A year of notable firsts for lake sturgeon program

A year of notable firsts for lake sturgeon program

When Matt Norton went down to the Otter Creek to do some fishing late last month, he was expecting to catch “Just about anything.”

Which is pretty much the norm below the falls in Vergennes. As the avid Little City angler knows well, almost every species that inhabits Lake Champlain can be found in its fish-rich waters at one time or another, especially in the spring. But not even Norton was prepared to hook a real live river monster.

(Photo: Vermont Fish and Wildlife courtesy photo)

(Photo: Vermont Fish and Wildlife courtesy photo)

As he retrieved a red-and-white Dardevle spoon along the bottom below the turbine on the fall’s south bank, his lure was grabbed by a fish that felt heavier and stronger than anything he had ever latched onto before.

“It went all over the place — I could barely control it,” said Norton, the 16-year-old grandson of former state fish and wildlife technician Roger Norton. “It was probably half an hour before I even had a look at it.”

When he did, he could scarcely believe his eyes. The fish appeared to be five feet long, and its thick, torpedo-shaped body had a deeply forked tail; a long, broad snout; and rows of prominent, dinosaur-like bony plates along its back and sides.

That could only mean one thing: Norton was about to land a lake sturgeon, the largest, oldest and arguably rarest fish in Lake Champlain, having evolved more than 100 million years ago and being capable of growing up to seven feet long and 200 pounds.

As required by law, Norton carefully released the pre-historic fish after taking a few quick photos of it on the bank. He then set in motion a chain of events that contributed to a year of notable “firsts” for the Lake Champlain lake sturgeon program.

With the help of Ed Rivers of the Lake Champlain Walleye Association, he was soon texting his photos to state fisheries biologist Chet MacKenzie, who had asked LCWA members to report any sturgeon sightings or incidental catches. As fate had it, MacKenzie was in the process of sampling sturgeon at the Salmon Hole on the Winooski River, and after confirming that Norton’s fish was indeed a sturgeon, he promptly pulled his nets and headed south to Vergennes.

Two days later, MacKenzie’s crew captured the first sturgeon ever handled by Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department biologists from Otter Creek, a 55-inch, 35-pound male that was ripe with milt, indicating it had entered the river to spawn.

The fish was the capstone to a remarkable year for the sturgeon program. In all, biologists netted 17 sturgeon, 13 of which were captured for the first time. They included the first female ever collected in seven years of sampling — one of 15 fish netted in the Winooski — as well as the first sturgeon from the lower Lamoille River that was released with an acoustic transmitter.

Biologists began using acoustic transmitters last year, surgically implanting the lipstick-sized devices in the abdomens of 10 sturgeon netted in the Winooski. Each transmitter emits a unique ping, which allows researchers to track fish in the lake, and 11 more sturgeon were released with transmitters this year, including the Otter Creek fish.

The goal is to determine where sturgeon congregate over the winter. That would allow biologists to collect a more representative sample of the lake’s population, particularly females, which spawn only once every four to nine years and immediately drop out of spawning rivers after releasing their eggs.

In just one year, the transmitters have already led researchers to a quarter-mile-long stretch of shoreline where Winooski River sturgeon appear to spend the winter. MacKenzie is hoping the Lamoille River and Otter Creek fish will do the same.

Regardless, he said, 2016 will go down as “an excellent year” for the sturgeon program. More fish were collected than during the first five years of the sampling program, which ran from 1998 to 2002, when a total of just 15 sturgeon were netted.

MacKenzie is careful to draw any conclusions from the increased number of fish caught, but said one positive trend is clearly evident. Compared to the first five years of the program, when most of the sturgeon were “badly chewed up” with as many as a dozen fresh sea lamprey wounds, the fish captured this year and last have been essentially wound free, which he attributes to the long-term sea lamprey control program begun in 2002.

Sturgeon were once nearly wiped out in Lake Champlain by commercial fishing and degraded spawning habitat, and lampreys are the biggest threat to their recovery today, MacKenzie noted.

Research from the Great Lakes has shown that a single sea lamprey attack is lethal about half the time on juvenile and smaller adult sturgeon. Reducing all sources of mortality is critical for the recovery of a slow-growing species like sturgeon, MacKenzie said, which are often more than 20 years old before they become sexually mature and, in the case of females, can live up to 150 years.

Anglers have been prohibited from intentionally targeting sturgeon since 1974, when they were listed as a state endangered species. But MacKenzie encourages anglers like Norton who accidentally hook one to report their catch by contacting him at 802-770-8792 or [email protected]

“We never would have caught that Otter Creek fish without feedback from anglers,” he said, noting that previous research did not find any evidence of sturgeon spawning in the river.

As for Norton, he was happy to help out. But simply being connected to such a fish was reward enough.

“It was a wonderful experience,” he said. “Truly once in a lifetime.”

Courtesy of Burlington Free Press

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