From Bob to Tamatoa: Missouri River’s Lake Sturgeon Get Names

Scientists refer to their study species using their Latin names. In previous blog posts and in the blog title itself, I mention the species name for Lake Sturgeon, Acipenser fulvescens. When I began tagging Lake Sturgeon in March, I went from studying a single species to a collection of individuals. Through tracking these fish over then next 4 years I will be learning about the behaviors that make each Lake Sturgeon unique. Think of the fish having their own unique personalities (somewhere a behavioral ecologist is cringing). Some fish will be homebodies, rarely leaving a single pool, 0thers will be more adventurous moving hundreds of miles or more. Some will be males that make spawning migrations every other year while others will be mature females that will only migrate every 4 to 7 years.

Attributing human characteristics to your study animals is scientifically controversial if not outright taboo. However, naming my Lake Sturgeon has practical significance. Say I locate a fish near the Bonnots Mill access on the Osage River one week and return a week later and find that a fish is again hanging out in the same area. If I were referring to fish by tag numbers, I doubt that I would remember whether fish 16198 was the same fish as last time. Instead if I give the fish human names, I might remember that Moe likes hanging out near the boat ramp. In addition to being a memory device for me, I thought it would be a good way to communicate information about the fish to the public. You would probably be more interested in learning that a Lake Sturgeon named Emma Watson passed Lock and Dam #1 than fish #16204.

Brandon holding Emma Watson (***The Sturgeon**).

I assigned the naming task to my wife’s 8th grade science students. Students have named 24 fish and another 17 are awaiting new names. As long as I can pronounce them, I don’t think I will have much difficulty remembering them.  They include: Cosmopolis, Lianlian, Emma Watson, Demitri, Julio, Rudinger, Danica (likely as speedy swimmer), Miles (likely a mover), and Fin. I plan to visit their class periodically to give them updates on what their fish are up to.

My advisor, Craig Paukert with Cosmopolis.

A Feel for Sturgeon

“For us hunting wasn’t a sport. It was a way to be intimate with nature…” -Ted Kerasote.

Fishing seems like a more passive verb than hunting and to some may connote an overweight angler drinking beer in a lawn chair waiting for a fish to decide to take his bait. Yet, like hunting, fishing can be, active, thoughtful, challenging, dare I say, onerous, with the death of the targeted creature being optional in the end. Most of what I’ve been doing in my research lately has been “hunting” (non-leathally of course) Lake Sturgeon using weighted lines with many baited hooks anchored to the bottom, to implant telemetry tags into. Thus Kerasote’s quote applies. In a scientific sense, intimacy with nature can mean opening all of your sensory channels to observe the ecosystem you are studying, knowing full well that observations are the basis of data and data the basis of discovery and discovery the basis for transmissible knowledge.

A 30lb Lake Sturgeon caught on a trotline in the Lower Osage River.

With practice, fishermen and fisheries scientists can sharpen their sensory skills. First comes the ability to identify a fish by sight. Distinctive traits: colors, scale size, mouth location, fin positions, and body shape all belong to each fish species and forming a gestalt that becomes embedded in an angler’s memory.  Later other sensory identities of the fish species emerge. The oily smell that Gizzard Shad leaves on your hands, the slapping sound a gar makes as it surfaces after prey, and the feel of the fish tugging on your line.

The recognizable feeling of the propulsion provided by a particular type of tail fin imbues an angler with a prophetic ability able to identify a fish before seeing it.  For instance, like a alligator with its jaws in a snare, catfish implement rapid head shakes and death rolls which leaves the line covered in their viscous slime. Shovelnose Sturgeon are so small and slender that their tug is subtle and less abrupt than catfish. On the other hand the much larger Lake Sturgeon has long powerful pulls. You can visualize the muscles along the flanks of its long body contracting and sending slow waves of motion down to the shark-like tail fin.The only thing that approaches the feel of a “Laker” on the line is the lowly Common Carp. With their thick caudal peduncle (tail base) they have equally powerful swimming strokes. Talk about a letdown when you pull these overgrown goldfish up from the bottom and see its copper scales flash in the sunlight. However, even seasoned anglers make unforgivable mistakes. Sometimes the longing of catching a Lake Sturgeon is strong enough, to make your imagination transfigure a trotline anchor into a 50 lb sturgeon.

Releasing a small tagged Lake Sturgeon

Lake Sturgeon can also catch you off your guard. Like when fellow graduate student Corey Dunn was hauling up what he thought was a log and found a 20 lb sturgeon thrashing at the surface. In his moment of surprise, his instincts kicked in and rather than wait for Brandon to net the fish, he embraced the Sturgeon in a bear hug until he could subdue it into the livewell. Last week, I had a similar experience.  As I untied the downstream anchor, I felt something lightly pulling on the line. Light rapid twitches had me thinking small catfish.  Just I pulled a 12 inch Freshwater Drum boatside, a 30 lb Lake Sturgeon breached on the next hook down-line, hurling sheets of frothy water in my direction. Such was my surprise, that I barely fought off the urge to bear hug and manhandle the writhing fish in the boat myself.

