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Published on: Apr. 20, 2011

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Sturgeon

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It has always been a pet peeve of mine that some fish species are awarded the title of “sport fish,” while others are cast aside by the media and angling public as “non-sport” or “rough fish.” Just this past spring, I was up a local river, wetting a line, when some commotion broke out in a nearby boat. One of the anglers had hooked into a heavy fish that apparently had no intention of coming to the surface. After 4 or 5 minutes of watching them follow this fish around with the trolling motor and listening to the angler repeatedly chant “Don’t get off! Don’t get off!” the fish finally ran out of steam and was netted by the angler’s companion. After all that excitement, the first comment out of the anglers’ mouth was “It’s just one of those drum! All that for nothin’ but a stinkin’ rough fish.” At that point, the poor 10-pound drum was unceremoniously dumped overboard.

Let’s think about this for a minute. The drum slammed into the angler’s lure and put up one heck of a fight, giving the angler several minutes of excitement. A 10-pound fish is nothing to sneeze at, regardless of species, and drum are not bad eating. In my book, that’s a sport fish.

Can’t Beat a Drum

Our drum is the only North American freshwater member of a large family of fish (Sciaenidae), which contains approximately 270 species worldwide. Members of this family, most of which are found in salt or brackish water, include several well-known sport fish such as whiting, sea trout and redfish (red drum). The name “drum” comes from the grunting or croaking sounds that some species make by vibrating muscles in the body wall adjacent to the swim bladder. This “drumming” is thought to be associated with spawning activities.

The native range of the freshwater drum in the United States extends from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, west to the Rocky Mountains and east to the Appalachians. In Missouri, drum are found in reservoirs and medium to large streams throughout the state. Most of the drum caught by anglers average 12 to 20 inches and weigh 1 to 5 pounds. However, the Missouri state record, taken from Lake of the Ozarks in 1980, weighed 40.5 pounds. The world record from Nickajack Lake, Tenn., tipped the scales at 54.5 pounds!

Drum generally hit bait hard and, once hooked, are determined fighters. Drum can be caught on a number of artificial and natural baits. Among artificial lures, most drum are caught on jigs, but they will also hit a crankbait. If you are specifically after drum, it is best to use natural bait. Night crawlers, crayfish, minnows, shad and cut bait are all effective for taking drum.

Regardless of the bait used, it should be fished on or very near the bottom around rocky areas. Fishing a jig vertically, slow trolling a bottom bouncer rig or drifting a bait over shallow rocky humps on light line and a split shot as a weight can all be successful. A word of warning: Drum have plates of powerful crushing teeth in their throats that enable them to feed on mussels by crushing the shells. If a drum swallows your hook, do not stick your fingers down its throat to get your hook back. It hurts. Believe me.

A number of anglers pride themselves on predicting, with a high degree of accuracy, the species of fish they have on the line before they ever see it, based on the way it fights. Because a big walleye and a drum feel very similar on the end of a line, many alleged “lunker walleye” miraculously transform into drum as soon as they break the surface of the water.

As for table fare, drum can be fried, smoked or cooked on the grill. They also make a tasty substitute for redfish in Cajun or “blackened fish” recipes (see recipe below).

Anyone who fishes in one of our reservoirs or medium sized streams is likely to land a drum sooner or later. But there are some species of fish that you may never encounter unless you venture onto our largest rivers. Good examples of this are the sturgeons.

Sensational Sturgeon

In terms of appearance, sturgeon are among the most unusual-looking fish in the state. Along with the gar and paddlefish, sturgeon are an ancient family of fish (Acipenseridae) that have been around since the days of the dinosaurs. The backs and sides of sturgeon are covered with a series of large, bony plates that have earned them the nickname “hackleback” or “shellback.” Their shovel- or conical-shaped head, streamlined shape and large pectoral and pelvic fins allow them to move easily and hold their position in the swift water of our larger rivers. The sucker-like mouth is located on the underside of the head. Functioning like a vacuum cleaner, this unique mouth design allows sturgeon to feed by inhaling food items off from the bottom while keeping their bodies parallel to the current.

Worldwide, there are approximately 24 species of sturgeon. Among these are some of the truly gigantic freshwater fish. The white sturgeon, found in Pacific coastal rivers, can approach 20 feet in length and weigh in excess of 1,500 pounds. In Missouri, we have three species of sturgeon. Two of the three species, the lake sturgeon and the pallid sturgeon, are endangered. Fortunately, their numbers are increasing due to hatchery rearing and stocking efforts. The remaining Missouri sturgeon species, the shovelnose, is by far the most common and smallest of the three, seldom reaching 4 pounds. The populations of all three species of sturgeon in Missouri are at varying levels of risk due to overharvest, habitat loss and contaminants. Sturgeon are slow-growing, long-lived fish that can attain ages of 100 years or more. Like many species of fish that live for decades, they reach sexual maturity later in life and, once there, may not spawn but every three to five years. This type of reproductive strategy makes sturgeon populations extremely vulnerable to overharvest. Although shovelnose sturgeon are fairly common, their numbers have been declining. They recently gained protection from commercial harvest throughout the Missouri River and the lower portion of the Mississippi River, in part because they are very similar in appearance to small individuals of the federally protected pallid sturgeon. Although strong populations of lake sturgeon exist in other states, the Missouri population has declined over the past century due to high commercial harvest in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

