
in the Zug Island reaches of the Detroit River. These
usually are old ship-ballast beds and beds of coal clinkers
and cinders discarded from coal-fired boilers on old lake
Thomas estimates that St. Clair waters harbor 10,000
to 20,000 fish. "It became obvious that this population
in Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River is far more
abundant than on any of the Great Lakes. [But] there is
a lot of movement."
Based on recapturing of tagged fish, the St. Clair fisheries
station has established that a strong northward movement
of sturgeon occurs into southern Lake Huron. The province
of Ontario allows a limited commercial sturgeon trapnet
fishery, and fish also are incidentally caught when netters
target walleye, yellow perch, and whitefish, Thomas said.
The southern movement of sturgeon from the St. Clair region
is not as strong, the biologist noted. But a tagged St.
Clair fish was recaptured in Lake Erie off Huron, Ohio.
Jeff Tyson, supervisor of fish management at Ohio's Lake
Erie Fisheries Research Station, said that western Lake
Erie may be a nursery ground for some of the St. Clair
spawning stock. That, he added, is based on reports of
juvenile tagged sturgeon that have been filed with the
Sandusky fisheries office. Sturgeon catches should be
reported by calling 419-526-8062.
The set-line tactics used by the MDNR crew generally
target sturgeon as short as 20 inches and as long as 74
inches. The latter fish weigh around 100 pounds and likely
are more than 50 years old, said Thomas. The oldest fish
in the modern sampling record was in its early 70s.
"Any fish over 50 years old is pretty old for here.
We've handled over 1,500 sturgeon here and 125 pounds
is the largest we've sampled."
Tyson, who accompanied Thomas's crew last week, said
that the Sandusky fisheries office usually receives 20
to 30 sturgeon reports a year. A catch report should include
any tag numbers, the fish's length and weight if possible,
and date and place it was caught - and released.
Two sturgeon catches have been reported at Sandusky so
far this year, and one fish was picked up in survey gear
run by the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
No sturgeon were reported in Ohio survey gear from 1969
to 1995, "but they started showing up in 1996,"
Tyson noted. "In western lake Erie finding a sturgeon
is like finding a needle in a haystack."
Next spring, Tyson said, Ohio biologists hope to place
some sturgeon set-lines in the Maumee River in hopes of
measuring and tagging sturgeon believed to be running
there. Repeated reports of sturgeon in the river have
surfaced in recent years, including a five-footer that
was caught by accident and released by a sport angler
Maybe biologists will use gobies for bait.
"We've got plenty," Tyson said.