Next time you go fishing and have a fish on the line, pay attention to the way it moves and make prediction. What verb would you use to describe its movement? Is it diving, jerking, twitching? Were you right? Then take it one step further, what about the fish’s body or lifestyle could account for its unique moves?

I Spy our First Sturgeon

The wind ripped out of the south ushering in record warm temperatures. Thermometers were creeping into the 70’s in mid February. The maples had been duped by faux arrival of spring, their branches teemed with red buds along the banks. Under the translucent brownish turquoise water, things were much calmer. The Osage although very low was still pumping 2000 cubic feet of water per second downstream. When this mass of water met the mighty Missouri River less than a mile downstream, it  backed up like too many sports fans funneled through the turnstiles at a stadium. This turned the river into a placid backwater.  Despite this apparent quiet under the surface, things were beginning getting noisy, we just couldn’t tell yet.

Earlier that morning we set out four of our  stationary acoustic receivers and a telemetry tag in a straight line each separated by 100 m. The tag sends out sound signals or “pings” every 12 seconds. The receivers are essentially underwater microphones that record the pings.The goal of this mini experiment was to determine over what distance the stationary receivers were able to detect pings from the tag. If the furthest receiver, 400 m away, could detect most of the pings then theoretically it should be able to catch the pings from any tagged sturgeon that swims up the 300 m wide Osage River when we deploy the receivers for for real. Brandon and I were stretched out on the boat, trying our best to kill time, letting the technology do the work for us. We had four hours to kill while we waited for the receivers to listen for pings.

Stationary receivers mounted in concrete anchors ready to be deployed.
Stationary receivers mounted in concrete anchors ready to be deployed.

When the clock finally struck 3:30 we hastily retrieved our gear.  Brandon guided the blue F-250 up the winding roads along the loess river hills.  I began downloading the data to our field tablet. Luckily, all four receivers seemed to be picking up at least 80% of the tag transmissions which means that the likelihood of a receiver missing at tagged Sturgeon swimming by should be relatively low.

And as proof of our theory, we happened to detect our first tagged Lake Sturgeon by accident! Fish number 26025 is a Lake Sturgeon that was tagged by Missouri Department of Conservation Biologist Travis Moore last Spring. This fish was a big boy too, measuring 48 inches long and weight 32 pounds. Could it be starting its migration up the Osage in search of spawning habitat? Only time will tell. The battery in this fish’s tag should last another couple of years allowing us to collect information on where it moves and what habitat it prefers.

The white dots are our first detection of pings by from a tagged Lake Sturgeon by one of our stationary receivers!
The white dots are our first detection of pings by from a tagged Lake Sturgeon by one of our stationary receivers!

Bridges: We Drive Over them, Sturgeon Swim Under Them

I’ve finally emerged from a long blogging hiatus. This emergence coincides with an emergence from my troglodytic existence in the basement of ABNR Building on Mizzou’s campus. Troglodytic or cave dwelling, is not an exaggeration of how I have spent the winter. Unaccustomed to the brightness of the outside world, my first day in the field left me with a cherry-red face and moderate eye strain.

Soon the first warm days of the season will also rouse the Lake Sturgeon in Missouri’s rivers out of their winter sluggishness. As they begin to move they will likely be rather hungry as well. Hungry enough, we hope, to readily gobble a gob of nightcrawlers on our trotlines. After which we can surgically implant acoustic telemetry tags to track their movements over the next 4 years. But all of this work is for later posts. There are many preparatory activities that need to be made for the field season. 

 

Trotline hooks ready for use to catch some Lake Sturgeon!
Trotline hooks ready for use to catch some Lake Sturgeon!

 

The goals of the first forays into the field were to assess the potential study area which includes the larger tributaries to the Missouri River that we expect Lake Sturgeon to swim up during the spring in search of spawning habitat. My main focus is on the Osage and the Gasconade, but Lake Sturgeon are unpredictable, the Chariton, Grand, Lamine, and Moreau rivers might entice a wayward Sturgeon as well.  This leaves me and my trusty side-kick Brandon with 100’s of miles to patrol for the fish we tag, which unless we can find a house boat that can navigate these rivers, is an unrealistic goal.

However, there is another way around this. We can deploy “eyes” or rather “ears” to patrol these rivers for tagged Sturgeon 24-7. These ears are Vemco stationary receivers. These receivers have microphones built in that can detect the sound “pings” emitted by the tags implanted in our Lake Sturgeon. For example, we may tag a sturgeon in the Osage River. If this fish decides to swim up the Grand River within say 500 m of a stationary receiver, the receiver will log the fish’s tag number for us to download later.

