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Black Lake Sturgeon Spearing Season Ends in Two Hours

Ed Crawford took the first sturgeon on Black Lake in 2012.

February 9, 2012

Among the management tools in Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologists' kit are fishing seasons. Fishing seasons are designed to limit exploitation of a species; seasons are often closed to fishing when a species is especially vulnerable to harvest.

Across Michigan, the season on panfish, bluegills, crappie and perch, never closes. In contrast, walleye fishing on Lower Peninsula inland waters is closed from March 16 to the last Saturday of April, which roughly corresponds to the spawning season. Other species, bass and muskie, for instance, have shorter seasons.

Typically, the more concerned fisheries officials are about a species, the shorter the open season and those seasons are sometimes adjusted for particular bodies of water to offer additional protection for particularly vulnerable species.

Lance Williams shows the decoy and spear he used to take a Black Lake sturgeon.

A perfect example is the sturgeon spearing season on Black Lake in Cheboygan County, which this year lasted only two hours and two minutes.

Sturgeon spearing through the ice is a long time Michigan tradition. It's been enjoyed in several lakes in the northern Lower Peninsula that were once directly connected to the Great Lakes through rivers, but have been cut off by dam construction. Until 1999, a season for sturgeon spearing was held on Black, Burt and Mullet lakes. The season ran from Jan. 1 to the last day of February and anglers were allowed one fish measuring at least 50 inches in length.

Concern about dwindling sturgeon populations in those lakes caused fisheries officials to revisit the regulations and in 2000 major changed were adopted.

Beginning in 2000, the sturgeon season was not only shortened to the last 14 days of February on Black Lake, but the season was closed on Burt and Mullet lakes. A quota was instituted on Black Lake, as well, so the season would close as soon as anglers reached the quota.

In order to make sure that anglers did not exceed the quota, the DNR adopted a system of limiting the number of sturgeon spear fishermen on the lake. The DNR issued permits on a daily basis through a lottery, five spear fishermen were allowed to participate for every fish available.

In addition, the DNR reduced spearing hours to 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and the size limit was reduced from 50 to 36 inches in an attempt to take some of the pressure off the larger, mostly female sturgeon.

So on opening day of the 2000 Black Lake sturgeon spearing season, 25 anglers were allowed to pursue the five fish available for harvest. The system worked well and five fish were harvested.

Ed Crawford poses with his Black Lake sturgeon.

In 2001, anglers harvested six sturgeon - one more than the quota. By the time all the anglers on the ice at Black Lake were notified that the quota had been reached, the sixth fish had been taken.

The DNR maintained the lottery system through 2009, never again exceeding the quota, though the season was changed in 2004 to open the first Saturday of February and close the following Saturday.

But sturgeon anglers wanted more opportunity, so in 2010, the DNR allowed all comers to participate with the understanding that the season would close when the fifth fish was taken. Anglers were required to register in advance. The minimum length limit was eliminated. Spearing hours were shortened to 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and everything went according to plan.

In 2011, however, spearing conditions were ideal and when the quota (seven fish) was reached, the DNR began notifying anglers that the season was closed. Unfortunately, four more sturgeon had been iced before angling activity was curtailed.

As a result, the DNR adopted a different set of rules for the 2012; spearing hours were reduced to 8 a.m. to noon. Although the department continued to allow unlimited entry and the quota for state licensed anglers, tribal anglers have a similar but separate quota in accordance with the 2007 Consent Decree, remained the same, the DNR decided to begin closing the season when two fish had been harvested.

Ed Crawford poses, with his sturgeon, outside his Black Lake shanty.

"Because of the overage in 2011 and the risk of overharvesting the quota with unlimited angler entry, we had to build in a buffer," explained Todd Grischke, the Lake Huron Basin coordinator with the DNR's Fisheries Division.

The second sturgeon of 2012 was officially on the ice at 10:02. The season was closed.

A large contingent of DNR personnel, fisheries biologists and technicians as well as a number of conservation officers, were on the ice to notify anglers that spearing had ended for the season. It took less than 20 minutes to notify all the pre-registered anglers that the season was closed. No additional fish were taken.

Both sturgeon harvested this year fell to veteran sturgeon spearers.

Ed Crawford, a 55 year old insulation contractor from Afton, connected on a 58 inch, 45 pound male. Crawford, who has speared a handful of sturgeon, both here and in Wisconsin, said the fish was swimming high in the water column ("It might have been 10 or 12 feet down," he said) below his shanty over 23 feet of water when he sunk his spear into it right around 9:30 a.m.

A crowd gathered to see, and photograph, Lance Williams and his Black Lake sturgeon.

Lance Williams, a 45 year old tree service operator from Cheboygan, stuck a 53 inch, 32 pound male just before 10 a.m. The fish appeared on the bottom in 22 feet of water, Williams said. It was his 14th surgeon since he started spearing in the mid 1980s.

The DNR was pleased with the results of the season.

"Things went well," Grischke said. "We hit our target without exceeding the quota."

In all, 197 anglers registered to participate in the 2012 season. There was generally good acceptance of the process, Grischke said.

Sturgeon are a long lived species with low reproduction. DNR population estimates show that the numbers are increasing, but it's slow going. The DNR will continue to monitor the Black Lake sturgeon population. If it continues to rise, the quota will likely be increased.

"The longterm goal is effective management of the sturgeon population," Grischke concluded.

Learn more about seasons, regulations and license information for sturgeon and all Michigan fishing opportunities, including the upcoming Free Fishing Weekend, at www.michigan.gov/dnrfishing.

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