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Return of the Giants

Carl Rathje, a fish culturist at the DEC’s Oneida Lake hatchery, holding one of the facility’s resident lake sturgeon.

Larry Muroski, of Larry’s Oswego Salmon Shop, reports five lake sturgeon were caught in the river behind his shop the last week of June.

“These things were huge. The one caught by Jarret Crimmins [a native of the city of Oswego] was six feet long” claims the colorful bait monger.

Fortunately, just about everyone who fishes in downtown Oswego knows the species is listed as threatened in New York State and totally protected, and all the fish were quickly released.

Up until the 19th century, lake sturgeon were plentiful in the Great Lakes. They thrived in the Oswego River drainage, including its two biggest lakes, Cayuga and Oneida.

There’s even evidence the art world’s most popular sturgeon came from our drainage, specifically, Onondaga Lake, on Syracuse’s northwestern corner. In his poem, “The Song of Hiawatha,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow describes how the legendary warrior went “Forth to catch the sturgeon…, Mishe Nahma, King of the Fishes.” While most scholars claim the setting was Lake Superior, Iroquois legend has it Hiawatha was an Onondaga, suggesting his favorite fishing hole was the lake named after his tribe.

Poetic license aside, the fact is these native New Yorkers were around way before man; going back to the Jurassic period, in fact. They survived very nicely all the way up to the 19th century, when humans posed a greater threat to them than the meteorite that allegedly smashed into the Gulf of Mexico and wiped out the dinosaurs. You see, human activities ranging from pollution and over-fishing to building dams blocking their spawning routes pushed them to the brink of extinction.

Luckily, small populations survived in some of the state’s northern streams, most notably the St. Lawrence River. However, it’s doubtful their numbers would have rebounded without assistance from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

According to Carl Rathje, a fish culturist at the Oneida Lake hatchery in Constantia, “The DEC’s goal is to restore lake sturgeon into their original range in the Great Lakes.”

In 1993, the authorities stocked 35 sturgeon into the Oswego River that were hatched out of eggs taken from fish netted in the St. Lawrence River. The Oneida Lake hatchery continued raising roughly 5,000 sturgeon annually for distribution throughout the region, including Oneida Lake.

According to Rathje, before the program could bear much fruit, Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia (VHS), the deadly virus responsible for massive fish kills in the Great Lakes, was discovered, leading to cessation of the sturgeon rearing program at the Oneida Lake hatchery in 2004 for fear of contaminating the lake.

Still, scientists didn’t give up. Research showed eggs could be disinfected by submerging them in an iodine solution. In 2009, 2010 and 2011, eggs taken from St. Lawrence River sturgeon were treated and brought to the Oneida hatchery for rearing. “But we haven’t been able to hatch out any,” laments Rathje.

On a brighter note: “Oneida Lake is very productive and our sturgeon grow quicker than anywhere else in the state. Cornell University has already netted fish in the lake weighing up to 100 pounds.” continues Rathje.

“It’s been 16 years since Oneida Lake was first stocked with sturgeon. The females will be maturing soon [they take about 20 years], and there’s a possibility we’ll be able to get future batches of eggs from our own fish,” he adds with great enthusiasm.

In the meantime, prepare to hear a growing number of stories of sturgeon being caught in Oswego County. And as more and more sturgeon gain 100-something pounds, brace yourselves for a proliferation of stories of the one that got away.

By the way, if you catch one, Rathje advises leaving the fish in the water while removing the hook and simply letting it swim away. If you must remove it from the water, keep it out only for as long as it takes to extract the hook and release it immediately.

Lake sturgeon up close and personal.