spawning watched by wildlife officials
By Mike Hoeft
Green Bay Press Gazette
April 29, 2004
DE PERE — The bulk of sturgeon spawning on the Fox River
is pretty much done in a day or two. So biologists whose
job it is to tag lake sturgeon as part of ongoing monitoring
have to work fast.
“You’ve got to drop everything and just go,” said Rob
Elliott, Great Lakes fishery biologist with the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service in New Franken. The huge, bony fish
are easier to catch when they’re moving slowly in shallow
waters. Elliott and a team of federal and state Department
of Natural Resources workers tagged about a half dozen
of the threatened species in an hour Wednesday below the
De Pere dam.
Over the past few days, crews saw the number of sturgeon
in the area rise from a couple to a couple of dozen.
“We’ll tag as many as we can catch,” Elliott said. In
the shade beneath the Claude Allouez Bridge, the group
weighed, measured and tagged each fish with an internal
and external tag and a radio transponder. Information
gathered is used to monitor movement and estimate fishery
size, growth rate and health of the population.
Over-fishing in the 1800s and loss of habitat decimated
the Great Lakes sturgeon, which are now listed as a threatened
species. Sturgeon are extinct in some Great Lakes tributaries,
and the DNR is trying to reintroduce them in the Milwaukee
and Manitowoc rivers. Sturgeon spearing is allowed on
Lake Winnebago each February because it has one of the
largest and healthiest populations.
The Fox River has about 50 sturgeon, third in the area
behind the Menominee and Peshtigo rivers, Elliott said.
“On their own, sturgeon are slowly coming back in the
Fox River,” he said. Part of the reason is that sturgeon
are entering the river down the locks from the Lake Winnebago
system. “We know that because of the tagged fish we caught,”
Steve Gehl of Hilbert, who goes spearing on Lake Winnebago,
on Wednesday watched near the De Pere dam as the mammoth
fish thrashed in the shallow water. Females laid their
eggs, while several males competed to fertilize them.
Gehl said he was happy to see the sturgeon population
rebound. But he was not happy to see an occasional carp
follow behind the sturgeon, waiting to eat the eggs from
“Too bad you can’t do something to stop that,” he said.
Gehl said one in his spearing party got a sturgeon last
year on Lake Winnebago.
“They’re good eating,” he said.
“It’s fun to see them come upstream here,” Gehl said.
“Normally you wouldn’t see the big ones unless they were
in the back of somebody’s truck,” he said.
Spearing-license fees increased last year from $10 to
$20 for state residents, and from $10 to $50 for nonresidents.
Revenue from license sales goes specifically to sturgeon
management programs. The fee hikes were authorized last
year as part of the state budget repair bill.
Nearly 9,000 sturgeon-spearing licenses were sold last
year, the DNR said.
• Lake sturgeon often grow to 3 to 5 feet long and weigh
80 to 100 pounds.
• Sturgeon live about 50 years. Female lake sturgeon
don’t start spawning until they are 20-25 years old. Even
then, they spawn once every three to five years.
• Sturgeon enter rivers in early spring to spawn on gravel
bars in fast-flowing water and deposit millions of eggs.
A sticky covering helps the eggs attach to the gravel.
After a few days, the eggs sink into the gravel, where
• Sturgeon were an important food source for many Native
American tribes. Sturgeon were so abundant during the
18th century that boaters on the Great Lakes were warned
of being capsized by jumping sturgeon during the spawning
• Their population crashed in the mid- to late 1800s
because of habitat degradation and overexploitation. Sturgeon
were harvested for their eggs, which were made into caviar,
and for their meat, which was smoked.
Source: Wisconsin Sea Grant; Great Lakes Science Center,
U.S. Geological Survey