The Sturgeon Listened!

My last post was a desperate plea to my tagged sturgeon. “Come and see me, I miss you!” I lamented, and guess what, the guilt trip worked! Last week we spent three days gill netting Lake Sturgeon on the Gasconade River and captured 8 individuals. Six were new, but two were fish we had tagged last fall. Our first recaptures!

All jokes aside, as with every field trip, we learned something new. For instance, the fact that our first and only recaptures occurred on the Gasconade River provides more evidence that the Gasconade River is home to fewer Lake Sturgeon than the Osage River. The much smaller Gasconade may simply lack the space to support as many Lake Sturgeon as the Osage, or there may be other habitat factors that make the Osage River more desirable for sturgeon. Now that we have tagged almost 20 Lake Sturgeon in the Gasconade, we have a sufficient sample size  to start comparing their movement and habitat selection to the 56 Lake Sturgeon that we tagged in the Osage. This comparison can help us learn how Lake Sturgeon respond to flow manipulations in the regulated Osage River by using the free flowing Gasconade River as a control.

The second time saying goodbye isn’t any easier than the first.

This also provided a good opportunity to check and see how our fish were recovering from surgery. The first recaptured fish was the only fish we had captured on a trotline in the Gasconade River this past fall. The second fish was also tagged last fall but was captured both times using a gill net. The incision sites on both fish seemed to be healing well with no external signs of infection present.

The skin is healing nicely, already having closed around the three interrupted sutures. Over time the sutures should wear down and fall out.

If this blog is really a mysterious communication channel to Missouri River Lake Sturgeon,  I’ll put it in writing that all of you should spawn this spring. And make sure you are as conspicuous as possible about it too. Lots of splashing on the rocks please.

Cattle and Hogs

Reminders of Missouri’s connections to agriculture are everywhere. Drive the I-70 corridor across the heart of Missouri and the dominant vista corn and cows punctuated by an occasional billboard. To and from our field sites on the Osage River, the views are much the same. Here denuded hilltops, are grazed low by roving herds of black Angus. Yet I still somehow expect fisheries fieldwork to be an escape from the land of livestock. Sure there are the occasional small pasture creeks we work in, used by cows as personal watering trough, swimming pool, and toilet. More often though field sites are set in rugged river hills and creek draws that have been allowed to grow up in bristling stands of oak and hickory. So you can imagine my surprise when sampling for Lake Sturgeon this year, up from the watery depths we pulled a spotted cow and a hulking hog. These weren’t literal cows and hogs but rather curious specimens of one of Missouri’s largest fish, the Blue Catfish (Ictalurus furcatus).

Let’s start with the cow. The bovine Blue Cat pictured below was produced by a genetic mutation (or mootation if you appreciate a good pun). They call this color morph piebald. At first, I probably was not appropriately appreciative of this catch. In addition to his years studying fish, my coworker Brandon, a self described river rat who grew up along the banks of the Missouri river running trotlines for catfish, was amazed.  I don’t need a geneticist to tell me about incidence rates of this abnormality, when Brandon says it was the first he’d ever seen, I’ll believe him that it was special.

The “spotted cow”. A piebald Blue Catfish from the Osage River.

 

But that wasn’t our last encounter with curious catfish in 2017. Just this past month, a hog appeared in our nets. Struggling to catch Lake Sturgeon to tag for our research in the Gasconade River on trotlines, we decided to try different gear in the nearby Missouri River. We deployed large mesh gill nets in fishy looking spots and then returned the next morning to see what we had caught. As we began pulling in our first gill net it became clear we had caught something huge. Vince and Brandon pulled on lead line with all of their might, but it wouldn’t budge. Rather than snaring a monster Lake Sturgeon, it became clear that a giant sunken Cottonwood washed off an eroding bank had become ensnared  in our net. This inauspicious start was compounded by the embarrassment of Vince’s presence who happens to be one of the chief biologists in our state agency’s research division. I was hoping the second net would produce a Lake Sturgeon to make Vince’s trip worth his while and to make us look a little more competent and worthy of his agencies research funding.

We motored down the wide muddy channel to a backwater opening behind an rock channel dike. The chilly autumn air spurred me to switch places with Brandon at the front of the boat, who having struggled pulling on the cottonwood, had sweated through his 5 layers of fleece clothing. As Vince and I began pulling in the net we found some fish. We plopped a few 10-15 lb Blue and Flathead catfish into the holding tank as we drew in the monofilament panels. About halfway through, I began feeling another weight. I was beginning to lament that we’d caught another Cottonwood, when the weight began to shake subtly as a fish thrashed around. We slowly raised the wiggling weight until it finally broke surface. “Oh my!” we collectively exclaimed, our voices elevated excitedly to pitches seldom reached by full grown men. Boat-side was the gaping maw of the largest catfish either of us had ever seen.

