At some point in mid April, giant lake sturgeon from the Winnebago lakes begin their spawning run up the Wolf River, just as they have each spring for the past 10,000 years.
With shark-like caudal fins slicing ominously through the river’s dark surface, groups of males wait for a “ripe” female to approach the shallows along a rocky bank.
What follows is one of the great spectacles of the natural world. The female sturgeon, which can be a jaw-dropping 5 to 7 feet in length – is surrounded by the males. On rocks so shallow their bodies often protrude from the water, the males thrash against the female as if wracked by spasms, water exploding in every direction, as they help knock loose the female’s sticky eggs and release clouds of milky white sperm, or milt, to fertilize them.
Many species of sturgeon are on the brink of extinction, and populations of lake sturgeon – whose fossil record dates back 100 million years – have been extirpated from most of their historic range, victims of dams, pollution, habitat degradation and overharvest.
State fisheries biologist have closely managed Winnebago’s lake sturgeon population, and it has become the largest and healthiest in the world, and one of the few viable, self-reproducing populations anywhere. It is a global treasure and its value is beyond calculation.
For decades these ancient fish have been guarded during their spawning run, day and night, by volunteers. These are the members of Wisconsin’s Sturgeon Guard, and if you like the idea of pairing up with a companion and putting in a 12-hour shift on the banks of a beautiful river, after a long winter of being cooped up, volunteers are needed for this elite squad.
“They get to see something that no one else in the world has,” said warden supervisor Carl Mesman, Department of Natural Resources sturgeon camp coordinator. “Through that experience, we have this awareness of how delicate and precious this resource is.”
During the spawning run, these primitive fish are extremely vulnerable, so focused on their genetic imperative they abandon wariness and ignore the towering shapes of human beings above them. They can be easily netted or speared. Decades ago this would not have been uncommon, and the females, with their heavy loads of caviar, were prime targets.
Because female sturgeon do not reach maturity until they are 24 to 26 years old, and then undergo the grueling spawning run just once every four to six years, a sharp decline in the percentage of mature females would devastate the population.
Before the mid 1980s, DNR employees were used to guard the sturgeon, but there weren’t enough employees to cover all the spawning areas along the Wolf and its tributaries, the Embarrass and the Little Wolf. Then, through the efforts of the conservation organization Sturgeon for Tomorrow and a dedicated team of wardens, the Sturgeon Guard was created.
As ideas go, this one was inspired.
“When people are aware of something, when they connect with something like this, they realize how important it is to protect,” Mesman said. “It gave ownership of the sturgeon to the public. It is one of those great success stories.”
These days, said Shiocton Police Chief Eugene “Butch” Bunnell, poaching has virtually been eliminated during the spawning run. He no longer hears of sturgeon for sale, and he has many ears on the ground.
“They’ve always got someone out there,” Bunnell said of the guards. “It kind of puts people on notice, in case they might be thinking about it.”
Guards report to Sturgeon Camp, once a caretaker’s house on a game farm near Shiocton that is now public land. Guards get two home-cooked meals, breakfast and dinner, and they build their own pack lunches from a buffet spread. Each guard receives an identifying hat, in a different color each year, emblazoned with “Sturgeon Guard,” which they keep.
“If it wasn’t for Sturgeon for Tomorrow, none of this would happen,” Mesman said. “They fund Sturgeon Camp.”
Spawning generally takes place during a five to nine day period and more guards are needed when the “fish are on the rocks,” Those who can be flexible, day or night, have the best chance of observing spawning sturgeon.
Mesman has a harder time filling weekday shifts and even a harder time filling night shifts, but speaking from experience, night shift can be exciting, and the chances of solitude are greater.
Sturgeon Guards should bring warm clothes and a powerful flashlight and pair up with a friend or family member who is good company. Volunteers can play cards or games. The important thing is that they are there and visible. Poachers only operate where they cannot be seen.
Guards are given a two-way radio and are assigned to a “roving warden.” Other wardens, the “river wardens,” are ranging up and down the streams, checking locations and monitoring fish activity. If a pair of guards ends up at a quiet spot, their roving warden will try to move them to an active location.
One thing is certain. The wardens, and Sturgeon for Tomorrow, take excellent care of their sturgeon guards.
“To me there are two purposes for the guards,” Mesman said. “One is to guard fish. The other is I want them to see fish.”