LAC QUI PARLE – Paul Lowry has a real big fish “tail” to talk about.
In his role as a high school guidance counselor at the Lac qui Parle Valley High School, Lowry helped students in the National Honor Society host a fishing tournament on the upper end of Lac qui Parle Lake as a fundraiser on Dec. 15.
As 38 anglers sought to hoist up the biggest walleyes, crappies and northern, Lowry and a fellow teacher slipped away from the crowd and did their own jigging on the ice.
He felt a weight on his line, but it let go.
He did it again, and again, and on the fifth time that weight turned into a strike with a hefty, fighting fish on the other end.
Lowry said he figured he either had a nice northern or very large walleye, but he and his fishing partner soon realized it wasn’t either. The shark-like tail of the fish now circling his ice fishing hole belonged to a sturgeon.
After snapping a few photos, Lowry released the sturgeon, which he figured topped 30 inches, back into the waters of Lac qui Parle.
His is not the first sturgeon to move downstream from Big Stone Lake, where the prehistoric and once abundant fish are being restocked. It’s known that three sturgeon, one measured at 33-inches, were caught by anglers just below the Churchill dam on the south end of Lac qui Parle Lake last fall, according to Chris Domeier, fisheries supervisor with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Ortonville.
Anglers on Big Stone Lake are enjoying tangles with the fish more frequently.
“They’re catching quite a few out there. We get a report every week or two now,” said Domeier.
It all suggests that the sturgeon restocking program began in 2014 is working. The Department of Natural Resources stocks 4,000 fingerlings in Big Stone Lake each year. The 30-inchers being caught now are almost certainly from the first stocking in 2014.
The restocking was launched with the hope that a catch-and-release season could be offered on Big Stone Lake, and that is now the case. The season is closed from April 15 through June 15, but during the remainder of the year anglers are able to target the feisty fish.
Domeier said it’s hard to know how many anglers might be doing so, but he’s expecting there will be growing interest as these fish continue to grow. As Lowry can attest, a 30-inch sturgeon offers an exciting fight.
Sturgeon are native to these waters, but over harvest by commercial fishermen and declining water quality are believed to have led to their disappearance from the Upper Minnesota River basin. The last lake sturgeon in Big Stone Lake was found washed up dead on the shoreline in 1946, according to historical accounts.
Sturgeon are bottom feeders, and Big Stone Lake offers lots of feed for them, according to Domeier. They vacuum up blood worms, which are the larvae of midges, known also as lake flies. They’ll also gobble up crayfish and mussels.
Domeier is not surprised that anglers are catching a few. They’ll certainly gobble up a hooked minnow on the bottom, he said, adding that they’re curious too. The scent or sight of a bait in the water will attract their interest.
The stocked fish are all tagged, and the fisheries staff monitors their numbers by sample gill netting each year. They’re catching an average of four per net, or near the target of five fish per net that was set when the stocking began, said Domeier. It appears that each of the year classes from the past five years have done well, with a good mix of sturgeon of various lengths.
The success of the program will not really be known until around 2034. Female sturgeons aren’t sexually mature until about age 20. It’s only then that we’ll know if the sturgeon can establish a self-reproducing population.
When and if they do, it will be critical that they can reach spawning habitat. That is an issue that needs to be addressed. The prime spawning habitat is located upstream in the Little Minnesota River.
As part of the Browns Valley Diversion project, a box culvert was installed which the sturgeon in Big Stone Lake will need to navigate to reach the spawning habitat. Engineers determined that velocities in the box culvert would allow upstream migration of fish 95 percent of the time. Unfortunately, the five percent of time when the velocities are too great for upstream migration happens to be during the sturgeon spawning run, according to Domeier. He’s working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and others in hopes of finding a solution.
No doubt there will be interest in seeing the sturgeon succeed. While Lowry was tussling with his big sturgeon, the 38 anglers in the fishing tournament hauled in five fish to be weighed, including a couple of walleye, perch and crappies. None matched the sturgeon for size or fight.