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No. 1 JANUARY 2004

LAKE ERIE’S BIGGEST FISH



Sturgeon weighing 180 pounds caught in 1935
near Kelley's Island

The occasional sighting of a sturgeon along Lake Erie’s western shoreline signals the continued good health of the lake and the tributaries. The largest fish in the Great Lakes, sturgeon can grow to 9 feet, weigh more than 300 pounds, and live for 150 years. Contemporaries of the dinosaurs, sturgeon, with their shark-like tails, rows of armored plates, and protruding mouths, are an impressive sight!

The return of the docile giants to Lake Erie is encouraging, but their numbers are a mere fraction of those reported by pioneers of northwest Ohio. Early Fremont newspaper editor Isaac Keeler reported that sturgeon weighing 70 to100 pounds were common in the 1850s. But then, so were catfish and muskellunge that weighed in at 20 to 50 pounds. According to an 1851 Fremont Freeman, 100,000 white bass were caught during a single week in May. Farmers driving their teams across the shallows of the Sandusky River found the going difficult during spawning season. White bass often choked the entire width of the river.

Native Americans revered the sturgeon as part of their traditional culture. But early commercial fishermen slaughtered them by the thousands. Sturgeon were considered a nuisance because they frequently destroyed fishing nets. Keeler reported that sturgeon were hauled from the river and killed "like sticking a pig." When the carcasses dried, they were piled up and set afire, burning like "pitch-pine logs." All along the Great Lakes, sturgeon were stacked like cordwood for use as fuel for early steamships.

Still plentiful in the 1870s, sturgeon began to find a place in the commercial market. Port Clinton, Ohio, fishermen Nassler and Detlefson opened a "fish house" and wharf there in 1874. They processed caviar, fish oil, and smoked sturgeon. According to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Great Lakes catch peaked a decade later at 8.6 million pounds. Over-fishing, pollution, and the construction of dams sent sturgeon numbers plummeting.

The 180-pound sturgeon pictured in this image was caught on April 29, 1935, near Kelley’s Island by Alfred McKillips, Albert Kugler, and Sylvester Dwelle. Fishermen claimed it was one of the largest fish ever pulled from the waters of Lake Erie. The photograph is part of the Captain Frank Hamilton Collection, Kelley’s Island Album Number I.


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