Sturgeon Alert

By Spider Rybaak
Carl Rathje, a fish culturist at the DEC’s Oneida Lake hatchery, holding one of the facility’s resident lake sturgeon.
The funniest thing happened to me while fishing below the Caughedenoy dam for bullheads last Sunday. Something powerful took my slice of gizzard shad, sending my drag into a fit. Figuring it was a catfish, I set the hook and waited for the drag to stop.
It never did. Whatever hit stripped almost 200 yards of 6-lb test line off my reel like it was taking a walk in the park. I’ve caught 20-something-pound carp, a 12-pound cat, even a 7-pound sheepehead on the same rig. But this thing spooled me; for the first time in my life!
After hours of struggling to figure out what species was powerful enough to do that, I’ve come to the conclusion it was a sturgeon. They’re in Lake Ontario and Oneida Lake; and the Oneida River at Caughedenoy is between the two… which kind’a doubles my chances of hooking one… don’t ya think?
Last year several were reported caught in the city of Oswego. In addition, rumor had it that several were also caught in the Erie Canal at Sylvan Beach and Brewerton. So chances are good that the fish that made a fool out of me a few days ago was one of the primitive beasts.
Sturgeon go back a long way in Oswego County. They were here before the Indians. In fact, they swam with the dinosaurs. Up until the middle of the 19th century, the Great Lakes had so many of them, they were netted commercially, dried and sold to the railroad for fuel.
That kind of abuse, combined with habitat destruction, dams blocking migratory routes and pollution just about wiped them out in the 20th century. Fortunately, a few survived. Larry Muroski, owner of Larry’s Oswego Salmon Shop, remembers seeing a 10-footer come to the surface (jumping out of the water to make a big splash is part of their courting ritual) when he was a boy fishing for silver bass in the Oswego River, behind the Canal Commons in the Port City.
DEC at work

Still, it would have taken centuries – if ever – for the survivors to repopulate their former range in any significant way. The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation stepped in to help them out in 1993 by stocking 35 sturgeon into the Oswego River. They were hatched from eggs taken from St. Lawrence River fish. The Oneida Lake hatchery went to work raising roughly 5,000 annually for distribution throughout the region, including Oneida Lake.
According to Carl Rathje, fish culturist at the Constantia facility, the stocking program came to a screeching halt in 2004. Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia, the virus responsible for massive fish kills in the Great Lakes in the late 1990s and early 2000s, was discovered and the sturgeon rearing program was suspended to prevent infecting Oneida lake.
Mother nature smiled on the program; however, you see, Oneida Lake is very sturgeon-friendly.
“They’re the fastest growing lake sturgeon in the entire U.S.,” claims Rathje. “This year Cornell has netted several pushing 100 pounds. They’ve collected fish that had mature eggs and they believe sturgeon are spawning in Fish Creek.”
Your chances of seeing or hooking one are growing greater all the time. If you should be using a heavier line than I was last Sunday, or simply hook a smaller, more manageable fish, please remember sturgeon are listed as a threatened species in New York and must be released immediately. To ensure you inflict no further damage, the DEC advises the following:
·Avoid bringing the fish into the boat if possible.
Use pliers to remove the hook; sturgeon are almost always hooked in the mouth.
l -Always support the fish horizontally. Do not hold sturgeon in a vertical position by their head, gills or tails, even for taking pictures.
– –Never touch their eyes or gills.
·Minimize their time out of the water.
For more information on this native son, check out “DEC Advises Anglers to be on the Lookout for Lake Sturgeon in the Great Lakes and Oneida Lake,” at www.dec.ny.gov/press/82097.html; and the “Lake Sturgeon Fact Sheet” at www.dec.ny.gov/animals/26035.html.
Lake sturgeon up close and personal.