Black Lake River, Cheboygan, MI — May 16, 2023
Michigan’s lake sturgeon population is a valued natural resource. That can be evidenced by the amount of attention paid to these fantastic creatures. Each winter, a fishing season is established on Black Lake near Onaway, where the large fish can be taken through the ice by spearing. Catch totals are limited, and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) monitors the process closely. Anglers report their catches immediately by radio and cell phone.
During the spring spawning season, volunteers are solicited to guard against poachers on the Black River, where the fish swim upstream to deposit their eggs. Year-around researchers from Michigan State University (MSU) and the DNR stay busy studying the fish and learning all they can to help ensure their continued survival.
Mary Paulson from Sturgeon for Tomorrow (989)763-7568 coordinates the guarding program. We talked with her earlier this month, and she was kind enough to invite us to come up and see what the buzz was all about. The experience was awesome. If you consider going, read our recommendations at the end of the article.
Onaway is just over a three-hour drive up I-75 from the Fenton area. Our first stop was the stream-side Hatchery near the Kleber reservoir, which is as far upstream as the sturgeon can reach. While not exactly a tourist site, the hatchery does have an extensive educational program in conjunction with MSU. Interested parties wishing to schedule a visit can contact them online at glsturgeon.com.
We observed sturgeon eggs and recent hatchlings that will be released into specific Michigan streams and rivers in an attempt to expand the population base of the species in our State.
Bumping down the two-track that leads back to the spawning grounds, we caught up with Mary and another lovely lady, Connie Warner. Both women are long-time river guards. Between them and the MSU researchers, we received a cram course on Michigan sturgeon.
- Sturgeons have an extremely long life cycle, the longest of any species of Great Lake fish, living to be 100 years old.
- Once born, they are extremely vulnerable to other species of fish. However, they can grow to a length of eight feet and a weight of 300+ pounds. They have no natural predators except man.
- One reason for their scarcity is the fish’s low reproductive rate. Males will begin spawning at 15-20 years and generally return to where they hatched every other year. Females mature between 20-25 years and may only return every five years to lay eggs. It takes approximately five males in close proximity to the female for her to release her roe.
Sightings in the Black River during the spawning season are fairly frequent, with generally three large migrations plus daily traffic up and down the river during the prime six weeks. We were told the week prior to Mother’s Day is almost always a busy time. How fitting.
Mary told us she has approximately 250 people on her guard list this year. Weekends are the busiest when families and groups like the Boy Scouts come in larger numbers. During the week, many retirees will camp out at the sites along the river, spending a week or more enjoying the beauty of the area and watching the fish.
The MSU researchers generally visit the river every day. Prime times are 10 am to 3 pm. They move downriver and can be observed at various sights. It is a treat to see them net and wrestle these large fish, bring them to the shallows for documentation, and then release them back into the river’s flow.
Fish are tagged, weighed, measured, fitted with a transmitter, and photographed. All the information is recorded in a journal that is used to study sturgeon behavior and characteristics, along with the science the info provides.
Additional photographs are available on the author’s Facebook page.
Directions to Sturgeon Spawning Area, Site B
Take I-75 north to Exit 310
Follow M-68 East toward Onaway
Turn North (left) on FO5 (South Black River Rd.)
Follow South Black River Road for 3.9 miles
Turn West (left) onto South Black River Road
Follow South Black River Road for 1.0 miles
Turn west (left) onto Red Bridge Road at the trailhead (note the Sturgeon for Tomorrow signage here).
Pass the trailhead and follow the signage on the wooded road to Site B.
Please note – this undeveloped seasonal road can be difficult to pass for large vehicles and features a steep graveled exit hill.
A school bus can navigate this road, but any large commercial vehicles may struggle.
Small vehicles (compact cars / electric vehicles) may also struggle to pass on this road which is sandy in some places.
Things to Know if You Go
- The trail into the site is a two-track. It has well-placed signs to guide you.
- When dry, it is navigatable but very bumpy. When wet, a four-wheel-drive vehicle would be recommended.
- Prepare for bugs. Mosquitoes are plentiful, ticks are a distinct possibility. Found three after the visit
- Higher viewpoints of the campgrounds provide a good angle for viewing, binoculars are helpful, and polarized sunglasses are a must for enhanced underwater viewing. Large zoom lenses are recommended for capturing pictures.
- The water is tea-colored easier to see bottom and fish in the shallows. Deep holes turn dark brown, even black, thus the name of the river. Be patient, it takes a bit for your eyes to adjust to what they are seeing. Experienced viewers will point out fish to help.
- If you intend to go to the riverside, the downward paths are steep. Expect to encounter groundwater seeping into the river. Mud and slippery conditions are abundant. Boots are recommended.
- Researchers allow photography, but please do not get so close as to interfere with their work.
- There are no McDonald’s, not even vending machines. Bring what you need to eat and drink. Clean up after yourself.
- There are rudimentary toilet facilities, what you might expect when camping “OUT.”
- WAY OUT! Cell phone coverage may be a challenge depending on your carrier and exact location. The Higher, the Better.
Most of all, enjoy the environment. These fish are magnificent and well worth a few inconveniences to observe in their natural habitat. Be respectful of the nature around you. Leave it as you came. Quiet and undisturbed.