Project H2O: Minn. DNR restoring sturgeon on St. Louis River

10:11 PM, Nov 1, 2012   |    comments
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DULUTH, Minn. - It is a rare, or perhaps foolish angler who guarantees a client a big catch.

Fishing guide Charlie Nelson won't do that, but whenever he floats on the St. Louis River near Duluth he tells anglers they're likely to catch a glimpse of a prehistoric-looking giant torpedoing out of the brown water, a creature known as the lake sturgeon.

It wasn't always this way on the mighty St. Louis.

Nelson first started fishing the river, which dumps into nearby Lake Superior, around 1980. Back then, sturgeon had vanished from the St. Louis like countless Great Lakes' ships.

"When we first started, you didn't see any," Nelson said.

These days Nelson expects to see about 15 leaping from the water in just an hour.

Nelson and other anglers are the beneficiaries of three decades of work by the Minnesota DNR to restore the sturgeon - the largest fish in the Great Lakes - to the St. Louis River.

To be truthful, the work is far from done.

Sturgeon 'fishing'

In May of 2012 you could find DNR employees continuing their work, wading through the shallow water beneath the St. Louis River's Fond du Lac dam on the western edge of Duluth.

They were looking for sturgeon, attempting to get a better sense of the population.

"There's one right there," said Nick Frohnauer, Assistant Area Supervisor of Duluth Area Fisheries.

Several times similar shouts rose above the din of water roaring over the dam.

Frohnauer and his crew used nets to capture some of the big fish. Once in hand, they inserted numbered transponders into some of the sturgeon, similar to the chips that are put in pets to identify them after they are lost.

As one of those wrestling with the fish described it, "Basically, the same thing you chip dogs and cats with."

Stocking sturgeon

The DNR can keep busy studying the sturgeon population these days, thanks in large part to decades of stocking.

"This project started in 1983. Pretty much there were no lake sturgeon left, at least none coming up the St. Louis River here," Frohnauer said.

The DNR blames the sturgeon's disappearance from the St. Louis River on man and decades of human harm dating back to the late 1800s, including overfishing, logging and pollution.

According to the DNR, the Clean Water Act of the 1970s helped improve the river.

Then the DNR moved in. Between 1983 and 2000, it stocked 145,000 sturgeon in the St. Louis River.

Hope for naturally reproducing sturgeon

After all the stocking, the DNR made a breakthrough discovery in 2011.

"Our original goal when we started the project was to reintroduce the lake sturgeon and reintroduce them so that they reproduce naturally, and last year was the first year we saw that," Frohnauer said.

That evidence of natural reproduction came nearly 30 years after the stocking began.

"And the cool thing about sturgeon is, it takes them a long time to get to reproductive stage, about 20 years before they start reproducing. So we're just starting now to see the results of our stocking, which is pretty cool," Frohnauer noted.

Now the DNR hopes to find evidence that those fry are surviving. In a couple more decades, the DNR may even start an angling season here for the sturgeon, a trophy fish that can live more than 100 years.

"We're still probably about 20 or 30 years out from an angling season, but we want to collect enough data and get a good enough grip on this so when we finally do have an angling season, we know what regulations to set," Frohnauer said.

Sturgeon show

On an August day, KARE 11 reporter Greg Vandegrift enjoyed the sturgeon sites with fishing guide Charlie Nelson.

In roughly 90 minutes on the St. Louis River, we saw nearly 20 of these strange looking sturgeon soar out of the water.

"They're a fish dinosaur," Nelson noted.

The good news is that unlike the T-Rex, the Lake Sturgeon is certainly not extinct on the St. Louis.

From Nelson's perspective the sturgeon population is taking flight much like another creature.

"We never saw eagles as kids," Nelson recalled. "The sturgeon have come back kind of like the eagles have."

(Copyright 2012 by KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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