A celebration of lake sturgeon on Michigan’s Black Lake
JEDDO, Mich. — It’s the Friday night before winter sturgeon season starts on Black Lake, and Brian Bailey stands inside the door of a party tent, selling $5 admission buttons while wearing a crown and fake velvet cape with the image of a sturgeon on the back.
Inside, it feels like Christmas Eve, the Lansing State Journal reported. Volunteers in fleece and flannel sell tickets for beer and serve chili from slow cookers. With their shanties in place, fishermen and women listen to live, mostly country music, swap fish stories and discuss their hopes for the next morning.
Bailey earned the crown, cape and title of “Sturgeon King” by spearing the biggest fish out of six harvested in 2016, a whopping 97-pound, 701/2-inch female.
He called it “exhilarating.”
“You can’t explain it,” he said, with a wide smile at the memory. “You’re pulling this thing through a 4-by-8-foot hole in the ice.”
Now he’s presiding over the annual shivaree — the word denotes a noisy party — thrown by the Black Lake chapter of Sturgeon for Tomorrow. The group’s members have worked tirelessly to save the threatened prehistoric fish, a toothless, bottom-feeding giant that can grow up to 8 feet long and live for 150 years.
The brief, shining spearing season — which begins on the first Saturday of February and can last an hour, five days or anything in between — is their moment to enjoy the results of their hard work.
It acknowledges efforts to restock sturgeon populations in Black Lake and nearby Mullet and Burt lakes. It celebrates the fact that spear-fishing is simply a way of life in the northeastern Lower Peninsula.
“It’s a celebration for the fish, the season, the people of the sturgeon and our culture,” said Brenda Archambo, president.
Diane Libby has been trying to spear a sturgeon since 2002.
“I’m pumped,” she said. “I’m excited. A lot of it is just coming out and being social, being with friends. And then if a fish comes through your hole, that’s great.”
This year, 332 licensed fishermen and women checked in at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources field office in Onaway or on the ice to pick up flags and tags, signs they had permission to peer through holes in the ice starting at 8 a.m. Feb. 4.
They set up shanties over the 15-square-mile lake’s dozen or so sandbars and readied their spears for a chance at catching the biggest fish Michigan’s lakes have to offer.
“A fish like the sturgeon is closer to the dinosaurs. They’ve been around a lot longer than bluegill land perch and bass,” said Tim Cwalinski, fisheries biologist with the DNR.
Dinosaurs are what came to Archambo’s mind the first time she ever saw a sturgeon, ice-fishing with her grandfather on Burt Lake when she was 6 years old.
“We heard this ruckus going on, and everybody was running over to the shanty,” she said. “There was this big, huge fish that I’ve never seen on the ice. I remember looking into the eye of the sturgeon. The pupils were shaped like diamonds, like pictures of dinosaurs I had seen before.”
The lake sturgeon lives in all five Great Lakes as well as large inland lakes and rivers, including Black Lake and nearby Burt and Mullet lakes, the Kalamazoo River, Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River. Overfishing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries combined with loss of habitat and the sturgeon’s irregular spawning habits caused their numbers to dwindle.
In Black Lake, poaching also hurts. People took fish illegally in spring as they went up the Black River to spawn.
In 1997, a survey showed that the sturgeon population in the lake was dwindling. In 1999, a loosely organized group of area residents that later became Sturgeon for Tomorrow mobilized themselves to camp daily along the river’s edge in spring, watching for poachers and alerting DNR law enforcement if they saw any.
“Early on, what happened was the sport fishermen and the conservationists and the stewards of the land rose up and said, `If this is what we need to do to protect our sport, this is what we will do,”’ Archambo said.
For a few years, that meant a winter fishing season with a small number of licenses awarded by lottery. It was not popular. Sport fishers told the DNR they would rather all have a chance at spearing a sturgeon. And they sign up despite the odds. The 332 who got licenses in 2017 faced odds of 1 in 47 of getting a fish.
But the odds are getting better as the years pass. The quota has been seven fish for 2016 and 2017, up from five in the previous two years. The DNR, working in conjunction with Sturgeon for Tomorrow, five Indian tribes and the Tower-Kleber Limited Partnership, which operates two dams on the Black River, stocks Black Lake with about 500 fish a year, raised in a Black River hatchery paid for by Tower-Kleber as part of its licensing agreement with the DNR. Mullett Lake and Burt Lake also are stocked.
