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Know What you Caught

As a pointy-headed fisheries biologist, I spend lots of time trying to help folks figure out what species of fish they may have caught.  I hate it when they give me a verbal description as that can be almost impossible to communicate and figure out.  Usually, with a picture, I can help, but even then the exact identification cannot always be made with just a picture.  Anyway, it is important that anglers have at least some basic fish identification skills because rules and regulations dictate they know what they are catching.  I also believe the more you know about the resource, the more you know about the fish swimming in the waters you fish, the more appreciation and respect you will have for those resources.

Let me tell a story to illustrate my point.  Last fall I had a couple of anglers bring in a fish that they believed would be a new hook & line state record shovelnose sturgeon.  I got a call from the front desk that these guys had arrived with their fish.  I always get excited when a big fish gets brought in for me to see, especially if it could be a state record fish, so I hurried downstairs to see what they had.  The fish was frozen, inside a plastic garbage bag, and as soon as I opened it my heart sank.  Instead of a potential new, state-record shovelnose sturgeon, I took one look and suspected that it was a pallid sturgeon.  Pallid sturgeon are listed by both the state of Nebraska and federally as endangered species.  Possession of a pallid sturgeon is strictly forbidden and all pallid sturgeon caught by anglers must be released immediately.

We took the fish inside our office to take a closer look at it, and several other biologists confirmed that it was in fact a pallid sturgeon.  Now, the two fellows that brought the fish in made an honest mistake; you should have seen the looks on their faces when I told them that instead of a new state record they were in possession of an endangered species.  I know that these guys thought they had made the right identification; in fact they had called-in a day or two before to ask assistance in identifying the fish.  Now you know why I hate trying to identify fish based only on verbal descriptions.  A person has to assume some competency in fish identification when they hit the water or else it could get them in trouble.

I have not mentioned this story until now, because I did not want to “pile on” the two anglers any more than what they already have experienced (yes, they got a visit from a conservation officer).  But, we are rolling around to that time of year right now when the sturgeon will be biting (they already are), and if you might catch one of those fish, if you have any thought of keeping them, then you better be darn sure that you know how to identify the sturgeon caught in our waters.


Let me show some pictures of the actual fish.. . .

Now, I will always tell you that color is only one characteristic to look at when identifying fish, and it can be one of the most misleading characteristics to look at.  But, there is a reason they are called “pallid” sturgeon; “pallid” means faintly-colored or pale.
When identifying sturgeon, especially shovelnose and pallid sturgeon, feel the belly!  The belly of the pallid sturgeon will feel smooth as it does not have any of the plates or “scales” that the shovelnose sturgeon has.
And of course notice the barbels underneath the snout.
Barbels on both the shovelnose and pallid sturgeon are fringed (lake sturgeon barbels are not fringed).  The difference in the barbels between the pallid and shovelnose sturgeon is in the length of the barbels and in their position.

 On the shovelnose the 4 barbels will all be about the same length and in a straight row across the underside of the snout, in front of the mouth.  The outer two barbels of the pallid sturgeon will be longer than the inner two barbels and the inner two barbels will be slightly forward of the outer two.

To the left is an excellent photograph that compares the shovelnose and pallid sturgeon barbels, side-by-side:

The pallid sturgeon in the photo above is on the right and that particular pallid sturgeon also has a couple of elastomer, plastic implant “tags” or marks.

Speaking of tags or marks, there is a postscript to the story about that pallid sturgeon those anglers brought to the office last fall.  Yes, it was a pallid sturgeon and they were illegally in possession of an endangered species, but I can tell you that the particular fish they had caught was one that had been produced in a fish hatchery and stocked into the Missouri River as part of pallid sturgeon recovery efforts.  That sturgeon had a tag implanted in its snout.  The tag was too small to be seen with the naked eye, but by using a wand, a wand similar to a metal-detecting wand, the tag could be detected.  Not only could the tag be detected with the wand; it also read an unique code from that tag.  Within minutes of the wand arriving along with river biologists who work with pallid sturgeon in Nebraska’s Missouri River, we knew the tag number of that particular pallid sturgeon and also knew that it was a fish that had been produced at the Garrison National Fish hatchery in North Dakota in 2003 and had been stocked in 2004 in the Missouri River near Leavenworth, Kansas.

Again, I am not telling you about this incident to embarrass or chastise the guys who caught, and kept, an endangered species.  They made an honest mistake.  But I am telling you about it now in hopes that someone reading this will NOT make the same mistake.  KNOW WHAT YOU CAUGHT!

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