SHAWANO, Wis. — Crowds gather each year at the Shawano Dam and other parts of the Wolf River, for an opportunity to see lake sturgeon up close.
“Oh, this is a show,” said Sharon Cook, who drove up from Milwaukee. “This is important. These fish are 200 million years old.”
She wasn’t strictly a spectator. Cook has taken on the role of a sturgeon ambassador too.
“There’s a function here, and it is trying to engage more people in this process,” said Cook.
She’s part of a revamped Sturgeon Guard, which helps protect the fish from poachers. They also hand out educational materials to crowds gathered on the shore.
Last year, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources ended the Sturgeon Guard program. Started in the 1980s and organized by the DNR, the Sturgeon Guard provided watch over the vulnerable fish as they swam upstream to spawn. The DNR cited a strain on its staff and resources, as well as a decrease in poaching as the reason for putting an end to the program.
They left the door open for other groups to step up and take over.
Don Mielke restarted the program in the past year. For a Menasha man who grew up near Lake Winnebago and sturgeon speared his whole life, the thought wouldn’t leave him.
“I just kept asking myself, well, why can’t you do that? So I talked to a few of my friends, and they were all as passionate as I was,” said Mielke.
With the help of the group Sturgeon for Tomorrow, Mielke started organizing like-minded volunteers.
“We have a unique situation here with the amount of plentiful lake sturgeon. We can have a good harvest every year,” said Mielke. “Why don’t we do something about it to keep it?”
When spawning, sturgeon typically come close to shore, where they draw crowds, but they’re also an easy target for poachers.
“Poaching still exists. It’s still going on. To the magnitude that it was years ago? No, but it’s still going on,” said Mielke.
This year, when the sturgeon started running upriver, the new Sturgeon Guard hit the shores.
“Don was on the phone with me long enough to know that I wasn’t a yahoo,” said Cook. “I could talk to people and would enjoy it and was doing something more than just hanging around looking.”
Volunteers came calling from all over the state, including Bloomer, Madison and Door County.
“These people drove a long way and then to find out that when they got done, they called me and thanked me,” said Mielke.
The DNR worked with Mielke’s group and supplied them with educational handouts.
“We’re really excited to have them back. We can’t be here all the time every day and so having someone here who’s watching them is a nice reprieve, knowing that someone’s going to be here taking care of them,” said Margaret Stadig, DNR Sturgeon Biologist.
Mielke also received encouragement from another warden.
“He said, ‘you guys can be anywhere, which gives us the opportunity to be out of sight,’” said Mielke.
During the sturgeon run, the DNR also focuses on tagging fish and collecting data. On the day of Cook’s watch, they harvested eggs and milt for a stocking program in Georgia.
“A prehistoric fish that Wisconsin has and Georgia’s trying to get back. That is the lesson here. We have something very special here, and it should be protected,” said Cook.
The revamped Sturgeon Guard is looking to do just that, and help the public understand the importance of this unique fish.