Annual quest for ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ fish lasts 35 minutes

Julie Riddle
Associated Press

Onaway, Mich. — Hope springs eternal on Black Lake in February.

In single-digit temperatures on a Saturday, Feb. 5, morning, about 600 fishermen and -women on Black Lake in Presque Isle and Cheboygan counties peered into watery rectangles, hoping to be among the lucky few to take home one of the state’s annual allotment of lake sturgeon.

Just 35 minutes after the season opened, a fisherman pulled the last of the season’s harvest out of the water, The Alpena News reports.

Jerry Perrin, of Au Gres, carries a 47-inch sturgeon he caught as one of six successful fishermen during the 2022 sturgeon season on Black Lake north of Onaway, Mich., as Jenny Olsen, co-host and producer of television program Michigan Out of Doors, records him Feb. 5, 2022.

“You should have been in the shanty,” said Jerry Perrin, of Au Gres, of the celebration after he speared the season’s third sturgeon at 8:14 a.m. “Things got pretty crazy.”

Just after sunrise, colorful fishing shanties spread across Black Lake as a text message to participants announced the start of the shortest fishing season of the year.

The protected lake sturgeon – which can grow to 7 feet long, weigh 200 pounds, and live for 100 years, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources – faced dramatic population decline in the past 150 years.

Now, the DNR says any lake sturgeon caught in the state must be released immediately. An exception comes during a brief frenzy of fishing activity for a few hours — or even minutes — each year.

The DNR permits the harvest of six sturgeon from Black Lake, where an estimated population of 1,100 to 1,200 adults makes the lake one of the last strongholds of the fish in Michigan, according to DNR Senior Fisheries Biologist Tim Cwalinski.

On Feb. 5, only DNR officers, watchfully standing near snowmobiles and listening for shouts, appeared outside as the early-morning sun fell across a crowded but silent lake.

Inside the shanties and sheds, first-time sturgeon hopefuls and long-timers with decades of experience perched on milk crates or stood next to hand-sawn 2-foot by 3-foot holes, multi-pronged spears raised as they peered into lime-green water, hoping a giant fish would swim by.

Ten minutes after the season began, cell phones across the ice buzzed and dinged.

“Fish on the ice,” a DNR officer exclaimed, checking his watch with raised eyebrows.

One minute later, a second text alerted anglers that the season was already one-third of the way to its close.

Just 35 minutes after it began, the season closed with a final text, cheers from a distant shanty carrying across the frozen lake.

Within minutes, dozens of anglers emerged from their shanties, smiling, laughing, and shaking their heads.

For all but six of them, this had not been their year.

“To be honest, we didn’t expect to catch anything,” said upbeat angler Jeff Jeurink, of Allendale, as he began dismantling his shanty.

William Walraven, of Harrison, hadn’t even had time to finish his beer before the season was over, he said, cheerfully shrugging off lack of fishing success during his first try for a sturgeon.

William Bailey, of Traverse City, didn’t get to try for a fish because his fishing partner didn’t show up with a saw. As a tribal member, he’ll have another chance, though, Bailey said.

“That’s it,” he said, of the fishing event even shorter than last year’s two-hour season. “It was over as soon as it started.”

Outside another shanty, a family chatted as they unscrewed stakes from the ice.

“We didn’t catch any fish today,” sing-songed Parker Roeske, 4, delighted with the family’s outing despite having no trophy to take home.

The family has seen only one sturgeon in their 12 years of participating in the fishing season, her mother, Denise Roeske, of Frankenmuth, said.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime fish,” she said. “So you spend your whole life trying for that one time.”

Watery thunks and cracks sounded from the ice as pickup trucks and four-wheelers drove across the lake, some pulling tiny buildings toward the shore. Before long, the local restaurants would be full of breakfasting anglers sharing tall tales, Denise Roeske said.

Several miles away, DNR officers at a field office fussed over the six lucky anglers who brought in their sturgeon to be weighed, measured, and checked for DNR identification tags.

A 5-foot long, 67-pound male, the second catch of the day, had been captured and recorded by the DNR every two years since 2002, Cwalinski said.

Successful fisherman Perrin – now known as “Sturgeon Jerry” by his buddies — bought his fishing spear in a Black Lake parking lot last year from an angry angler tired of not catching anything.

This year, in his first attempt, Perrin brought home one of the most coveted outdoorsman prizes in the state.

He plans to mount the fish, unlike Scott Williams, of Millersburg, who thought he’d turn his 46-inch catch into dinner.

Williams has speared several sturgeon, but this year’s catch was his first from Black Lake in 22 years.

As the last of the registering anglers headed home, Nathan Traver, of Houghton Lake, and James Schwartz, of Roscommon, pulled into the DNR parking lot.

The first to arrive at the lake at 4:55 a.m., the unlucky anglers hoped they’d at least get to glimpse one of the mysterious giants that swim the depths of Black Lake.

They’d done the math, they said, and knew they’d had a 1% chance of going home with a sturgeon.

Would they try again next year?

“Oh, definitely,” Schwartz said. “One hundred percent.”