Michigan is an angler’s paradise, with more freshwater coastline than any other state in the United States. It is, after all, known as The Great Lakes State. Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources has documented 154 species of fish swimming in the state’s lakes, ponds, and waterways. It is a place of never-ending abundance for fishermen and women. But, out of the 154 species of Michigan fish, what is the single biggest fish ever caught in the state’s waters?
The Largest Fish Ever Caught in Michigan
On February 16, 1974, Joseph Maka landed the largest fish ever caught in Michigan: a massive lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) weighing 193 pounds and measuring 88 inches long! Maka did not land this record fish with a rod and reel, but rather by spearing the fish on Mullett Lake in Cheboygan County.
Spearing a lake sturgeon on a frozen Michigan lake is a difficult and labor-intensive venture. After cutting a hole in the ice, it usually involves long hours of patiently sitting in an ice shanty and staring into that hole, waiting for an elusive lake sturgeon to finally show itself. On that February day in 1974, Maka’s patience paid off as he landed the fish of a lifetime.
Maka’s lake sturgeon catch is larger than the records in other neighboring lake sturgeon regions. For example, the Wisconsin lake sturgeon record (also caught by spearing) is 177.3 pounds. The record in neighboring Ontario, Canada, is 168 pounds. These are huge fish, to be sure, but they still can’t touch the behemoth 193-pound lake sturgeon that Maka landed on that cold Michigan day in 1974.
Lake sturgeon (also known as rock sturgeon) are strange-looking fish that some have described as “living fossils.” These fish first appeared in the fossil record about 135 million years ago, meaning they were around at the same time as the dinosaurs!
Lake sturgeon have maintained their prehistoric appearance. Bony plates (scutes) reminiscent of a dinosaur cover the lake sturgeon’s body entirely. The scutes are especially noticeable on juveniles but become less so as the fish ages.
Lake sturgeon have shark-like bodies. While sharks have skeletons made completely of cartilage, lake sturgeon do have some bones. Their skeletons are still largely cartilaginous, though.
Lake sturgeon are bottom feeders with a suctorial mouth to vacuum up prey. The fish locates its prey by using its four barbels. These sensory organs on the end of its snout help the fish locate crayfish, snails, clams, leeches, and other prey along the river or lake bottom.
Juvenile lake sturgeon sport a light brown color with black mottling. Adults are more olive-brown or gray with a white underside.
These fish can live a lonng time. Male lake sturgeons have an average lifespan of 55 years, while females can live 150 years or even longer.
Lake sturgeon grow very slowly. However, with such a long lifespan, they can grow to a prodigious size, as seen in Maka’s record-setting 193-pound catch. Lake sturgeon are the largest fish in Michigan, and it’s not even close.
There is a tie for the second-largest fish ever caught in Michigan. A common carp caught in Wolf Lake in 1974 and a lake trout caught in Lake Superior in 1997 both weighed 61.5 pounds. Maka’s lake sturgeon was larger than both of these fish combined, and outweighed them individually by 131.5 pounds!
While this 193-pound lake sturgeon is still the largest fish ever caught in Michigan, some state they observed lake sturgeon as big as 300 pounds in the Great Lakes Basin. If a new Michigan record is ever set for the largest fish of the state, it will certainly be another lake sturgeon. No other Michigan fish comes close to its colossal proportions. Lake sturgeon are not only the largest fish in Michigan, but they are also the largest native freshwater fish in the whole of North America.
A Threatened Species
Historically, lake sturgeons were a valuable food source for indigenous peoples. When European settlers arrived, they reported lake sturgeons so large and numerous that the fish could nearly capsize a fishing boat.
The first commercial fishermen on the Great Lakes disdained this fish. A single large lake sturgeon could destroy a fishing net, meaning they could not fish for lucrative species such as lake whitefish and lake trout. Fishermen cosidered lake sturgeon as nuisance fish, so they caught and destroyed them in huge numbers.
The threat to the fish became even greater when people discovered that not only was the lake sturgeon not a garbage fish, but it actually had many uses. The oil from these fish could be used as fuel for steamships. It was not uncommon to see thousands of lake sturgeon carcasses stacked like cords of firewood aboard these ships.
It was also discovered that the fish’s swimbladder could be used in the making of wine and beer. And its roe could be shipped to Europe, falsely labeled as Russian caviar, and sold for a massive profit.
Overfishing brought the lake sturgeon population crashing downward. In 1880, more than four million pounds of lake sturgeon were processed in Michigan, taken from Lake Huron and Lake St. Clair. By 1928, the total sturgeon harvest from all five of the Great Lakes fell to less than 2,000 pounds. In less than 50 years’ time, this lead to the decimation of this ancient fish population.
Habitat Destruction and Invasive Species
In addition to overfishing, dam construction blocked native spawning grounds for lake sturgeon. Lake sturgeon can travel upwards of 250 miles to reach their preferred spawning location. Logging, farming, and industrial pollution destroyed other spawning habitats.
The introduction of invasive species has also had a destructive impact on lake sturgeon. For example, anglers introduced the rusty crayfish into the Great Lakes to use them as bait. These invasive crayfish are now major predators of lake sturgeon eggs.
The cumulative effect of all these factors has been devastating for the lake sturgeon of Michigan. The fish population in the state has dropped an estimated 99% from itshistoricalc levels.
Today, the lake sturgeon is classified as a threatened species in Michigan. Almost every state with native lake sturgeon has listed the fish as either vulnerable or endangered. Ontario and other Canadian provinces have also enacted measures to protect the species, as well as reintroduction efforts.
Michigan has instituted strict regulations to preserve the species. Commercial lake sturgeon fishing has been banned, and sport fishing is highly regulated. A limited number of sportfishing licenses are issued each year. Michigan anglers who harvest a lake sturgeon must register the fish within 24 hours. Anglers can harvest one lake sturgeon per year.
Researchers are tracking lake sturgeon to identify the location of the fish’s remaining spawning grounds. Restoration efforts are underway to protect those habitats and to create new spawning areas.
State hatcheries release thousands of lake sturgeon each year in an attempt to restock Michigan’s waters.
Conservationists and anglers applaud these measures. They are critical to ensure this giant fish which has been around since the Pleistocene epoc,h will also be around in the years to come.
Where Is Mullet Lake, Michigan, on a Map?
Mullet Lake is located in Cheboygan County on the northern tip of mainland Michigan. It is accessible by Interstate Highway 75 and state Route 27, which leads to the city of Cheboygan on the Lake Huron side of Michigan.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Paul Massie Photography
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