Call it Jurassic Lake. It is Wisconsin's Lake Winnebago, home of Acipenser fulvescens, the lake sturgeon, a member of a family of fish that evolved with the dinosaurs 200 million years ago. Like all sturgeons, the lake sturgeon is a "living fossil," a bizarre-looking creature whose retractable mouth can hang like a hose from the underside of its head and whose body is armored with rows of thick plates instead of scales.
Probably because they live underwater, sturgeons survived by adapting to the climatic changes at the end of the Cretaceous Period that led to the disappearance of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. But in the last 50 years most of the earth's 25 sturgeon species—which are found only in the Northern Hemisphere—have been threatened with extinction by pollution, habitat alteration and overfishing.
Happily, the lake sturgeon population at Lake Winnebago is not in immediate jeopardy. Thanks in large part to the efforts of Bill Casper, an affable but persistent retired machinist from Fond du Lac, Wis., and of Sturgeon for Tomorrow, the citizens' organization Casper founded 19 years ago, the 215-square-mile body of water has the largest self-sustaining population of lake sturgeon anywhere.
Casper, now 65, got the idea for the organization one winter day in 1977 while poised to spear a sturgeon through a hole cut in the ice of Winnebago. "I was concerned about what would happen if the stock were depleted, if the resource ever needed help," Casper says. Although lake sturgeon can live a long time (the record for longevity is 154 years) and grow to enormous size for a freshwater fish (the biggest was a 7'11", 310-pound female from Lake Superior), they are late to mature sexually. Females in Winnebago do not spawn until they are 20 to 25 years old, and then they do not spawn every year. In fact, only 10% to 20% of adult lake sturgeon spawn in a given year. Therefore, when an adult population decreases drastically, its group may not be able to rebuild for decades, if ever.
Lake sturgeon were abundant in the Great Lakes and the Midwest when Native Americans were the only human inhabitants. In Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha the biggest challenge facing Hiawatha is to catch a lake sturgeon, "the monster Mishe-Nahma...King of Fishes." Lake sturgeon began to decline in North America as the Great Lakes area became more heavily populated in the 19th century. Fishermen slaughtered sturgeon because they tore holes in nets set for whitefish and lake trout. As tastes changed in the late 19th century, the sturgeon became popular for its flesh, especially when smoked, and its eggs, which, when rinsed in cold water and lightly salted, became caviar, or "black gold." The sturgeon in the Midwest were further imperiled by pollution from industrial development and by dams that blocked the way to spawning rivers. (Despite their name, lake sturgeon need running water to procreate.)
To attract people to the first meeting of Sturgeon for Tomorrow, Casper posted notices in bars, restaurants and tackle shops all around Lake Winnebago. Almost 150 people, mostly local dairy farmers, showed up for the get-together in the Taycheedah ( Wis.) Town Hall. Today the organization has 3,000 members spread among four chapters, and the adult sturgeon population in Lake Winnebago has risen to nearly 45,000 from about 11,500 in 1977. Each chapter of Sturgeon for Tomorrow holds an annual fund-raising banquet, and members also sell T-shirts, caps and other items, such as Jim Beam bourbon in bottles shaped like sturgeon. Most of the nearly $200,000 raised to date has gone to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to fund sturgeon research.
Every spring, Sturgeon for Tomorrow underwrites the cost of lodging and food for 400 volunteers who, wearing caps emblazoned STURGEON PATROL, watch Out for poachers along 125 miles of the Wolf and Fox rivers, which are tributaries of Lake Winnebago. There the fish are so absorbed in their spawning that they can be patted on the head. A 100-pound female, with about a quarter of her weight in eggs, might sell for $1,500 to a wholesale dealer out of state. "We always heard stories about eggs being sold illegally in the Chicago area," Casper says. "Not many dairy farmers around here eat caviar."
Initially, Casper wanted money raised by Sturgeon for Tomorrow to help build a sturgeon hatchery for the DNR near Lake Winnebago. "We didn't know very much about spawning back then," Casper says, "and I just wanted to learn how to raise these fish." Work on the hatchery began, but when it turned out that hatchery fish were not needed for Lake Winnebago—"We've learned that the system will take care of itself with careful management," Casper says—the DNR changed the focus and began stocking eggs, fry and fingerlings in Wisconsin waters that had lost their sturgeon. The DNR also has given eggs and fry to biologists in Missouri, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio who are trying to restore those states' fisheries.
Sturgeon fishing on Winnebago is now strictly regulated. The season opens on the second Saturday in February and ends March 1; spearing is the only method allowed. Last winter 8,000 people bought $10 sturgeon permits. The lake was dotted with fishing shanties—complete with stoves, TVs and other amenities—on the 20-inch-thick ice. Casper, a Green Bay Packers fan, built his shanty to look like a Packers helmet.
The spearers took a total of 3,175 sturgeon from the lake last winter. The season limit per spearer is one fish, which must be 45 inches or longer; possession of a sturgeon shorter than that can bring a fine as high as $3,000. The fish must be measured, weighed, sexed and tagged by DNR biologists waiting at registration stations onshore. (The resulting information is passed on to radio station WMBE in Chilton, which broadcasts four sturgeon reports each day.) The record Winnebago sturgeon, speared in 1953, was 6'6" long and weighed 180 pounds.