It’s dawn on February 3 on Black Lake near Onaway. It's freezing cold and snowing lightly. A procession of big pickup trucks and snowmobiles drives across the ice toward villages of fishing shanties, specks in the hazy distance.
There are more than 400 fishermen on the ice waiting to spear lake sturgeon. But they can only harvest six fish. It's a race to see who will be lucky enough to get one before the season shuts down. It should only last a couple hours.
At 8 a.m. the Black Lake sturgeon fishing season starts, and within three minutes the first fish is speared. Someone radios it in to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ trailer at the edge of the lake. Black Lake is big, six miles long, and the radio calls are necessary to make sure they don’t exceed the harvest limit.
"That’s a quick way of us knowing, boom one of the six fish is taken," says Tim Cwalinski, a senior fisheries biologist for the DNR.
Cwalinski says fishers are pretty good about respecting the harvest limit. They check in regularly by calling a hotline that's updated when each fish is caught.
The harvest limit is so low because lake sturgeon are a state threatened species. Cwalinski says the population declined over the last 150 years because of overfishing, poaching and, particularly, dams.
"Sturgeon need access to big rivers with lots of cobble, gravel to spawn on," says Cwalinski, "and dams basically cut their spawning grounds off."
For years now, the DNR – along with other organizations – has worked to rehabilitate the native fish.
When the angler who caught the first sturgeon arrives with the fish in his truck bed, people crowd around to get a look at the stiff, bloody fish. Sturgeon pretty much look like small sharks. They’re gray and prehistoric.
"They’re a dinosaur of a fish," says Cwalinski. "One of the most ancient freshwater fishes that we have in Michigan."
DNR officials weigh and measure this first fish at their inspection table. It's 45.8 pounds, nearly five feet long and a female.
John Stiles, the angler who caught her, says he's been fishing for lake sturgeon on Black Lake for 30 years, and this is only the second one he's caught. He says it's a thrill to spear one. He'll take his sturgeon home, cook it and freeze it.
"We just fry 'em up," says Stiles while he watches the DNR inspect his fish.
Ed Baker, a DNR research biologist, cuts off part of the sturgeon’s pectoral fin.
"We use that to try to determine the age of the fish," Baker says.
He says they'll cut a thin cross section out of the fin.
"There will be rings on it just like a tree," he says. "So we can count the rings and, yeah, that’s how you age fish."
Six fish is a small harvest limit, especially when there are hundreds of people out on the lake trying to spear them. But Tim Cwalinski says people still come out because it’s a part of the local culture around Onaway and Cheboygan and because of the size of sturgeon.
"People like big fish," Cwalinski says. "These aren’t bluegill. They’re fish that weigh as much as some of the people coming in to register."
That's what the third, speared sturgeon is like. It's six feet long and 99.7 pounds – the size of a tall, super skinny angler. It could be more than 70 years old, says Ed Baker.
Spectators pose for photos with the fish. One guy gets down on his belly in the snow so he’s face to face with the sturgeon and takes a picture.
And then by 10:23 a.m. the sixth sturgeon has been speared and the Black Lake sturgeon fishing season is over.