Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

April 26, 2007

On Deck with a Bellowing Sturgeon

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:07 pm

April 25, 2007

  It was 48 degrees, raining, windy and terminally gray, but this was my second chance to board the good ship “Sentinel” and I was determined to make it a good day. The fact that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service crew allowed me on board the research vessel again is testament to the fact that I didn’t mess up too much last time. Fisheries biologist Jim Boase, the crew director, appreciates any help he can get in manning the nets and hook lines.  The work is hard, but Jim knows that the promise of seeing sturgeon is a powerful lure.  Last time I was aboard we only caught one, so I was anxious to see a few more before the spring run is over (see “It Ain’t Over before the Fat Sturgeon Sings” for details of my first trip).

 Today we are joined by Dr. Bruce Manny, who has done extensive work on the Great Lakes Sturgeon, and a young man who we’ll call “Remee” – it’s something like that. I’m not good with names, but can tell you that he was born in Ottawa, Canada, raised in Holland and jokes about the French Canadians drinking Pepsi for breakfast.

 Jim felt it was good to have a Canadian citizen aboard – just in case the O.P.P.(Ontario Provincial Police)  pulled the boat over – again. Apparently they pulled the Sentinel over earlier in the week for violating unknown “No Wake” rules. “They were waiting for us,” declared Jim,” we were out in the middle of the channel and they nabbed us.”  The whole affair was let off with only a warning.  Remee assured us that he could handle the situation next time with a “How ‘ya doing, eh” greeting next time. Perhaps a Pepsi offered as a bribe would be in order.

 Our rain-drenched mission was to take us around the vicinity of Fighting Island and the Canadian waters of the Detroit, so Jim held the throttle low for most of the time.

  As usual, the first part of the morning task entailed hauling several gill nets set for Walleye. The first haul was biblical – for lack of a better description.  As the net was hauled to the surface and over the gunwale, it was choked with walleyes. It took the efforts of all of us to pull the heavy net in. The net was fairly bursting at the seams (a net doesn’t have seams, but that’s the only term I can think of at the moment). About 75 fish were piled onto the deck before the entire length of mesh was accounted for.  Twenty minutes of fish extraction followed.

  Since gill nets ensnare the fish behind their gill flap, it takes some delicate push & pull work to get them out.  Continual rain insured an ample supply of aquatic environment for those fish awaiting release. A huge Bowfin and a Short-nose Redhorse Sucker were also mixed in with the lot.

Normally all the fish would be kept for later lab work, but seeing that our buckets would be overloaded, Jim started to measure and toss as quickly as we coaxed the fish out of the fine mesh.  A few were kept as specimens – their first three dorsal fin rays clipped for aging purposes.

  With the aluminum deck patterns permanently impressed into my knees and my fingers numb with cold, I was glad to see the last fish freed from the twine. In reviewing the entire catch, it appeared that most of them were “spent males” This is a polite way of saying that the egg-laying party was over and these guys had performed their – um, “manly duties.” The spawning run had peaked.

  Of the next two nets, one sported an enormous Carp, a Silver Red-horse Sucker, and a few Walleye. The third was completely empty of fish. Noting the accumulated debris in the last net, Dr. Manny shared with us a story from many years ago when the Canadian shoreline nearby was “littered with turds.” Although sure that the gunk on the net was just plant matter this time, I smelled my gloves just to make sure. 

  On the way to the sturgeon lines, we passed a huge bald eagle nest on Fighting Island.  One of the eagles flew up from the waters edge and joined his mate near the nest. There are two such nests along this stretch of the river and the birds are now a regular sight (as opposed to “turdy” years ago).

  Although most of the hooks pulled up from the three sturgeon sets were empty, three of them yielded our desired quarry – “Mishename – the King of Fishes” (to quote “Hiawatha”). When one of these giants is in tow, the line becomes heavy and moves about.  Emerging from the depths, a yellowish outline clarifies into a shark-like visage and an explosion of spray as the fish clears the water via a landing net.

