Call it Jurassic Lake. It is Wisconsin's Lake Winnebago, home of
Acipenser fulvescens, the lake sturgeon, a member of a family of
fish that evolved with the dinosaurs 200 million years ago. Like
all sturgeons, the lake sturgeon is a "living fossil," a
bizarre-looking creature whose retractable mouth can hang like a
hose from the underside of its head and whose body is armored
with rows of thick plates instead of scales.
Probably because they live underwater, sturgeons survived by
adapting to the climatic changes at the end of the Cretaceous
Period that led to the disappearance of dinosaurs 65 million
years ago. But in the last 50 years most of the earth's 25
sturgeon species--which are found only in the Northern
Hemisphere--have been threatened with extinction by pollution,
habitat alteration and overfishing.
Happily, the lake sturgeon population at Lake Winnebago is not
in immediate jeopardy. Thanks in large part to the efforts of
Bill Casper, an affable but persistent retired machinist from
Fond du Lac, Wis., and of Sturgeon for Tomorrow, the citizens'
organization Casper founded 19 years ago, the 215-square-mile
body of water has the largest self-sustaining population of lake
Casper, now 65, got the idea for the organization one winter day
in 1977 while poised to spear a sturgeon through a hole cut in
the ice of Winnebago. "I was concerned about what would happen
if the stock were depleted, if the resource ever needed help,"
Casper says. Although lake sturgeon can live a long time (the
record for longevity is 154 years) and grow to enormous size for
a freshwater fish (the biggest was a 7'11", 310-pound female
from Lake Superior), they are late to mature sexually. Females
in Winnebago do not spawn until they are 20 to 25 years old, and
then they do not spawn every year. In fact, only 10% to 20% of
adult lake sturgeon spawn in a given year. Therefore, when an
adult population decreases drastically, its group may not be
able to rebuild for decades, if ever.
Lake sturgeon were abundant in the Great Lakes and the Midwest
when Native Americans were the only human inhabitants. In
Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha the biggest challenge facing
Hiawatha is to catch a lake sturgeon, "the monster Mishe-Nahma
... King of Fishes." Lake sturgeon began to decline in North
America as the Great Lakes area became more heavily populated in
the 19th century. Fishermen slaughtered sturgeon because they
tore holes in nets set for whitefish and lake trout. As tastes
changed in the late 19th century, the sturgeon became popular
for its flesh, especially when smoked, and its eggs, which, when
rinsed in cold water and lightly salted, became caviar, or
"black gold." The sturgeon in the Midwest were further imperiled
by pollution from industrial development and by dams that
blocked the way to spawning rivers. (Despite their name, lake
sturgeon need running water to procreate.)
To attract people to the first meeting of Sturgeon for Tomorrow,
Casper posted notices in bars, restaurants and tackle shops all
around Lake Winnebago. Almost 150 people, mostly local dairy
farmers, showed up for the get-together in the Taycheedah (Wis.)
Town Hall. Today the organization has 3,000 members spread among
four chapters, and the adult sturgeon population in Lake
Winnebago has risen to nearly 45,000 from about 11,500 in 1977.
Each chapter of Sturgeon for Tomorrow holds an annual
fund-raising banquet, and members also sell T-shirts, caps and
other items, such as Jim Beam bourbon in bottles shaped like
sturgeon. Most of the nearly $200,000 raised to date has gone to
the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to fund
Every spring, Sturgeon for Tomorrow underwrites the cost of
lodging and food for 400 volunteers who, wearing caps emblazoned
STURGEON PATROL, watch out for poachers along 125 miles of the
Wolf and Fox rivers, which are tributaries of Lake Winnebago.
There the fish are so absorbed in their spawning that they can
be patted on the head. A 100-pound female, with about a quarter
of her weight in eggs, might sell for $1,500 to a wholesale
dealer out of state. "We always heard stories about eggs being
sold illegally in the Chicago area," Casper says. "Not many
dairy farmers around here eat caviar."
Initially, Casper wanted money raised by Sturgeon for Tomorrow
to help build a sturgeon hatchery for the DNR near Lake
Winnebago. "We didn't know very much about spawning back then,"
Casper says, "and I just wanted to learn how to raise these
fish." Work on the hatchery began, but when it turned out that
hatchery fish were not needed for Lake Winnebago--"We've learned
that the system will take care of itself with careful
management," Casper says--the DNR changed the focus and began
stocking eggs, fry and fingerlings in Wisconsin waters that had
lost their sturgeon. The DNR also has given eggs and fry to
biologists in Missouri, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio who are
trying to restore those states' fisheries.
Sturgeon fishing on Winnebago is now strictly regulated. The
season opens on the second Saturday in February and ends March
1; spearing is the only method allowed. Last winter 8,000 people
bought $10 sturgeon permits. The lake was dotted with fishing
shanties--complete with stoves, TVs and other amenities--on the
20-inch-thick ice. Casper, a Green Bay Packers fan, built his
shanty to look like a Packers helmet.
The spearers took a total of 3,175 sturgeon from the lake last
winter. The season limit per spearer is one fish, which must be
45 inches or longer; possession of a sturgeon shorter than that
can bring a fine as high as $3,000. The fish must be measured,
weighed, sexed and tagged by DNR biologists waiting at
registration stations onshore. (The resulting information is
passed on to radio station WMBE in Chilton, which broadcasts
four sturgeon reports each day.) The record Winnebago sturgeon,
speared in 1953, was 6'6" long and weighed 180 pounds.
Some spearers use 45-inch weighted sturgeon decoys to lure live
fish of legal length to their holes. Others use what- ever they
think will prove attractive to a sturgeon, be it an old white
chamber pot, ears of corn attached to the ends of an iron pipe,
or the twirling agitator from a washing machine. Why would a
sturgeon be attracted to such stuff? "They're nosy fish," says
Casper's wife, Kathy.
Still, not everything is O.K. with the sturgeon of Lake
Winnebago. The Fox River has a history of fish kills going back
to the 1960s. In 1988 some 37,000 fish, including 19 lake
sturgeon, died in the Fox from a combination of environmental
conditions. One contributing factor was carbon monoxide from
motor testing on the river by Mercury Marine. The state of
Wisconsin sued the company, and before the case went to trial,
Mercury Marine agreed to pay $60,000 as a settlement. Since then
the company and the DNR have been working together to maintain
healthy environmental conditions on the river.
Of special concern to Sturgeon for Tomorrow is whether mining
will be allowed at the zinc-copper sulfide deposit near Crandon,
Wis. The deposit, one of the largest in the world, sits at the
headwaters of the Wolf River, Lake Winnebago's main sturgeon
spawning ground. The deposit was discovered by Exxon Coal and
Minerals in 1975. The company backed off its plans for
development in 1986, only to return in 1994 with a Canadian
partner, Rio Algom, in a partnership called the Crandon Mining
Co. Whether Crandon Mining gets to start digging depends on the
disposition of its state and federal permit applications.
One Native American tribe fighting against the mining is the
Menominee, but to Casper's dismay, part of the tribe's suit in
federal court argues that the Menominees never gave up their
fishing rights in Lake Winnebago. The tribe contends that it
retains all fishing and hunting rights to those waters,
including, presumably, setting its own limits on lake sturgeon.
"After Sturgeon for Tomorrow started, we got a lock closed in
the Fox River to stop sea lampreys [which could parasitize and
kill sturgeon] coming up from Lake Michigan," Casper says. "Then
we dealt with outboard testing. Now we have Crandon Mining and
the Menominee situation. We plan on continuing no matter what
happens. Sturgeon for Tomorrow must carry on."