Sturgeon guards protect ancient Michigan fish
ONAWAY — Down a long, pockmarked dirt road that makes a Jeep’s heart go pitter-patter, campers squat atop a low cliff overlooking a wending, swiftly-flowing river.
“Any action yet?” asked Dean Sherwood, walking up from his campsite early Sunday morning, his head sporting a baseball cap reading, “Sturgeon Guard.”
A downstater spending a few days this week camping on the cliff near Onaway, Sherwood for the past few summers has spent some of his personal time scanning the spawning grounds of Up North lake sturgeon, watching for poachers.
Classified as threatened in Michigan, the fish can weigh 200 pounds and live 100 years.
Slow to mature, sturgeon can’t reproduce fast enough to maintain a stable population if wildlife specialists don’t protect them, experts say — and, at least in northern Michigan, that requires the help of volunteers standing guard along a river.
During their spring migration, sturgeon congregate in portions of the Upper Black River, oblivious to human activity and susceptible to poaching.
Sturgeon guards and law enforcement watch those areas around the clock, protecting the species some believe to have been alive millions of years before the tyrannosaurus rex.
The sturgeon guard program, organized by the Black Lake Chapter of nonprofit organization Sturgeon for Tomorrow, enlists volunteers to sign up for shifts patrolling the banks of the Black River, safeguarding a Michigan treasure.
“We’re all armed with these,” said sturgeon guard Connie Warner, of Cheboygan, on Sunday morning, flashing a note card.
The card lists the number of a 24-hour poaching hotline and space to record a physical description and other information about anyone guards see threatening the protected fish.
Guards also carry phones and are quick to snap a photo if needed, said Warner, who met her husband a few years back while they were both standing watch over the big fish.
Some days during the April-to-May sturgeon spawning season, guards see a few fish a day making their way upstream in the sometimes-shallow river, their enormous size making them visible from the cliff above.
Other days, as they patrol, guards might see a dozen of the giant fish, forging upriver all together or circling in deep pools, “right there at your feet,” Warner said.
The fish make a racket on their way up the river, said Sherwood.
When they hear a large group on their way — or know they’re coming because of tracking devices implanted in the fish in previous years — biologists who work the river get ready to capture as many as they can, Warner said.
The biologists measure, weigh, and tag the fish, gleaning eggs from some to take to a nearby DNR sturgeon hatchery. Researchers plant young sturgeon back in the river after they’ve grown large enough to stand a good chance of survival.
During 2021, biologists captured 351 adult lake sturgeon during the spawning season, including 56 in one day, according to Sturgeon for Tomorrow’s newsletter, “The Sturgeon General.”
Volunteers may run into conservation officers on foot, other law enforcement officers on horseback, or “coasties” working undercover, all watching over the fish, Warner said.
Sturgeon, though fearsome in appearance, don’t have teeth — they just suck up their food from the river bottom, said Warner.
“They can give you a big hickey, and that’s about it,” she said.
Then again, she said, the giant, thrashing fish have been known to break a person’s arm.
As they watch over large creatures along a small river, sturgeon guards have an up-close view of a creature few people get to see — and, as a bonus, a respite in Up North woods, the volunteers said.
During his off-duty time, Sherwood thought he’d hunt for morel mushrooms, he said on Sunday.
“There’s just not a better volunteer gig out there,” Sherwood said. “This is a blast, always.”
Those with questions about the sturgeon guarding program can contact Jim and Mary Paulson at 989-763-7568 or visit sturgeonfortomorrow.org/guarding-program.php.
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jriddleX.