TRAVERSE CITY — Todd Bosley has fished in the Boardman River for nearly 30 years, but the lake sturgeon he spotted in early summer nearly caused him to fall in, he said.
Bosley, of Interlochen, was near the Union Street Dam on May 31 when he saw the large fish — he eyeballed it at more than 4 feet long — swimming in the river. It was near the dam’s two outlet tubes near the south shore when he took a video.
“In all the years I’ve been fishing the river, I’ve never seen one,” he said.
It may have been a first for Bosley, but his friend Greg Crouse said he’s spotted them in the Boardman River every year for a few years running.
Bosley posted the video online and reported the sighting to the Department of Natural Resources, he said. He was worried that someone might try to poach the fish, which could be 100-plus years old, he said.
Heather Hettinger, a DNR fisheries biologist, said Bosley’s video undoubtedly shows a sturgeon. She and a few other biologists went to the river to try to spot the fish in the Boardman, but had no luck.
“It’s a really cool thing to see and a really cool thing to confirm in the Boardman,” she said.
Lake sturgeon sightings in the Boardman River prompt a few reports almost yearly, but it’s not often that the DNR gets photographic evidence, Hettinger said — the last time someone sent pictures was in 2014, she said.
People also spotted sturgeon in Grand Traverse Bay when they were installing their docks this spring, Hettinger said — another regular occurrence. Sightings in the river and bay indicate the fish move through the area but not much is known about where they’re coming from, she said.
Lake sturgeon are an ancient species dating back 136 million years, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
They can live longer than 100 years, grow up to seven feet long and tip the scale at more than 200 pounds, according to the DNR. They’re covered in bony plates and have sucker mouths for eating insect larvae, crayfish, snails, clams and leeches off the bottom, according to the DNR.
Deliberate killings by commercial fishers, overharvest, dams blocking their passage to spawning grounds and pollution all led to crashing sturgeon populations, with the fish nearing extinction in the U.S. by 1900, according to the USFWS.
They’re making a comeback, thanks in part to river reconnection efforts and the DNR and Native American tribes working to give spawning populations a boost in Michigan’s big rivers, Hettinger said.
They’re considered threatened species, and state-licensed anglers can catch them only in a handful of spots in the state, Hettinger said — it’s not allowed in the Traverse City area.
Lake sturgeon are considered a keystone of the Great Lakes ecosystem, and their preference for good water quality makes them an indicator species, Hettinger said.
The sturgeon Bosley saw probably turned around at the Union Street Dam and left the river, said Brett Fessell, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.
He’s part of a team of biologists studying fish movement in the river to gather data for the FishPass project, a planned selective fish passageway. They tried to find the sturgeon too about a week after Bosley saw it as part of an overall survey but couldn’t, he said.
FishPass could pass lake sturgeon to potentially establish a spawning population in the river, Fessell said. The fact that a few sturgeon show up in the river each year bolsters that possibility, he said.
Defenders of the river’s native fisheries fear FishPass could introduce species upriver — inadvertently or by design — that could destroy existing populations, especially brook trout.
Project leaders with Great Lakes Fishery Commission, the lead of a team of government agencies behind FishPass, insist the first-of-its-kind passageway will be managed to not hurt upstream fisheries.
Bosley said he likes the idea of selectively passing fish upriver.
He’s been drawn to the lower Boardman time and again by the beauty and fighting potential of the steelhead he catches there, he said.
He has respect for the sturgeon, too.
“It’s a great fish, it’s been around before we were here cruising the Great Lakes,” Bosley said.