Sturgeon -- prized for its caviar and smoked meat -- are slowly starting to make a comeback in areas where water quality has improved. The fish, which are protected in just about every state where they're found, were overfished and nearly disappeared in the early 1900s.
TOLEDO, Ohio Frank McDonald felt the tug on his fishing line and knew he had something big. "I was hoping it was a gigantic walleye," he said. It was much bigger.
McDonald hooked a 3-foot-long sturgeon, a prehistoric fish that was thought to be all but gone from Lake Erie less than a decade ago. He hauled it into the boat just long enough to snap a few pictures before releasing it.
"We were being gentle," he said. "If I could've gotten away with keeping that fish, he would've been on my wall."
Sturgeon -- prized for its caviar and smoked meat -- are slowly starting to make a comeback in areas where water quality has improved. The fish, which are protected in just about every state where they're found, were overfished and nearly disappeared in the early 1900s despite being so abundant on Lake Erie that they were burned for fuel in steamships.
Many obstacles -- from poachers to polluters -- remain before efforts to restore the sturgeon population will allow them to be fished in more than a handful of waters.
"The biggest problem is we have dams on nearly every spawning river," said Douglas Peterson, a fisheries researcher at the University of Georgia.
The dams limit how far sturgeon can swim upstream to find a spawning site. And it's doubtful that dams built to provide drinking water and electricity will be removed.
Sturgeon also are coveted by poachers who sell their pricey caviar eggs on the black market. Wildlife officers in California broke up a ring in June that netted poaching charges against 17 suspects.
In Wisconsin, volunteers line the rivers near Lake Winnebago during the spring spawning season to protect the sturgeon and their eggs from poachers.
What makes the sturgeon so appealing to environmentalists and anglers is their size and appearance.
They're covered with bony plates and often called "living fossils." There are nine species in North America, and at least one can be found in most states. The Atlantic sturgeon can grow up to 800 pounds while the lake sturgeon can grow to 200 pounds.
And they can live more than 100 years on the bottoms of rivers, which is why they have been able to survive as a species despite pollution and other threats.
"What we see today is a living relic of the dinosaur age," said Bruce Manny, a fishery biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey center in Michigan. "That's another reason we should handle them with care."
He has studied the lake sturgeon in the Detroit River since 1998 and found only one spot where they are laying eggs, near an old steel plant. He said untreated sewage being dumped into the river limits where the fish can spawn.
North of the river, sturgeon are thriving in Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River. Michigan estimates the lake sturgeon population at 45,500. "It's one of the few places they are able to sustain themselves," Manny said.
Until the late 1990s, sturgeon sightings were unheard of on Lake Erie. Now there are 20 or 30 each year, mostly around the islands region in the western part of the lake.
Still, catching one is a rare treat.
McDonald, who fishes nearly every weekend, said the charter boat captain he was with told him he had never seen a sturgeon in all of his years on the lake.
Boaters nearby were cheering. "They wanted to see it, but I wanted to get it back in the water," McDonald said.
Almost all of the sturgeon caught on the lake have been 5 to 10 years old, which is an encouraging sign, said Chris Vandergoot, a fisheries biologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
It's suspected that they made their way to the islands region from the Detroit River, he said. It's unknown whether they are reproducing in Ohio waters. A survey last year of the Maumee River, a potential spawning spot, didn't turn up anything, Vandergoot said.
Sturgeon don't reach sexual maturity until after about 20 years and then lay their eggs only every four to nine years. That's why it's critical, researchers say, to protect where they reproduce.
Wildlife officers in Virginia aim to preserve and expand spawning grounds for the Atlantic sturgeon. Georgia is restocking lake sturgeon in rivers in the northwest part of the state.
"It's too soon to say if they will take and self-sustain," Peterson said.
There are only a handful of spots where anglers can legally fish for sturgeon. Wisconsin allows spear fishing for sturgeon on Lake Winnebago in the winter and is expanding that to more lakes next year.
Sport fishing for sturgeon is growing in Minnesota along the Rainy River and on Lake of the Woods, which both border Canada, said Tom Heinrich, a biologist with the state's natural resources department.
That's because paper mills along the river no longer pollute the water with wood fiber, which in part led to the sturgeon's decline.
Slowly they began to come back and now, so have the anglers.
Source: Associated Press