'Once in a lifetime' sturgeon, nearly 7 feet long, caught in Detroit River

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Jennifer Johnson has seen plenty of massive sturgeon during the six years she has spent working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service surveying the species in lakes and rivers around Michigan. 

But the fish she and her team of researchers hauled in Thursday from the Detroit River near Grosse Ile was unlike anything she'd encountered. 

"Normally when a fish goes by, we call, 'Fish! Fish!" the 37-year-old Gibraltar resident said Friday. "This time when the shadow went by and I saw it, I shouted, 'Fish! Big fish!"

The largest sturgeon she'd ever seen was 123 pounds. But this river monster was about to put that to shame. 

Jennifer Johnson, a member of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crew, lies down next to the monster lake sturgeon the team recently reeled in from the Detroit River. Officials said it is one of the largest lake sturgeon on record.

"Knowing the size of the previous one we caught, I thought it was maybe 150 pounds," she said. "It wasn’t until we got it in the boat that we realized just how big it was."

Combining their strength, Johnson and her colleagues Paige Wigren and Jason Fischer pulled in the nearly 7-foot long, 240-pound Goliath. 

The Alpena conservation office posted a picture of the sturgeon Friday on its Facebook page, calling the sturgeon a "real life river monster." An accompanying photo shows the sturgeon and Johnson lying on the deck, side-by-side, with the fish dwarfing her in size. 

"Normally, we would have a nicer picture where we’re holding it up," Johnson said. "But since it took all three of us to pick it up, that wasn’t going to happen."

Fischer said the fish was believed to be a female, and judging from its size and 4-foot girth, was probably born in the Detroit River around 1920, meaning she has been at home in the waters for at least a century. 

Beyond being an incredible fish tale, this catch also has positive implications for the species as a whole, Fischer said.

"Lake sturgeon are a threatened species in Michigan. Around the early 1900s is when the lake sturgeon populations really declined," the 33-year-old Howell resident said. "Overfishing and water quality has also been a problem."

The Detroit River provides a perfect habitat for spawning — indeed that's probably what the massive fish was doing when her day was interrupted. Sturgeon need rocky shoals, which are plentiful in the river as well as the Upper St. Clair River and St. Mary's River in the Upper Peninsula. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has partnered with other agencies to restore this habitat in seven locations in recent years. 

"Of course, a fish like the one we caught last Thursday was born well before any of this work had happened," Fischer said. 

The fish and wildlife service said the sturgeon was a "once in a lifetime" haul, and after being processed, the fish was released back into its home waters.

All lake sturgeon are marked with a unique tag and released as part of the conservation efforts, the agency said. The number of tagged fish recaptured helps biologists estimate the total number of lake sturgeon using the river system. 

More than 28,000 lake sturgeon are estimated to use the St. Clair-Detroit River system, with 5,500 of those fish coming from the Detroit River. Although the population is a fraction of its historic size, it remains one of the largest in the Great Lakes. 

And given that this particular Detroit River survey will continue through early May, the team may have more chances to haul in sturgeon. But whether they'll be able to find a more impressive specimen seems unlikely. 

"(Once we got her in the boat,) I think we all stopped for a moment to marvel at the size of the fish," said Wigren, a 32-year-old from Brighton. "We were all joking afterwards that every sturgeon we see after this is going to seem small."