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White Earth Fisheries nets, measures, tags lake sturgeon

Curt Uran and Gerald "Jeep" Roberts remove several lake sturgeon from a nylon gill net set on Round Lake last Thursday morning.The sturgeon will be measured, tagged and released in hopes of getting an accurate population count in years to come. Photo by - Brian Basham1 / 6
White Earth Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Manager Randy Zortman, left, watches as Curt Uran pulls in a big lake sturgeon caught in a gill net on Round Lake last Thursday morning. The fisheries department conducted a sturgeon count on larger fish in the lake in hopes of getting an accurate population count. Photo by - Brian Basham2 / 6
Randy Zortman, Gerald "Jeep" Roberts and Curt Uran net tag and release sturgeon on Round Lake last Thursday morning. Photo by - Brian Basham3 / 6
Zortman records length and tag numbers. Photo by - Brian Basham4 / 6
A pit tag is inserted in each sturgeon. Photo by - Brian Basham5 / 6
The men's hands are in rough shape because of rows of spikes on the sturgeon's back. Photo by - Brian Basham6 / 6

A man's hands often reflect what he does for a living. To see Gerald "Jeep" Roberts' and Curt Uran's rough bloody hands, you know their work is not easy.

"There goes my hand modeling career," Uran said as he wiped the blood from a newly opened wound.

A few seconds later, he has a big smile on his face as he does a little dance and sings of how much he loves his job.

Uran and Roberts have what many outdoorsmen would call the ultimate job. The two are fisheries technicians for the White Earth Department of Natural Resources, and last week they preformed a tough but very satisfying job -- lake sturgeon netting.

"I get a kick out of this stuff," Uran said. "I could do this every day. I love it."

The team of Uran, Roberts and Fisheries Manager Randy Zortman, along with a second team with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, put in some long hours last week gill netting, measuring and tagging several hundred lake sturgeon in White Earth Lake and Round Lake in northern Becker County.

The stocking of sturgeon on the two lakes started in 2001. They estimate there are more than 100,000 sturgeon now in White Earth Lake and about 50,000 in Round Lake, and the goal of last week's netting was to help get an accurate number.

Larger mesh gill nets -- three to five inch squares -- were used to target larger sturgeon that have been in the lakes for 10 to 12 years. Zortman said the Minnesota DNR conducts a summer fish count using smaller gill nets, so more data is needed on the bigger fish in the lakes.

"You get that bigger mesh, it really targets those bigger sturgeon," Uran said. "Tribal members have a fall gill netting season, and it's fun to switch it up and see these big fish come out of the water."

The more than 200 fish netted last Thursday morning on Round Lake measured from about 18 inches to about 45 inches. Each of the hearty fish had to be removed from the nets by hand. Sturgeon are equipped with three rows of sharp spines along their back and sides, which explains the condition of Uran and Roberts' hands.

Each sturgeon caught is measured and given a pit tag near the pectoral fin then released back into the lake. The electronic tag gives off a number when read by a detector. The crew of Zortman, Roberts and Uran had their first re-catch of a sturgeon fitted with a tag from a previous year, while the USFWS boat had three re-catches Thursday morning. Collecting that growth and movement data on re-caught fish is what this effort is all about.

Over-fishing and pollution nearly wiped out the lake sturgeon population in the early 1900s. Commercial harvest of the fish was stopped in the 1930s, and Uran said the last recorded sturgeon taken from White Earth Lake was in 1935.

"We're just trying to bring them back," Uran said.

Zortman said that Native Indians hold the sturgeon in a higher regard than other fish because of its sheer size.

"Sturgeon are large enough to feed a lot of people," he said. "They're like a buffalo to a Lakota, the sturgeon is to the Ojibwe."

Many Ojibwe ceremonies revolve around sturgeon, and there are still Sturgeon Clans in the area, Zortman said.

The overall plan for the lake sturgeon is a 20-year stocking program with the goal of starting a naturally reproducing population in 20 to 30 years. Zortman said sturgeon don't become sexually mature until they are about 15 years old, so some of the first sturgeon released into White Earth and Round Lakes may start to reproduce naturally in the next few years.

"We want to stock for 20 years then cut out the stocking for a few years to see if we are getting some natural reproduction," said Scott Yess with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "The ideal situation is that in the future we don't have to stock, that natural reproduction can sustain the population."

"(The sturgeon are) doing a lot better than we ever hoped for," Zortman said. "A lot of people want to know when they can start taking them."