Our River After Hours

By Wayne Groesbeck


Arnold Baker and others have given informative accounts of the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly’s juvenile sturgeon sequestration and traditional release; this is a somewhat more personal description of my attempt at sturgeon wrangling. The river, so familiar to us in broad daylight, becomes in pitch darkness a phantasmagoric realm from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. On September 9th, 2017, I had the singular privilege of accompanying a river guide and three wildlife professionals on an excursion to capture and isolate young of the year lake sturgeon prior to the Muskegon’s periodic lampricide treatment.

We intrepid civilians met at the Maple Island Boat Launch at 7 PM, and were soon joined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (The Feds) with our search craft of the evening on a trailer. This 24-foot flat-bottomed alloy workboat mounted a 90 horsepower “water pump” outboard, allowing it to operate in inches of water without the limitation of a propeller. Not having participated in such a venture before, I came equipped with my kayak life vest complete with emergency whistle (useless), hip boots (worse than useless), a pair of gloves and a thermos of human antifreeze (which I forgot and left in my vehicle), and three layers of clothing (highly inadequate). The group then spent the next hour and a half searching for a launch site with enough water depth to float our craft; the river made its own demands in the form of unusually low water conditions. Muttered comments about government operations running like well-oiled machines were heard.

Finally afloat and motoring upstream, the professionals began opening the storage compartments on our craft and distributing a seemingly endless supply of truck batteries and hand-held spotlights. We became enveloped in disorienting blackness that could only be exceeded in a cave. A couple of the spotlights were necessary to locate the riverbanks, where the roots of fallen trees rose up in menacing tangles. A near-full moon silhouetted overhanging branches that blended with the shapes of the dead roots for a tunnel effect alien to our welcoming river in daylight.

Young sturgeon can often be captured in fairly shallow water at night, so we maneuvered to stay in the shallows with searchlights scanning the bottom. What did we see? I must pause here to apologize to my fly-fishing friends who have been telling me for years that some insects hatch and reproduce in frigid temperatures, something I was certain no self-respecting bug would do. Some insects were actually doing this, our on board-fishing guide even speculating on what species we were observing. Tiny (little brown?) bats shot out of streamside trees to feast on them.

Our floating island of illumination soon revealed some river residents. Muskrats kept pace with us. Early-running Chinook salmon took off with a powerful flash and flurry, while sleek bewhiskered channel catfish nonchalantly moved aside. All three of our sucker species were evident: white suckers, pale and placid; hognose suckers, mottled and blunt-headed; and redhorse suckers, smooth and plump. The Muskegon is believed to be a refuge for the River Redhorse, considered threatened in its overall range. Painted turtles swam under our boat like wobbly Frisbees, but nowhere was there a trace of sturgeon. Becoming colder and stiffer, I pointed out the similarities between sturgeon capturing and the Boy Scout technique of snipe hunting. Then, after hours of fruitless scanning, someone yelled, “There’s one!” Our craft was maneuvered into position, and Marty Holtgren deftly scooped up our precious quarry with a long-handled net. An extensive photo opportunity followed. The rest of the story can be seen and read at www.mrwa.org or MRWA’s Facebook page, but this is my account of Our River After Hours, with thanks to all our partners for a once in a lifetime opportunity.