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Sturgeon of State

By Spider Rybaak

Sturgy, the 4-something-foot resident sturgeon at the Oneida Lake Hatchery in Constantia.

Anyone worth his weight in jigheads knows the best walleye fishery in the Northeast is Oneida Lake. Likewise, savvy bass anglers agree it’s one of your best bets in the state to nail limits of keeper bass punctuated by a trophy or two. And the perch grow so long and fat they’re called Jacks.

But there’s more lurking within this Central New York lake than just world class game fish and panfish. Unusual critters like lake sturgeon, the largest freshwater fish this side of the Mississippi, thrive here, too.

Capable of living over 100 years, growing up to 9 feet long and weighing close to 200 pounds, this fish is one of the oldest species on earth, dating back to the Jurasic period. Armored with gigantic plates on its back and sides, propelled with a huge, shark-like tail, graced with a bottom sucking mug only a mother could love, this beast looks like it came out of some steamy, primordial swamp or cooling pond of a nuclear power plant.

But it’s as American as Apple pie; native to the Oswego River drainage which includes Oneida Lake.
Sturgeon, along with several other native flora and fauna, were all but wiped out by the middle of the last century. Seeing the devastating effects pollution had on the woods and waters, conscientious Americans spawned an environmental movement, and a massive clean-up ensued.  Given a clean slate, most of the natural world rebounded on its own. Larger beasts with long life spans required a little help.

NYSDEC met the challenge, carefully reintroducing species like Atlantic salmon into Lake Ontario, whitefish into select Adirondack ponds, paddlefish into the Alleghany River system and lake sturgeon into Oneida Lake.

DEC’s sturgeon stocking program in Oneida Lake went so well, recent surveys reveal sturgeon are naturally reproducing in the place.

They’re not out of the woods yet, however, and probably never will be. Fish this big take a long time to reach sexual maturity–up to 20 years–and their size makes it tough to find hiding spots in shallow lakes and streams, making them extremely vulnerable.

So they enjoy protected status in NY State. It’s illegal to fish for them. If one is caught, it must be released immediately.

With a little help from their human friends, lake sturgeon populations have a good chance of bouncing back to former levels.

When that happens, it’ll be possible to walk along the bank of the Oneida or Oswego Rivers, or even Verona Beach State Park and see monster sturgeon splashing around in shallow water.  When this becomes commonplace, it’ll indicate man has taken a significant step forward in returning some of nature’s biggest animals to their rightful haunts.

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