Sturgeon guards encourage a different kind of safe sex
Written by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel   
Sunday, 23 April 2006 02:25

It's 1 a.m. on a clear moonless night, and Steven Stark, 17, his 15-year-old brother Justin and pal Keegan Wilber, 16, are listening to wild fish sex. Splashing water in their amorous frenzy, fish tails sticking up like a shark convention, the sturgeon leap like small, ugly porpoises out of the Wolf River.

Better than a National Geographic video but not quite "Girls Gone Wild," sturgeon spawning happens every April as the fish that have been around since the dinosaurs stomped procreate.

"Whoa!" said Steven Stark, president of the Oshkosh West High School FFA chapter, as a 6-foot-long sturgeon beached on a rock, its smooth black chin slowly sliding back in the cold water. "That's a big one."

The Stark brothers, their grandfather, Harlan Durkee, and Wilber shine flashlights on the water as they watch sturgeon roll around, the males arcing their bodies over the females, male tails thumping female abdomens as eggs and sperm commingle in the rushing water. Like many species, the sturgeon only have one thing on their minds during mating, and that makes the valuable fish - whose caviar can demand up to $700 a pint - vulnerable to poachers.

That's why the quartet was spending a 12-hour shift during spring break ogling the fish on a remote stretch of the Wolf River this week.

The Department of Natural Resources depends on unpaid volunteers to be sturgeon guards during the spawning season, freeing conservation wardens to travel around the area enforcing laws.

In return for a hat, two hot meals and a sack lunch, sturgeon guards sit along the riverbank - shifts change at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. - watching piscine passion, trying to stay awake and alerting the DNR of any suspicious activity. They're told to bring lawn chairs, blankets, flashlights and reading material to pass the hours when watching sturgeon sex gets boring.

Oddly enough, the DNR has no problem finding enough volunteers.

This year's spawning season, which recently ended, lasted seven days, and about 400 volunteers were scheduled for guard duty, said Todd Schaller, a conservation warden who coordinates the program.

On one night this week, four groups of guards were stationed at the dams in Shawano, Manawa and Clintonville and at another spot near Clintonville known as Kellers Landing. All were first-timers; most had tried to sign up for the guard program, which started in 1987, in previous years but weren't needed because spots quickly filled.

With as many as 70,000 freshwater sturgeon roaming Wisconsin waterways, the state has one of the most abundant and stable sturgeon populations in the world, said Ron Bruch, a DNR sturgeon biologist who has studied the creatures for two decades.

When they're not mating, sturgeon are bottom feeders that normally prowl the depths of Lake Winnebago. But when spawning, they come to the surface, where they can be scooped up easily by sturgeon thieves.

Males generally mate every other year, while females mate every three or four years, beginning the journey from Lake Winnebago into the Wolf River system in the fall. They splash around as the females release their eggs and the males release their sperm, called milt. The commotion causes the eggs and sperm to mingle and fertilize. Sometimes males get so excited that they fracture their skulls.

Poaching was a big problem decades ago and continued to be a concern in the 1970s and '80s. That's why volunteers are out on the riverbanks.

"The guards aren't going to be tackling anybody or chasing people through the woods, but they're a visual deterrent. The fact that they're there is discouraging people from messing around with the fish," Bruch said.

The last arrest for sturgeon poaching that arose from a tip from guards was seven years ago, said Schaller, the conservation warden.

Possession of sturgeon out of season can cost up to $2,000 and the loss of hunting and fishing privileges for three years.

At "fish camp," a spot near Shiocton where guards are fed - on this night, it's roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy - and given their assignments, Warden Benjamin Nadolski handed out maps and cell phones.

A large plastic map on the wall was adorned with dozens of dots showing spawning sites where the sturgeon like to hang out, usually shallow pools near the rocky shoreline, on the 127-mile stretch from their Lake Winnebago home to the dam at Shawano.

An eclectic mix

This year's guards included retirees, college and high school students, families, anglers and folks interested in the environment. They came from Brookfield, Wausau, La Crosse, Green Bay and points in between.

"There's less interest in the night shifts because the average person likes to sleep at night," Nadolski said. "But actually this year, we didn't have problems filling the nights."

Lauri Pagel and Andrea Baumgardt work nights at a Weyauwega factory, so they volunteered for a late shift and were assigned to the dam in Clintonville.

"It was something we'd never done before. We figured people would never believe we'd do it," Baumgardt said.

Fueled by Mountain Dew, string cheese and chips, the pair walked along the banks of the river but were disappointed to see the sturgeon had already left.

Still, the two were prepared to call in any suspicious activity.

"We asked for Taser guns, but they said no," Pagel joked.

Fishing buddies Pat Reed and Fran Sedlachek, retirees from Oshkosh, are ardent sturgeon spearers.

Each February, they head out on the ice of Lake Winnebago to set up fish shanties and spear the elusive sturgeon. Reed speared a sturgeon for 17 years straight - the largest weighing 112 pounds - but hasn't gotten one in the last three years.

Sitting in Sedlachek's warm SUV next to the Shawano dam, both said they volunteered because they enjoy spearing sturgeon and want to make sure the resource remains healthy.

Still, as the evening wore on, Reed noted that out of their group of sturgeon spearers, "we're the only two dummies sitting out here all night."

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