On summer days, I try to forget about the giant prehistoric creatures that inhabit Lake Winnebago and its tributaries as I frolick about with determined naivete.
When you share the water with a bunch of sturgeon, it’s unsettling to think about them slinking below and around you, possibly sucking up an appendage they’ve mistaken for insect larvea or pink algea. As flattering as it is to swim with fish bigger than you are, it’s also a little creepy.
When I’m safely on land, though, I find sturgeon fascinating.
I’ve written before about sturgeon spearing season in here in the Dairy State, in which generations of Wisconsin anglers cut holes in the ice and yank some of the least attractive fish you’ll ever see out of the water. Sturgeon season generally straddles Valentine’s Day here, which makes for some especially romantic weekends.
Speaking of romance, this weekend, for the first time in my life, I watched sturgeon spawning and their enthusiasm made me blush a little. I looked away a few times as I wandered the Wolf River shore near the Shawano Dam. Those fellers are frisky and those ladies rock! They really seemed to be enjoying themselves, despite the oglers on shore.
According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, female sturgeon, accompanied by two or more males, lay hundreds of thousands of eggs generally in one or two days and the males fertilize the eggs after they are released from the female.
The fertilized eggs stick to the rocks and gravel and hatch in five to seven days.
This whole thing happens every year in the exact same spots along the exact same rivers they have for thousands of years. It’s really cool. The male sturgeon arrive first, drawn by the temperature of the water, and begin porpoising, or flapping their dorsal fins and leaping up and out of the water. They continue doing this as the ladies arrive, and the men start cruising looking for ovulating females.
The dramatic mating process happens right near the shoreline in front of all sorts of gawking, camera-wielding onlookers, which might be off-putting for a bunch a fish used to the privacy of a lake’s deep waters. These characters, though, aren’t paying attention to anything but each other.
It’s kind of sweet to see a bunch of giant, elderly fish have such a good time.
As much as I enjoyed the show in the water, I also liked seeing how excited everyone on shore got as they watched all the activity. It was quite a spectacle.
It’s not often you can witness a species that has been around longer than yours happily creating the next generation.