By David Fleet
Jay Woiderski recalls his first sturgeon speared through the ice.
“The fish came under my shanty and was 62 inches—it’s just a thrill to have a sturgeon swim under,” said Woiderski, a Black Lake area resident and member of Sturgeon For Tomorrow. “It’s not just about the sturgeon—watching the variety of fish including perch, walleye and that swim by under the ice is amazing. It’s a lot of fun and gets you out of the house in the winter months. For the record, sturgeon has a mild flavor, with a texture of a pork chop.”
Woiderski is just one of the hundreds of anglers that will use a chainsaw to cut a three feet square hole in the ice, pull a shanty over the opening and campout on the first Saturday of February each year for a chance to spear a sturgeon in Black Lake.
The 2022 sturgeon season is limited to only six sturgeon on the lake—total for all anglers, with no minimum size requirement. The season is 8 a.m.-2 p.m., Feb. 5-9, or until the quota of six fish are harvested. If five are harvested at the end of any fishing day, the season will be closed. The sturgeon season regulations were replaced a few years ago from the lottery-style system with a fish-at-will system used in other states.
Jenny (Olsen) Ciolek, a 1986 graduate of Brandon High School, who hosts, produces and edits ‘Michigan Out-of-Doors on PBS, had made several treks to Black Lake located about 40 miles south of Mackinaw City. The lake is located in Cheboygan and Presque Isle counties and ranks as the seventh largest inland lake in Michigan.
“Some of these fish are estimated to be between 80 and 100-years-old,” she said. “It’s a trophy hunt for these fish. It’s a lot of fun out there with often more than 600 participating for one of the six fish.”
Ciolek, along with her crew, have filmed several segments featuring a local tradition of sturgeon spearing through the ice.
“It’s a good party out there except this year the Black Lake Sturgeon Shivaree has been canceled due to COVID,” she said. “It’s been and will continue to be a great way to also bring awareness to Michigan Sturgeon and the protection of the fish.”
The Shivaree includes a Sturgeon King or Queen depending who scores a fish, beer tents and live music. The shivaree is under the direction of the “Sturgeon General.”
While an avid Woiderski along with others work to keep the sturgeon population growing in the lakes.
“The problem with the depletion of the fish is people poaching the sturgeon in the summer, when they come into the shallow waters of the local rivers to spawn,” said Woiderski. “People could wade right out and pick the fish up. It was very common until just a few years ago when a local group, Black Lake Chapter of Sturgeon For Tomorrow, worked in the area to help build up the population.”
Woiderski along with others work to get the number of fish back up and join hundreds of other locals who patrol the area rivers in the warmer months to keep the sturgeon poachers out.
“The sturgeon have been here for millions of years,” he said. “Still, the number in the Great Lakes is only about 1 percent of what they once were.”
While the sturgeon palate includes crayfish or pretty much of what can be found on the lake bed, Woiderski says anglers have used a variety of methods to bring the monster fish under the shanty for the short season.
“A red and white fish decoy is popular,” he said. “However, people try car rims, toilet seats and bundt cake pans to get their attention. I really think it just makes the fish curious and they check it out.”
Michigan Out-of-Doors” can be viewed on PBS every Thursday, at 8 p.m., or Saturday 4:30 p.m. depending on viewer location.
By David Fleet