At first we had no idea how to even bring this fish into the boat. I quickly realized that my decision to stick my fingers in its mouth were ill advised. Its bite force was like a vice grip and its tooth patches a combination of the sticky side of a velcro strip and sand paper, quickly chafing layers of skin. We did a three-count and together, hauled  the leviathan over the gunwale. In gill nets fish usually get their head stock in one of the square mesh panels, but the catfish was mainly stuck due to its pectoral spines. Dulled with age, this is one feature of catfish that is more fearsome when they are small. This fish had long outgrown the need for razor sharped barbed spines to defend itself from predators. Its proportions simply  didn’t make sense. The flesh ceased to be fish-like. I imagined trying to clean such a fish, the thick meaty slabs  would look more like pork loins than fillets. Like many catfish if you listened closely enough you could hear the fish grunting just like it had hooves and curly tail. When it came time for photos before the fish was released, I thought back to my trip to the gym earlier that week. How much had I curled? Not anywhere close to 92 lbs. Somehow, I conjured enough strength to hold the fish for a momentary photo before clumsily dropping it back in the tank on the boat.

The “hawg”. A 92 lb Blue Catfish from the Missouri River. Brandon Brooke and Vince Travnichek.

Underlying this story of the giant catfish, is the Missouri River’s rapidly recovering population of big blues. The Missouri has become known as a trophy fishery that has produced multiple record catfish in recent years and regularly hosts big catfishing tournaments. Large Catfish used to be rare sight for anglers and biologists in the Missouri River. Many factors were responsible for the decline including habitat alteration and overharvest. Large sunken trees which provided fish cover, were removed to aid in steamboat travel (Hesse 1987). Additionally, dikes and training structures built to tame river channel for flood control and barge travel had eliminated important shallow habitats that supported Blue Catfish and their prey. Although many of the habitat issues remain unresolved, in 1992 several Midwestern states, including Missouri instituted a ban on the commercial harvest of Blue Catfish. This allowed catfish more time in the feedlots to fatten up for anglers. At smaller sizes, Blue Cats bulk up on whatever they can fit in their mouths. Sometimes even resorting to filling their guts with clams and vegetation. In Virginia, I once held a Blue Catfish that rattled like a maraca when shaken due to all of the the clam shells jangling inside its stomach. As they mature catfish develop a penchant for fish. Gizzard shad, Silver carp, Goldeye, Mooneye, whatever is abundant and easy to catch. Left alone to gorge, catfish can live to be 20 years or more in Missouri but not all old fish reach such large sizes. The 92 lber was an exceptional grower, and although we can’t give a precise age is probably over 15 years old (Graham 1999).

It is to early to pin all of these successes on the regulation change. The Missouri Department of Conservation and multiple graduate students at Mizzou are conducting Blue Catfish research to better understand the population dynamics. However anecdotal evidence from angler observations and a recent state record fish weighing 130lbs, a whopping 40 lbs more than our catch, was caught in the Missouri River in 2011, show that big fish still swim in the Show-Me-State. For more information on Missouri’s monster fish see the following two articles recently published in local media:

https://www.columbiamissourian.com/news/local/missouri-river-becoming-a-destination-for-trophy-catfish/article_34468b08-a113-11e6-92e6-371610d97de7.html

https://mdc.mo.gov/conmag/2017-08/missouris-monster-fish

 

Literature Cited:

Graham, K. 1999. A review of the biology and management of Blue Catfish. Amercian Fisheries Society Symposium 24:37-49.

Hesse, L. W. 1987. The catfish. pages 18-23 in the Fish book. Nebraska Land Magazine 65(1), Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Lincoln.

Massive Production

Last Tuesday our research crew (Brandon, Bailey, and I) made a trip down to MDC’s Lost Valley Hatchery. Our goal was to assist with the fall stocking effort of Lake Sturgeon in Missouri. When we walked through the open garage doors into the main production room we found ourselves on the floor of a veritable fish assembly line. Biologists worked at stations each completing a simple task with efficiency that would have made Henry Ford proud. The purpose of this assembly line wasn’t to build cars or electronics to stock in showrooms and on store shelves, but to tag baby Lake Sturgeon to stock in the Osage and Gasconade rivers.

Volunteers gathered around raceways to tag Lake Sturgeon at Lost Valley Hatchery

On the cuteness scale baby Lake Sturgeon rank somewhere between the Puppy Bowl and a tiny sloth taking a nap. Their long spade-shaped snouts turned ever so slightly upward at the tip. Their camo colored exterior specifically evolved to help them blend into the rocky bottoms of the streams they are born in to. Their five rows of sharp scutes discourage most hungry bass and catfish from trying to gobble them up. And there were 12 runways chock full of the things.