Cwalinski said Black Lake probably has about 1,200 adult sturgeon and can support more.
The quota for the ice-fishing season is set at 1.2 percent of the estimated population; in this case, that’s 14. Half of the sturgeon are available during the public season. The other half are assigned to five Indian tribes who co-manage the fishery.
After closing down the party tent and cleaning up the night before, Bailey was back on the ice off of Onaway State Park well before 8 a.m. Saturday.
Ice shanties formed a colorful, silent village as a pale winter sun pushed rays through a part in the clouds over Black Lake.
Bailey dropped a homemade decoy through a hole in the ice outside the shanty: a copper cake pan strung with lures and bells and anything else he could find that sparkled or might look interesting to a curious sturgeon.
He had a similar lure dangling into the large rectangular hole inside of his shanty.
“If they’re coming through right now, I have another one of these decoys,” he said. “It’s got like my wedding bells on it, and weird stuff.”
Just before 8 a.m., Bailey went into his shanty, waiting for his eyes to adjust to watch the water below, which seemed to glow dimly as sunlight increased. The ice village became eerily silent as other anglers did the same.
But not for long.
Brett Trepanier of Onaway, fishing about a half-mile east of Bailey’s spot, was the first to pull a sturgeon out of the water. Moments later, his friend Scott Ash did the same.
“It’s an absolute amazement when you see them slide in,” Trepanier said. “This one was right on the bottom. They slide in with no movement, no sound, no nothing. Every time you see one, it’s like ‘Wow! They do exist!”’
The two men were jubilant as they strapped the frost-covered fish to the back of an off-road vehicle to take them to the weigh-in station.
But first, Ash hoisted his catch for a photo op. The sleek fish stretched from his chin to the ice, 67 inches long and 72 pounds.
Ash got his first sturgeon in 2014; Trepanier got a 50-inch fish in 2016.
Ash was in his shanty with a friend when the female sturgeon swam into range below them.
“I didn’t even give him a chance to spear it,” Ash said, grinning. “I guess I’m not a very good friend.”
The season was called to a halt at 9:06 a.m. after the sixth fish was reported, 66 minutes after it began. DNR workers in bright yellow vests knocked on shanty doors to tell fishermen to quit. The final catch: eight fish, over the quota by one.
“Three of the fish were caught at the same time,” said Randy Claramunt, Lake Huron basin coordinator for the DNR’s fisheries division. “The eighth fish was a legit fish. It was not somebody who overharvested.”
The weigh-in station, outside a DNR trailer parked next to the Sturgeon for Tomorrow party tent, had a festive atmosphere by 9:30 a.m. People came off the ice and gathered around to watch the catches get weighed and measured.
Trepanier’s fish was 66.7 inches long and weighed in at 78 pounds. He stood next to Chris Courterier, of Onaway, as they watched a fish speared by Courterier’s son, Mike, go into the green mesh sling attached to the scale. That fish measured at 65.5 inches and 79.5 pounds.
“You got me by a pound! Congratulations,” Trepanier said, shaking Courterier’s hand. “I’ve got you on length, though!”
Which is most important?
“It depends on who’s counting,” said the DNR’s Cwalinski.
Bailey, last year’s king, came out of the 2017 season empty-handed, but didn’t mind too much. He planned to spend the rest of the day fishing for muskies and pike.
Libby, an insurance agent from Cheboygan, had hoped to replace a 39-inch pike on her office wall with a mounted sturgeon. She and her boyfriend, Dan Brown, who speared a 92-pound fish in 2004, went home empty-handed.
They had seen two fish the day before.
“On the day of, we saw absolutely nothing,” she said. “They were getting them around us, but none went through for us.”
But she “most likely” will be out there again in 2018.
Archambo, for her part, was happy with the season. About 2,200 people visited the shivaree, a key fundraiser for the organization, over two days. Her nephew speared a small sturgeon, a young male that was 46 inches long and 14.9 pounds, and of course there was all of the excitement surrounding the iconic fish.
“What if, 20 years ago, we had just said, `We’re going to close it down?”’ she said. “We’d be so far behind. I am so glad that we just spoke up and said, ‘We have to deal with this now.”’