To catch a sturgeon, you have to go where the sturgeon are. In Missouri, this means fishing in either the Missouri or Mississippi rivers. From late fall through the winter, and into early spring, sturgeon are frequently found in the deep scour holes associated with the numerous rock dikes, either in or near fast flowing water. As the water warms in the spring and into the summer months, sturgeon can be found in association with sand bars, especially those with water flowing over them. Sand flats, tributary mouths, and tail waters are also likely places to look. As for bait, it’s hard to beat the common night crawler, but cut shad, crayfish and shrimp also work well. In order to get your bait down to the sturgeon and keep it there in swift water, you may need to use up to 3 ounces of weight to hold your rig in place. Your hooks should not be too large. A 2/0 to 6/0 circle hook is sufficient. Leave a couple feet of leader between your hook and slip sinker so that the sturgeon can pick up your bait without feeling the weight. Twelve-pound-test monofilament is sufficient if you are after shovelnose sturgeon, which essentially fight no harder than a stick of the same size. If you hook a large lake sturgeon, and expect to land it, you might want to go with heavier line. Sturgeon are not known for ferocious strikes. Often, the only indication you will have that a fish is on the hook will be a gentle pumping action at your rod’s tip.

Although it is legal for recreational anglers to pursue and catch sturgeon in Missouri, only the shovelnose sturgeon may be legally harvested. Any lake or pallid sturgeon caught must be released unharmed immediately after being caught. Keep in mind that shovelnose and pallid sturgeon are very similar in appearance, so unless you are absolutely positive you have a shovelnose, it is best to snap a few photographs for evidence and release any sturgeon you catch. To ensure that these fish survive, it is important to follow good handling practices (see sidebar “8 Tips for Handling and Releasing Fish”). Although shovelnose sturgeon are good to eat, their fillets have historically tested high for contaminants including PCBs, chlordane and mercury. The current (2010) recommendation from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services suggests eating no more than one serving per month, none for children and none for women who are, or may become, pregnant.

If you do catch a sturgeon, be sure to check for the presence of a tag positioned near the dorsal fin on the fish’s back. Biologists from MDC have been conducting research how to identify sturgeon: cliff white and monitoring our sturgeon populations for the past 15 years, tagging individuals of all three species. Should you catch a tagged sturgeon, record the species, length from the tip of the nose to the fork of the tail, weight, location and date caught and tag number. Please relay this information to us, toll free, at 866-762-3338. This information will greatly assist with the management and restoration of our Missouri sturgeon populations.


8 Tips for Handling and Releasing Fish

To find more information on handling and releasing fish, visit www.mdc.mo.gov/node/4971.

  1. Fish that you don’t intend to keep or fish that are smaller than the legal length should be released immediately and gently.
  2. Avoid handling fish excessively. The mucous covering the fish’s body should be protected because it prevents infection.
  3. Hold fish firmly. A fish dropped on the ground or in a boat has a poor chance for recovery.
  4. Grasp large-mouthed fishes by the lower jaw with thumb and forefinger; smaller fishes with your hand around the mid-section, wetting hands first. Fish with teeth may be handled by grasping them across the gill covers. Hold larger fish horizontally, supporting the belly, to avoid damage to muscles, vertebrae or internal organs.
  5. Never put your fingers in the gills or eye sockets.
  6. Every angler should carry a hook remover or needle-nose pliers. Back the hooks out if possible.
  7. Never pull a hook from the fish’s throat or stomach. It is better to cut the line. Many hooks will rust away.
  8. Use hooks with barbs squeezed shut if you intend to release all fish or if you like additional challenge.

Blackened drum Recipe

  • serves 4 – 6
  • 6 drum fillets, 1/2” thick
  • Olive oil
  • Cajun seasoning (or see mix recipe)
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • Black pepper (optional)
  • Lemon (optional)

Cajun seasoning mix

  • 1 tablespoon sweet paprika
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano leaves

Mix seasoning ingredients in a shaker jar.

Place one or two fillets at a time on a shallow dish or plate and lightly rub with olive oil. Dust with Cajun seasoning (either a commercial seasoning or the mix to the right).

In a large cast iron or heavy skillet over medium heat, heat 2 to 3 tablespoons of butter and some olive oil. Place the fillets, seasoned side down, in the hot skillet. Dust the top with additional seasoning so that both sides are coated. Sprinkle on black pepper if desired. Cook until bottom of fillet is blackened, then turn. Continue cooking until the meat flakes. Add more butter or oil if needed while cooking. Serve with melted butter for dipping or fresh lemons.—by Martha Daniels


How to Identify Sturgeon

There are three species of sturgeon in Missouri. The pallid and lake sturgeon are endangered and need to be protected. Use this information to learn the key differences so you can always return pallid and lake sturgeon unharmed to the water immediately. To learn more about sturgeon, visit www.mdc.mo.gov/node/9341.

Endangered Lake Sturgeon
Lake sturgeon have the shortest, roundest snout of the three species. The barbels near their mouth are smooth, rather than fringed or serrated.

Endangered Pallid Sturgeon
The belly of a pallid sturgeon is smooth and scaleless. Theirs is the longest snout of the three species, and a line across the barbels would be curved.

Shovelnose Sturgeon
The bases of a shovelnose’s barbels are in a straight line. The belly of a shovelnose is covered with thin, scale-like plates.

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