Vemco VRTx Stationary Receiver. The very top point is where the microphone is located.
Vemco VRTx Stationary Receiver. The very top point is where the microphone is located.

The biggest issue with the stationary receivers is choosing the best place to set them to 1. prevent damage or loss during floods and 2. to prevent loss via theft (not sure why anyone would want one of these). One secure place researchers have used in the past are bridge piers, with permission from the Department of Transportation of Course. The river channel is the highway for migrating sturgeon and swimming upstream means they must pass under these bridges where we can observe their presence with stationary receivers during times we aren’t able to manually track them.

A good bridge pier for a stationary receiver is one that is in deep water, and has low flow velocity. Swift flow can create extra noise that interferes with the receiver’s microphone.

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Good bridge
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Bad Bridge

In addition to looking at bridges which isn’t terribly exciting, I also got a first look at some of my study sites. Some were more scenic than others. And some cool wildlife along the way.

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Scenic Gasconade River
Less scenic Chariton River. The Chariton is highly channelized and about 2 feet deep across the entire width of the river. The paddle I am holding is touching bottom.
Less scenic Chariton River. The Chariton is highly channelized because it is in an agricultural region of Missouri and about 2 feet deep across the entire width of the river. The paddle I am holding is touching bottom.
That is the muck that is on the bottom of the Chariton. Woe to the Sturgeon who swims up this river.
This is the muck that is on the bottom of the Chariton. Woe to the Sturgeon who swims up this river looking for spawning gravel.
Eagle nest in a sycamore along the Gasconade River.
Eagle nest with adult in a sycamore along the Gasconade River.

 

Introductions

As the name tag says this blog will serve as an introduction to Acipenser fulvescens, the mighty Lake Sturgeon. We, the sturgeon and I, are just now becoming acquainted. For my master’s I worked on a tiny minnow called the Clinch Dace, which when full grown, measures a maximum of 8-9 cm and weigh less than 10 g. I will now be working on a fish that can reach lengths surpassing 7 feet and weights up to 110 kg. To put that in perspective, the weight of largest Lake Sturgeon ever caught may surpass the combined weight of all of the adult Clinch Dace on the planet (Moore 2016). I’ve got a lot to learn…

Illustration of the Menominee spearing sturgeon.
Illustration of the Menominee spearing sturgeon. Source:http://intotheoutdoors.org

 

It’s okay though. I’ll have 4-5 years to study the Lake Sturgeon. I’ll be implanting acoustic telemetry tags in these guys and gals and following them on their seasonal migrations around Central Missouri’s rivers.

Perhaps it is best to start our introduction of the Lake Sturgeon with a post about some of man’s first interactions with this species. Native Americans knew sturgeon well and tribes of the upper Midwest such as the Ojibwe had a deep respect for this fish. Before affluent modern society decided that Sturgeon caviar should become the culinary equivalent of gold (treatment of white American’s early relationship with the sturgeon will require its own post), Native Americans had long celebrated the return of Sturgeon at rapids in the spring during their annual spawning run. The arrival of the Lake Sturgeon, or  “name” (nah-may) as they called them, were celebrated with festivals, feasts, and rituals. The Menominee considered the Sturgeon one of their founding ancestors but after a long harsh Wisconsin winter where food was scarce, they didn’t mind inviting their big, easily captured relatives over for dinner. At these sturgeon feasts, the fish were eaten but also offered to the Gods with thankful praise. These tribes even began the practice of  spearing sturgeon through the ice which continues to be a popular regional sportfishing practice today.

Wolf River, Keshena Falls Indian Reservation, WI. Historically one of the main sturgeon fishing camps in the spring before dams disrupted migration.
Wolf River, Keshena Falls Indian Reservation, WI. Historically one of the main sturgeon fishing camps in the spring before dams disrupted migration. Source:www.cardcow.com

 

In recent years, tribes like the Menominee have been instrumental in restoring Lake Sturgeon to their native habitats where past harvest and dams had thwarted their migrations. Just as the name had helped give birth to their tribes, they are giving this fossil of a fish a second chance at life in Wisconsin’s lakes and streams.

 

 

Info and Photo Sources and Links:

David R. M. Beck. (1995). Return to Namä’o Uskíwämît: The Importance of Sturgeon in    Menominee Indian History. The Wisconsin Magazine of History, 79(1), 32-48. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4636602

Moore, M. J. 2016. Distribution and population characterization of Clinch Dace (Chrosomus sp. cf. saylori) in the Upper Clinch River System, Virginia. Master’s thesis Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA.

Photo Cred #1 http://intotheoutdoors.org/topics/native-american-relationship-with-sturgeon/

Photo Cred#2 http://www.cardcow.com