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?

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