Do you, before the eyes of God, take this sturgeon to be your fishwife?

With the warm weather in Wisconsin, the part of the state I live in undergoes an annual ritual that I can honestly say I hadn’t seen before I moved here. There is a type of fish called a sturgeon that travels to Shawano in the springtime for spawning purposes, and it brings people from all over.

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A boy gets as close to the water as he can to see the sturgeon, a fish of wide importance in Wisconsin and cultural significance to the Menominee tribe.

We’re not talking tiny fish, either. The sturgeon are big enough to lie across the dinner table and have their tail fins hanging over the edge. In fact, state nature officials located a doozy the other day, weighing about 240 pounds with a height of 7 feet, 3 inches.

Kind of reminds me of some of the strange kids when I went to high school.

The sturgeon was also estimated to be about 125 years old.

I think that was the approximate age of one or two of my teachers when I was in high school.

Sorry. Let me get back on track here. Anyhow, the sturgeon have a historical and cultural significance that is really quite interesting. However, I wonder if the ancient people who lived in this area realized that one day their descendants would gather to witness what I can only describe as fish porn.

The main reason the sturgeon are here long enough for local voyeurs to come down to the Shawano park named after it is because the nearby dam, built almost a century ago, prevents the fish from returning to the Menominee reservation, where they are seen as a cultural icon.

Here’s an excerpt from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the local sturgeon.

“The lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) is a species of cultural significance to people of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin. Lake sturgeon in the Wolf River-Lake Winnebago System historically migrated upstream to spawn at Keshena Falls, within the current boundaries of the Menominee Reservation. The Menominee gathered at Keshena Falls each spring and harvested lake sturgeon, held a ceremonial feast, and danced the fish dance in honor of the lake sturgeon. The construction of the Shawano dam in 1892 and the Balsam Row dam in 1926 downstream from the reservation contributed to extirpation of this species on the reservation in the 1950s. Despite the absence of lake sturgeon, Menominee elders have continued to practice the fish dance.”

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An up close look at the sturgeon in Shawano.

There are efforts between the tribe and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to repopulate the upper Wolf River region with sturgeon, and I’ve had the opportunity to see the first stages in action. Like the annual sturgeon spawning, the relocation of some sturgeon north of Shawano dam has attracted a lot of locals who are eager to see a key piece of their history returned.

When I first covered the story last year, I talked with an elderly Menominee woman, Nell-Lee Hawpetoss-Tiedemann, who is of the Fish Clan, and here’s how she described the sturgeons’ return to her homeland:

“It would be like if you had a heart-to-heart talk with your mother. We’re having a heart-to-heart talk with our ancestors, our grandchildren, our brothers and sisters.”

Even off the reservation, watching the sturgeon is all the rage. An underwater camera was even installed in Shawano along the Wolf River so that, even if you weren’t able to get to the park to watch the show in person, you could still see it live. I wonder if the DNR would accept a suggestion to stream classic porno music while folks are watching.

All kidding aside, seeing the sturgeon and how they stir folks around here was definitely an experience to behold. Witnessing the spectacle for the second time, it’s a reminder to me of that saying — different strokes for different folks.

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