The largest freshwater fish in Alberta, lake sturgeons have been around since the dinosaurs, can live upwards of 100 years, and are masters of obscurity. However, thanks to a small population that biologist’s credit to living so far north, the giant breed has become increasingly scarce, earning a threatened classification under Alberta’s Wildlife Act.
“Lake sturgeons are one of the biggest enigmas surrounding the North Saskatchewan River,” says Michael Short, host of Let’s Go Outdoors. “The catch-and-release law means they’re not as targeted as they’ve been in the past, but population estimates are low. Biologists believe the numbers fluctuate in the 1,000 range, which means, for the 500 kilometre stretch of the North Saskatchewan River, there are approximately two lake sturgeons per kilometre.”
With the potential to grow to over 100 pounds and between four and five feet long, one might assume spotting these enormous fish is a cinch. Not so. Lake sturgeon appear to be a cross between a shark, catfish and a torpedo, and are grayish on the top of the body and white along their belly. They have a shark-like tail, have rows of bony plates instead of scales, and are bottom feeders, which often makes catching them all the more challenging.
“Lake sturgeons are notoriously difficult to find, and they’re travellers. Radio telemetry indicates a fish tagged in Saskatchewan swam all the way west of Spruce Grove, logging over 900 kilometres,” Short says. Still, locating one isn’t impossible. “Anyone planning on fishing for lake sturgeon needs to be prepared as catching one is a two-person job. You’ll need heavy fishing gear – heavy lines, heavy rods, heavy nets – and should you catch one, ideally one person will have a large tarp already set up so the other person can place the fish on it for a photo.”
Short cautions that handling a large fish is not advised since attempts to lift and turn it can damage its internal organs. “The same approach is suggested when it comes to touching its eyes or gills; avoidance is best since unintentional damage could be inflicted.”
Game fishers looking to hook a sturgeon in the North Saskatchewan River have the best chance during summer months, and Short adds that fish and wildlife officers are on watch to ensure that once caught, fish go back into the water. (Alberta Fish and Wildlife is also available by phone to help anglers determine the approximate weight of a sturgeon based on its length.)
“What’s important to remember is that the North Saskatchewan River is the most northern range for this species of fish, and while places like Wisconsin log 200 lake sturgeon per mile, our waters house just two per kilometre. The bottom line is, this variety of fish is an endangered species and anglers need to treat the fish with a great deal of respect.”