2014 Black Lake sturgeon season wraps up quickly

Otsego Lake State Park manager Charles Maltby scored the final sturgeon of the 2014 season.

Feb. 6, 2014

The 2014 sturgeon season on Black Lake lasted 82 minutes on Saturday, Feb. 1.

When the cannon went off, alerting those on the ice to the end of the season, six sturgeon were speared, matching the state's recreational fishermen's allotment.

Dan Stroup, a 71-year-old retiree from Bronson, got things going shortly after fishing began at 8 a.m., with a 66-inch, 90-pound fish, which turned out to be the biggest taken this year.

Dan Stroup, right, speared the first sturgeon of 2014 with an assist from Jeff Arch.Stroup, who has been spearing sturgeon for 33 years, took the eighth sturgeon of his career and his fourth at Black Lake. (His other four were taken in Wisconsin.) The 90-pounder was his personal best.

The fish "came in beautifully," Stroup said, about 12 feet down in 22 feet of water, swimming in from the side toward his white decoy. Stroup, who had been living in his 7 1/2-foot-by-13-foot shanty for 10 days, said he'd speared a muskie five days earlier, then covered his spearing hole and waited for Saturday.

Stroup said he'd fry and bake portions of the leviathan.

"These are better than the ones in Wisconsin," he said. "Those we smoke."

Michigan's annual sturgeon spearing season has changed dramatically over the years. It used to be a month long, but when the harvest began decreasing, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) shortened the season and went to a harvest quota. When it first devised the quota system, the DNR enacted a limited-entry system and anglers had to enter a lottery for a chance to spear; the number of spear fishermen was proportional to the quota. Eventually, however, the DNR, working with the Black Lake spear-fishing community, developed a system in which the season was open to everyone, but it closed as soon as the quota was met.

"It's an exciting fishery and the people who come here come back year after year," said DNR Fisheries Division Chief Jim Dexter. "They look forward to what may only be an hourlong season. How unique is that?"

The Black Lake sturgeon season has taken on a carnival-like atmosphere with activities held in a huge tent out on the ice the night before and the afternoon after opening day, which was the whole season this year.

P.D. Lail, Jr., plants a kiss on the 59-pound Black Lake sturgeon he speared.P.D. Lail, Jr., who runs an adult foster care home, brought the second fish of the season to the scales, a 59-pound, 61-inch fish. It was Lail's third sturgeon; he was successful in 1997 and 1999, too.

He was followed by Scott Ash, a 31-year-old ranch caretaker, who brought in a 66-inch, 70-pound female that had been tagged three times by the DNR - in 2005, 2010 and 2012 - during the spring spawning runs. Ash said it was his first sturgeon after five previous unsuccessful years.

"It's the most exciting thing I've ever done," he said, "better than a big buck."

Ash said he was in his shanty, looking at photos of deer on his buddy's phone, when the fish appeared.

"I was surprised," Ash said. "There it was and I had no time to get nervous."

Russ Weathers, a 53-year-old electrician from Livonia, spearing for his fourth season, landed the fourth fish, a 41-inch 12-pounder.

"It looked a lot bigger in the water," he said.

Steve Bodinger, a 55-year-old millwright from Wisconsin who's been coming to Black Lake to spear sturgeon since 1979, brought in a 51-inch, 28-pound fish, his fourth from Michigan, though he's speared "several" in Wisconsin, too.

DNR biologists measure, weigh and sex all sturgeon taken on Black Lake.The DNR had set the 2014 quota at five, so the season was called at that point. But Charles Maltby, the 39-year-old manager at Otsego Lake State Park who's been spearing since he was in high school, had already put a 34-pound, 56-inch female on the ice.

It was Maltby's second Black Lake sturgeon; he's also taken two in Wisconsin.

"It came in right under the decoy, right on the bottom," Maltby said. "I hit it, but it didn't stick, it rolled over on its back, and I got the spear back up and hit it again."

The DNR had set the quota at five, explained fisheries research biologist Ed Baker, so there was a "buffer" to guard against going over the allotment. It worked out perfectly.

"We have an allotment that's split with the tribes who are signatories to the Treaty of 1836," Baker explained. "We've been working with a quota of 1.2 percent of the estimated adult population, that's based on our spring spawning data. We've got a data set that goes back to 2000, and we've got a very good idea of what we've got out here in the lake.

"Our method for estimating the population is getting better all the time."

The season might have ended quickly but it was a memorable experience for those who participated, as well as the crowds who gathered just to see what was going on.

"It's a great event," said Natural Resources Commissioner John Madigan, of Munising, who sat in a spearing shack with a couple of buddies for the sixth year. "The tent, the festival, the camaraderie ... it's great."

For more information about fishing in Michigan - including the Free Fishing Weekend (Feb. 15-16) and the new fishing license structure (effective March 1) - visit the DNR website at www.michigan.gov/fishing.