Sturgeon, a huge fish that once abounded in Tennessee's rivers, had become virtually extinct in the state a couple of decades ago. Now they are making a comeback thanks to a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency stocking program.
Since 2000 the TWRA has released over 180,000 sturgeon into the Cumberland River, the French Broad and Holston River.
More than 300 reports of sturgeon catches have been received by TWRA biologists. Any sturgeon caught must be released.
Some of the stocked fish are have grown to almost three feet. That's a mere baby by sturgeon standards -- the fish can reach several feet long and weigh up to 300 pounds.
Sturgeon are primarily bottom feeders, so with sauger season at hand on the Cumberland River and below dams, fishermen bumping lures and baits along the bottom can expect to occasionally hook one.
As reports of sturgeon catches increase, the TWRA reminds fishermen that they must be released unharmed, and also request that any fishermen catching a sturgeon report it to the fisheries department to add to its data. The number to call for each TWRA region is listed in the Tennessee Fishing Guide.
Biologists want to know when and where the fish was caught and its approximate length and weight. A precise weighing and measuring is not required, since it would keep the fish out of water longer, add to its stress, and lessen its chance of survival after being released.
In return for the information, the TWRA will present the reporting fisherman a "Certificate of Appreciation" acknowledging his or her contribution to the sturgeon-restoration project.
The goal of the project is two-fold: to restore an indigenous species to state waters as part of the TWRA's commitment to conservation, and to grow the sturgeon population to the point that some of the sturgeon can be harvested by sport fishermen.
Similar goals propelled the successful elk-restoration project. Native elk, which vanished from Tennessee a century ago, are now back in sufficient numbers to allow limited hunting, in addition to photographing and wildlife-viewing.
In states with a viable sturgeon population, the big, hard-fishing fish is a favorite of anglers. Most sturgeon caught for sport are released.
Commercially, sturgeon eggs are converted into expensive caviar.
Caviar and sport fishing are still a ways down the road for Tennessee's sturgeon. But, like the elk-restoration program, the sturgeon-stocking program has been making steady progress.
The sturgeon, whose demise was brought about by polluted water and over-harvesting, is more than a spirited game fish with tremendous commercial potential. It, like the state's restored elk, is a symbol of conservation success and the retrieval of a lost natural treasure.
The TWRA's sturgeon message: welcome back.