  Sturgeons are extremely slimy and very strong.  Add to this the fact that they are also very heavy and you’ll see why it took all my energy just to hold the slippery behemoths still.  Jim showed me how to grab the large pectoral (side) fin and muscle one 50- pounder over to expose its mouth and remove the hook.  As we wrestled with it, the fish exhaled a sound akin to a bellow. The explosion of air was probably from an air bubble trapped in the gill chamber, but I was impressed none-the-less.

  Once the hook was removed, the fish are cradled in a net supported across the bow of the boat. The first order of business is to weight them by hefting the net from a scale (the other two were in the 40-50 lb. neighborhood as well). Measurements of total length yielded results ranging in the 50-58 inch range and girths around 23 inches. Next, a section of the left pectoral fin ray is removed (for aging). This thick cartilaginous ray has to be cut with a hacksaw, but this doesn’t harm the fish. A PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) radio tag was inserted beneath the skin just behind the head and an orange Floy identity tag secured through the base of the dorsal fin.

  The bellowing fish did not take to any of these procedures kindly.  He fought the entire process and could only be calmed by placing our gloved hands over his eyes. Lamprey scars – red raw circle scars left by the feeding activity of fluid sucking lampreys – marked his left side.  They looked raw and un-healed, so he was probably in no mood for any more poking or prodding.  He was returned to his element in short order and disappeared into the depths with an indignant swish of the tail.

  While all three fish were impressive, the last was the best looking.  This one was distinctly bi-colored.  His upper half was a shade of deep mocha and his lower half was light cream hazel grading to pure white at the belly. A row of imbedded bony plates formed the midline that divided the color shades.  These plates themselves were a third shade of darker brown, so they imparted a distinct repeating pattern down the side.

  We grinned at each other and commented on the beauty as it was lowered back into the water. I think it was Reemy that said “That was a pretty fish” as it slipped away. We all nodded in agreement.  “Yup, pretty fish.  Let’s go home.” 

  Because the rain was relentless, I could only sneak out my camera for a few pictures of the sturgeon procedure. If you take a look at them through this link, you’ll notice that two of the shots are from my earlier fair weather excursion.  The middle shots are of the second rainy day sturgeon – the one that neither bellowed nor looked especially pretty.

2 Comments »

  1. Your bellowing Sturgeon reminded me of something I came across the other day when researching Gar.
    *When Alligator Gar leap they will often make a loud grunt noise as the air in its air bladder is forced out. The following inhale makes a raspy sound.* I can just so clearly see this giant fish/lizard give out some old man grunt and then hiss as it tries to breathe in again.
    Why, you may ask, was I researching Alligator Gar? Well, my guy was walking along the beach (Lake Erie) the other day and swears he saw some kind of Gar washed up. However, he realized that this would be a little too north for their liking.
    Is it possible that it was a Gar, or do you suspect it was something else?
    He’s very much a fisherman so probably would have recognized if it was something standard. What say you?

    Comment by Stephanie A — May 1, 2007 @ 11:39 am

  2. Stephanie:
    You’re right, the Alligator Gar is a creature of the south, but two other species of gar are common in these parts. Our local representatives of the clan are the Spotted and Long-nose Gar. I’m willing to bet that he saw the Long nose variety washed up on the beach, since these are the most common.
    They have a long slender beak armed with an impressive array of needle-like teeth. The body is patterned with dark blotches on a dull green background. These guys can get to be six feet long and, like all gar, are covered with armored scales (called Ganoid Scales). The head is also encased in stout boney plates.
    The Spotted Gar tends to be much smaller with a wider and shorter snout. Look up pictures of both and see which one matches.
    The Long-nose Gars will soon be gathering for their annual spawning run, so the chance to see a live one one will increase in the near future. All gars are tolerant of warm low-oxygen water and have air bladder “lungs” to absorb atmospheric air. They gulp air into these air bladders, and I guess they burp every now and then, eh?
    Gerry

    Comment by Gerry Wykes — May 1, 2007 @ 7:29 pm

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