Like the migratory adults these fingerlings were already quite the travelers and you couldn’t blame them for being a little homesick. They started out as eggs obtained from adults in the Yellow River way up in Wisconsin. They were shipped down to Missouri where hatchery staff provided them with plenty of tender loving care to ease the transitions feeding them bloodworms, maintaining clean water and preventing disease.

The main job of the volunteer crews was to make sure Lake Sturgeon received two tags. At the first workstation biologists reached down into the water grab a sturgeon. Then using a scalpel they would scrape off the 9th spine or scute on the fish’s right side. The process was quick and relatively painless for the fish. Think of it like getting your nails trimmed. The marked fish was tossed into another tank to await transport to station #2.

Bailey removes a scute of a fingerling Lake Sturgeon to mark its stocking year.

At workstation #2, each Lake Sturgeon received a coded wire tag. When one worker had the needle in position another pushed a button on a machine to inject a 2 mm surgical steel tag into the fish’s back. This little piece of wire can be detected with a metal detecting wand, like the ones security folks use sometimes at airports. The positioning of this wire, more specifically what scute it is located under, will tell biologists what year it was stocked if they should encounter it in the future. This information can be used to estimate growth and survival in the population. The Sturgeon are tagged twice in case one of the marks is marks is obscured over time (sturgeon can lose other scutes or the coded wire tag may fall out).

Me inserting a coded wire tag into a sturgeon

At the end of the day, while a hungry crew gorged on grilled burgers and hotdogs, hatchery staff scooped up the Sturgeon in nets and hoisted them into the tank on a hatchery truck. A couple hours later they would be shot out of a hose and be swimming free.

The hatchery truck that will deliver lake Sturgeon to the river.

The outpouring of volunteers who showed up to see off the 5,000-6,000 fingerling Lake Sturgeon epitomizes how Lake Sturgeon recovery is a team effort. My work on movement and habitat selection by Lake Sturgeon being just one tiny component. Led and organized by our “foreman”, MDC Lake Sturgeon recovery biologist Travis Moore, we can continue to make progress in bringing this species back from the brink of extinction in the state. Even if it is just reporting and releasing Lake Sturgeon you catch, or practicing good land use practices that keep our water clean, like on the assembly line, each of us can have a small, but crucial, role to play.

Should I Stay or Should I Go

Human personality traits are often presented as dichotomies. You can get online, take a short test, and within minutes know if you are an extrovert or an introvert, a thinker or a feeler, a judger or a perceiver, and the list goes on. After about two months of tracking we are learning that Lake Sturgeon can be divided into two major categories: the movers and the stayers.

When you release a Sturgeon you never know how far it will go!

Some sturgeon just can’t seem to sit still for long. Adventurous sturgeon like Richard, Joe, Sigurd. Sigurd, named after one of my favorite nature writers and explorer of Canadian glacial lakes Sigurd Olson, was tagged back in 2015 by the Missouri Department of Conservation. Sigurd moved further upstream than any of our Sturgeon and came within a few miles of bumping his snout into Bagnell Dam in June. Over the past two months, Sigurd has moved at least 81.8 miles. And since it was tagged the total is at least twice that distance. Richard and Joe were Sturgeon we tagged this year. They quickly recovered from the tag implantation procedure and made significant upstream and downstream runs totaling at least 103 and 82 miles respectively. What is driving the restlessness in these fish remains unknown, but it may be related to characteristics of the individuals — our most mobile Sturgeon have been 20-30 lb males— and environmental conditions — sustained high flow releases from Bagnell Dam to combat upstream flooding gave way to lower summertime flows by mid June and as a result our big movers have transitioned back downstream to a few key pools.

Lake Sturgeon swimming away slowly into the depths of the Osage River.

We tagged plenty of homebodies too. Fish like Joe, Richard, and the ironically named Miles have found good homes and are content to stay there. These fish have remained within a 0.5 mile stretch of river since tracking began. We might worry that they were dead if it were not for subtle upstream movements between tracking periods.

The seasons also likely have an impact on Lake Sturgeon movement patterns. Most fish seem to be moving less as water temperatures rise to potentially stressful levels. Other papers have been published suggesting that water temperatures over 28 C are stressful for Lake Sturgeon. Our research may be able to highlight temperature or flow characteristics that Lake Sturgeon select for during these stressful periods. Perhaps by knowing a little bit about an individual Lake Sturgeon and the environmental conditions we will be able to predict its answer the proverbial  question that separates the movers from the stayers: Should I stay or should I go?

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.