Anglers vie for a sturgeon at the annual Black Lake shivaree
The cold of early February did not stop hundreds of people from gathering on the frozen Black Lake in Cheboygan County.
It’s February 3rd, the night before what some people call the “shortest fishing season” of the year in Michigan. The competitors have spent the whole day setting up their ice shanties, and now, they unwind before an early morning of fishing.
Despite the excitement and the smell of beer in the air, the anglers are realistic about their odds of catching a lake sturgeon.
“I have really bad luck, so I’ve never speared a sturgeon," Evan Archambo said. "But I’m hoping my luck changes tomorrow. It’s got to change sometime, right?”
“I saw one last year, two days right after the season ended. Right where I was sitting," Brad William said.
“I look at the odds as not in your favor, but it’s all about being out here, the comradery about being around friends and other fishermen," Dan Stacks added.
All of them have previously participated in Black Lake’s sturgeon shivaree but without any luck, and there’s a reason for that.
Lake sturgeon are a threatened species in Michigan due to a history of overfishing, dam construction and pollution. Their numbers have doubled in the last 25 years, but sturgeon fishing is still limited.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources only allows 1.2% of the sturgeon population to be harvested. That’s only about 12 fish a year, which is split evenly between tribal entities and recreation anglers.
With 630 registered anglers and a limit of six fish, there’s less than a one percent chance of anyone here spearing a sturgeon during the season.
Last year’s season only lasted 36 minutesbefore the limit was reached. The record—plus or minus a few minutes—is coming up a lot amongst the crowd.
At the shivaree, some have never caught a sturgeon. Others like Jason Woiderski come from generations of ice fishermen.
“This league started with great-grandfather, my grandfather, my father has speared from sturgeon here. I've caught sturgeon,” Woiderski said. “It's what we do.”
Wodierski is a board member with the Sturgeon for Tomorrow Black Lake Chapter, a local nonprofit hosting the shivaree. He says without a fishing season, even a highly limited one, the sturgeon and its cultural heritage would be forgotten.
“If we just let them shut it down, nobody would care, and nothing would be done,” Wodierksi said. “The DNR and Sturgeon for Tomorrow working together have found a way to allow everybody to fish and participate in a manner that still protects the fish and allows a harvest.”
Wodierski said the fanfare of the shivaree is really about protecting the species. Last year, the event raised about $25,000 for sturgeon conservation.
“This is a true dinosaur that we cannot lose,” Wodierski said. “We don't have many left, and without the money to help fund the research and education programs, it goes away. We got to educate the next generation.”
Black Lake is quiet ten minutes before the limited sturgeon season begins Feb. 4 in Cheboygan County.
Exactly five minutes after sunrise, the sturgeon fishing season begins with a quiet start. Spectators huddle and wait in hopes of catching a glimpse of the almost mythic, “dinosaur” fish.
The first fish is harvested about 25 minutes after the season starts.
After a catch, the lucky angler and a state official bring the unlucky sturgeon to the DNR trailer, where they weigh the fish, take its measurements, and check it for fisheries tag or microchips.
The last five fish are caught in quick succession.
Jerry Perrin caught a sturgeon last year during the limited season, and now again, for a second year in a row.
“[The odds are probably] one in a million,” Perrin said. “I will be buying a lotto ticket today.”
Scott Archambo got the second biggest fish of the season, which weighed 34 pounds.
“Alright, beers are on everybody else!” Archambo said, as DNR employees told him to take his fish. “See you all next year!”
The winners leave in high spirits, going to celebrate and smoke some freshly caught sturgeon.
The season is officially over at 9:05 a.m., and the day has just begun.