During a pandemic, a lot of people bring up the stories of various pandemics or illness that came through and how eventually something similar seems to come back around later. Those kinds of things coming back around to visit are not great.

What if there were something that went away and came back and was great?

Here is one such thing, the lake sturgeon! Some of the pictures below depict how the lake sturgeon sometimes called pig nosed sturgeon or hog snouted sturgeon were being caught in Detroit Lake. Some in enormous sizes. These pictures are from the late 1800s and the early 1900s. By then it was much more rare than maybe 100 years prior.

OK, so first off you may ask, “why fish today Kevin?” My inspiration today was actually a result of a friend at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Nicholas. We thought this might be inspiring during this time.

Alexander Henry the Younger, while touring the Red River Basin fur trading posts in the year 1800, noted lake sturgeon were abundant throughout his travels. Those included most of the Red River Basin. Copies of his journal are available and from these writings, we can see that the lake sturgeon was prevalent in the area.

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Boys pose with a record lake sturgeon caught in White Earth Lake in 1926 and displayed in Detroit Lakes. (photo courtesy Becker County Museum)
Boys pose with a record lake sturgeon caught in White Earth Lake in 1926 and displayed in Detroit Lakes. (photo courtesy Becker County Museum)

So what happened to the sturgeon? It turns out the lake sturgeon wound up extirpated (locally extinct) from the area and Red River tributaries by around 1930. The causes sited by those who have studied it are habitat fragmentation, overfishing and habitat degradation.

So the glimmer of hope here is that being extirpated or locally extinct means there are still some out there elsewhere. That’s a good thing.

But what should we do? In 1997, the DNR, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Tribal Resource Agencies and other partners began to work on just exactly that problem. Together they came up with a long-term plan to restore lake sturgeon to their former range.

Sometimes it involves physical work to move and reconnect tributaries and bodies of water to effectively un-fragment habitats, allowing them to migrate and complete their life cycle, and sometimes it takes a few rules to help. Currently, lake sturgeon are “catch and release” only, which of course helps the overfishing portion and allows their number to grow.

Today, due to the hard work of the groups above 40 of the 77 dams in the Red River Basin have been modified to allow “fish passage” with eight more underway. That is an amazing project! I did not know such a thing existed.

Local sport fish like the walleye spawn in the rapids that replace former dams. If you head over to Dunton locks you can observe this. Now that’s pretty neat. Lake sturgeon also spawn in the rapids, although the reintroduced individuals are not yet old enough to be sexually mature.

These projects also help native species, like bigmouth buffalo, because they reconnect remnant populations to river spawning habitat.

So maybe pandemics come and go and nobody is any too pleased when they return, but we can sure be happy about the return of the lake sturgeon to our area. While you continue to look for things to do, this brings another opportunity to go visit the areas and look at the habitats and when the weather is warmer, go fishing.

In the meantime, take the next step from this brief introduction and dig up some research on Lake Sturgeon and the amazing projects that were done to bring them back around. You can contact detroitlakes.fisheries@state.mn.us for more information and of course you can do some research at the Becker County Museum. For the next little while, the research area is closed for in-person visits but you can email research@beckercountyhistory.org or visit out website: http://www.beckercountyhistory.org and look under research to request information. Use this to create a list of summer destinations to check out in Becker County!

Thank you to Nicholas Kludt, Red River fisheries specialist in the Division of Fish and Wildlife with the DNR for the story idea, the help, the education and for bringing us something to feel good about today.

This column is a regular feature of the Tribune's monthly History page. Kevin Mitchell may be reached at the Becker County Museum by calling 847-2938.