Despite the occasional traffic jam, the river access road off Minnesota State Highway 11 in the sleepy town of Birchdale, Minn., is mostly unassuming.
It’s about a mile or two from the highway to the Rainy River here on the Minnesota-Ontario border – one of only a handful of accesses on the U.S. side to the famed fishing river that empties into equally-as-famous Lake of the Woods. Still, for the most part, the road is about as quiet as this rural stretch of highway between Baudette and International Falls.
Until ice-out. Then, there are times when boat-towing vehicles will line the access road from one end to the other. If ice-out comes early enough, anglers likely are there for the extended walleye season on border waterways. But in recent years, more and more have come for the sturgeon.
Yes, this access road epitomizes the lake sturgeon’s road to recovery in Minnesota. The primitive fish, which in Minnesota can reach a length of more than six feet, once was common throughout the state. But overfishing and pollution devastated the species, and as a result, it was listed as a species of special concern in Minnesota in 1984 and all but disappeared from anglers’ radar.
Since then, thanks to a strong stocking and management plan — as well as the Clean Water Act, some say — sturgeon have come back in a big way in Minnesota, particularly in the far northern part of the state. And for more than 20 years now, the Birchdale river access has served as the launching point for the annual North American Sturgeon Championship.
It’s Minnesota’s version of Sturgeon Fest. Later this month, across the border to the east, Wisconsin will celebrate its efforts to return lake sturgeon to the Milwaukee River with the 10th anniversary of Sturgeon Fest.
The free, family oriented event is scheduled Sept. 26 at Lakeshore State Park near the Summerfest grounds off Harbor Drive in Milwaukee and, among other things, features the opportunity for youth and adults to sponsor and release young sturgeon into Lake Michigan. The fish, hatched from eggs collected on the Wolf River, have been raised at a streamside rearing facility operated by the Riveredge Nature Center near Milwaukee and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
If all goes according to plan, the fish will return to the river for spawning — a day that may well come before the 25-year Return of the Sturgeon project officially concludes. Brad Eggold, DNR southern Lake Michigan fisheries team supervisor, said the department’s lake sturgeon juvenile assessment work shows many of the more than 7,500 sturgeon released over the past decade appear to be doing well.
In July, fisheries team members caught and released a 5-year-old sturgeon that measured 35 inches and weighed nearly 10 pounds. The fish, which reportedly has been growing at a clip of about 6 inches a year, was the 57th lake sturgeon captured in the Milwaukee River and harbor area and another sign that a number of the stocked fish are staying nearby and using the harbor as a nursery, according to the DNR.
Families and individuals interested in sponsoring a sturgeon for Sturgeon Fest may do so online before 2 p.m. Sept. 25, although it still will be possible to sign up at the event. The sturgeon are typically released between noon and 3 p.m. Sept. 26 following a short presentation and a blessing of the fish by a Native American representative. The $10 fee to sponsor a sturgeon benefits Riveredge and the sturgeon project.
Like Minnesota, Wisconsin waters — Lake Michigan in particular — also were once a hotbed for lake sturgeon. But for many of the same reasons, the species has struggled mightily in Wisconsin through the years, too: The Milwaukee River, once a spawning site for the fish, hasn’t seen lake sturgeon in more than 100 years.
So when they do return, expect it to be quite the sight.
Like the Birchdale access at ice-out.