Back in the 1970s, the transfer of stripers from Atlantic Ocean tributaries where they thrived to places like Georgia’s Oostanaula and Etowah rivers brought lots of concerns.
There were worries that they would eat smaller fish such as crappies and destroy downstream fisheries where panfish were especially popular. Now another fish, the lake sturgeon, is becoming more prevalent in those waters.
These fish likely will draw more attention as they increase in size, mostly for a different reason. The alligator-like appearances of the piscatorial prize could cause an unknowing angler to do a double take upon making a catch.
Sturgeon are odd-appearing long, slender fish with rows of bony plates known as scutes.
According to Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division records, Calhoun, Ga., angler Larry Stamey told DNR biologist Gary Beisser that his fishing party caught about 1,400 pounds of sturgeon on trotlines within a two-week period back in the early 1960’s. The largest fish, Stamey noted, weighed 59 pounds, the smallest about 10. Shrimp was used as bait, with the fishing lines placed close to the bank.
Unlike stripers, lake sturgeon are fish native to the area. They were once commonplace in the Oostanaula and Etowah, two rivers that flow together at Rome, Ga., to form the Coosa River.
Pollution and the construction of dams that cut sturgeon from the upstream places where they spawned are blamed for their demise in North Georgia. Biologists are hopeful stocking will bring them back.
“We’ve been basically stocking them downstream of Allatoona (in the Etowah) and Carters (Oostanaula) rivers,” said Beisser, speaking from the Calhoun, Ga., office of DNR. “This year, we’ve extended stocking them to above Allatoona Dam.”
A total of 5,000 were stocked in the Etowah above Allatoona this past fall for the first time, according to a DNR release. Stocking efforts, however, actually began back in 2002. Some sightings have already been reported in the Coosa system.
The 4-6 inch fish stocked in Georgia were produced by fertilized eggs from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. They were hatched and raised at the Summerville Fish Hatchery. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s hatchery in Warm Springs, Ga., also helped by producing fingerling-sized lake sturgeon and assisting in the transportation of the fish obtained from Wisconsin.
The classification of lake sturgeon is itself a bit misleading, Beisser said.
“Basically they take advantage of the bigger river areas,” he explained. “In the case of the Coosa before all the lakes were impounded, they were associated with the lower Coosa but would move up into the river areas to spawn.”
In the past, the fish have been witnessed as far into the heart of Alabama as Childersburg, he said.
“The fish spend most of their time in the bigger river areas and lakes,” Beisser said. “That’s where they do most of their growing, getting ready to spawn.”
While the sturgeon can be expected to reach between 40-60 pounds in North Georgia, they often grow into 125-130 pounds in the Midwest, Beisser said.
They are edible. Approximately 80 percent of their bodies consist of meat, but their eggs are valued for caviar as well.
According to the Georgia DNR, the stocking plan is succeeding, but because the lake sturgeon have long lives and grow slowly, the restoration effort could take decades. Annual stockings are planned for the next 15-25 years in Georgia.