At first he thought he had hooked a big rockfish, then decided it must be one of the huge channel cats that lurk in the tailwaters. As he battled the fish, trying to wrestle it to the surface, he became convinced he had snagged a drum in the 25-pound class.
He was wrong on all counts. When he finally brought the fish up, thrashing on the end of the line was a sturgeon described by Bethel “as long as my leg.”
Bill didn’t measure the fish, but since he’s lanky and long-legged, it had to be good-sized.
He got the fish into the boat, unhooked it, and released it as required by Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency regulations.
That sturgeon was one of some 205,000 that have been released in the Cumberland, French Broad and Holston rivers by the TWRA since 2006. Many of those 18-inch stocked fish are now almost five feet long.
During the winter, reports of surgeon catches tend to increase as sauger fishermen bump lures and baits along river bottoms where the fish lurk. To date, the TWRA has had more than 300 reports of sturgeon caught.
The Agency asks any fisherman who catches one to report it, along with the date, location and the fish’s approximate size. In appreciation for the data, the TWRA will issue the angler a Lake Sturgeon Certificate of Appreciation.
Reports can be called into the TWRA’s Fisheries Division at 615-781-6575.
Fishermen are reminded that it is illegal to keep a sturgeon. Any fish that is caught can be measured and photographed, provided it is done quickly, before being released.
Sturgeon are an armor-plated primitive species that can grow up to eight feet in length, weigh over 300 pounds and live up to 150 years.
Sturgeon once thrived in Tennessee streams but vanished over a century ago due to pollution, damming of rivers and other changing environmental conditions.
Two decades ago the TWRA launched its sturgeon-restoration program. Like the Agency’s successful deer-, turkey- and elk-restorations, the goal of the sturgeon program is two-fold: to restore a native species to the state, and to make it a renewable wildlife resource at some point.
Deer and turkeys are now plentiful in most areas of the state and are routinely hunted, and the elk population continues to follow suit, growing to the point that limited hunting has been permitted in recent years.
That same goal applies to the sturgeon. Once the population is deemed sustainable, limited sport fishing will be permitted. Although the fish are seldom kept for consumption, they are fierce fighters, and fishing for them has huge economic potential.
All of that is in the future. Right now the focus is on protecting the fish that have been stocked, and collecting data on their progress.
Like hearing the once-rare gobble of a turkey or the even more exotic bugle of an elk, it’s rewarding to know that indigenous sturgeon are once again swimming in Tennessee’s rivers – thanks to the vision and work of the TWRA, and the hunters and fishermen who fund it.
Larry Woody is The Democrat’s outdoors writer.