Every year in February outdoor enthusiasts gather on Black Lake in Cheboygan country for the shortest fishing season in the country.
It is part of a decades-long program locals say is responsible for protecting an endangered prehistoric fish.
Out on ice-covered Black Lake anglers cut holes in the ice, wheel out shacks, and tie up spears. They're preparing to go after what nearly everyone here calls “A fish as old as the dinosaurs”.
The Lake Sturgeon is an ancient bottom feeder that can grow to more than seven feet long and live to an average age of 55 years old. The oldest Lake Sturgeon on record was 152 years old.
“I spear for years and years, this is my shack.”
Sean McDonald cuts a three-by-five foot hole in the ice, pushing the 20-inch blade all the way to the hilt. He said he’s come out to ice fish since he was a kid, and now brings his own three children.
“I have a daughter also and they all come out here. They all like to spend a lot of time on the ice and see the fish go through the hole.”
McDonald said he hasn’t caught a sturgeon yet, but this may be his year.
In the 1970's Lake Sturgeon populations in the Great Lakes were measured at roughly 1,600 fish. The DNR raised the alarm in 1997 when Lake Sturgeon populations dipped to just over 500.
Dave Borgeson is the Northern Lake Huron Unit Supervisor for the DNR, and oversees the lake sturgeon fishing season. He said since then the state instituted strict quotas on how many fish can be taken from the lake.
“Early on it was a lottery for every fish available to harvest back then it was five - we allowed five people on the ice. It really got tedious, sometimes the season lasted for a couple weeks.”
Borgeson said now the DNR allows as many people on the ice as want to join - this year more than 400 people are registered - and that’s shortened the season significantly. Last year, the season ended in just over an hour.
And, Borgeson said, the restricted season seems to have worked. Lake Sturgeon populations are now estimated at 12-hundred fish, one point two percent of which can be taken each year. Half of them for the tribe, half for this public fishing season.
“Overall it’s 14 fish, they get seven and we get seven, but for us, with this unlimited participation we try to build in a buffer.”
A buffer, Borgeson said, because some 20 DNR officials have to shut down the fishing season quickly once the allowable number fish are caught. With a 10- thousand acre lake and over 400 fishermen and women, that can be difficult.
“We’ve got volunteers with cannons and air horns and stuff to shut it down.”
Anglers get to their shacks early Saturday morning, somewhere between 6 and 7:30, a grey light just beginning to poke through the clouds.
Half a mile from where Sean McDonald and his three kids have set up their shack, a group of friends are crammed into a thirty-foot fishing shanty - aptly named Da Turdy Footer.
Chad Mushlock is from Cheboygan and said the Lake Sturgeon season has become a tradition amongst his friends.
“We’re gonna try fishing in a group with a lot of peeled eyes, that’s what brings us here.”
Mushlock said he has a simple strategy for sturgeon fishing.
“See one. Stick ‘em.”
As eight o’clock rolls around Mushlock and his friends climb into the shack, ready their spears, and turn out the lights. It will take a moment for their eyes to adjust, a soft light emanating up from the hole in the ice.
The minutes begin to tick by and other fishermen call in to taunt each other over the radio.
Within the first twenty minutes, two sturgeon are called in over the radio.
“Two on the ice, one came out of the state park over there.”
The shanty gets antsy and someone puts on Steve Earle's Copperhead Road.
“Come on Steve Earle draw them in for me buddy.”
Across the lake, some are having more luck than Mushlock and his friends. Travis Merchant, a Cheboygan native, spears the fourth fish of the day, a 70-inch sturgeon weighing just under 100 pounds. It will be the biggest largest Sturgeon caught.
When I caught up with them, Mckenzie Derhammer, Merchant’s girlfriend, gleefully recalled the moment they pulled the fish out of the lake.
“I’ve never been out Sturgeon fishing before so it was crazy, I was shaking like crazy. It was exciting though, I’m excited for him.”
The calls continued to come in and at 10:23 the DNR calls the season at six fish and just under two and a half hours.
Dave Borgeson, with the DNR, said it was lucky they did - one more fish was called in just after the season ended.
“This is why we have a harvest limit of six. That many people on the ice there’s a chance you can’t shut it down immediately.”
Borgeson said this was the highest participation the DNR has seen in a season.
“Sturgeon for whatever reason, once people see them or get involved with them, they love them. It’s a big lovable beast that folks gravitate to. It’s nice to see the interest.”
With any luck, Borgeson said, that interest will help keep this prehistoric beast alive for generations to come.