Troy Gustafson and his uncle Marty Gustafson had never caught a shovelnose sturgeon before in their lives, let alone from the Rock River.
But, once genetic testing is complete, Troy will have a state record (9 pounds, 14.1 ounces) caught on Nov. 16. It was bested by Marty with a 10-8.2, caught while fishing with Troy, on Dec. 12.
In late fall, Troy and Steve Pohlmeier, editors of the “Team Catfishing Adventures” Facebook page, were catfishing on the Rock.
“So when we went out and were scanning for wintering fish, channel catfish especially,” Troy said. “Saw some fish grouped on the bottom and thought they were flatheads and set up on them with cutbait with no luck. But we foul hooked a couple sturgeon by the tail.”
That led to research on the shovelnoses and Troy contacted Carbon Cliff Bait & Tackle to ask what to do if they caught a state record.
“Bring it down here and weigh it,” they told him.
Next they figured how to fish for sturgeon with “dew worms” (night crawlers). They caught several shovelnose and the second was a 38-inch female, Troy’s record, on Nov. 16.
“I texted Jeremiah and he got all excited,” Troy said.
Jeremiah Haas is the principal aquatic biologist for Exelon’s Quad Cities Generating Station, where Troy works the night shift.
They reached fisheries biologist David Wyffels.
Troy built a livewell in his shallow johnboat, “kinda hillbilly.”
“I had my Wi-Fi camera on [the livewell] when I had to go to work,” Troy said. “Came home at lunch and filled the tank back. They came in the morning weighed and released it.”
Rob Colombo, a fish ecology professor at Eastern Illinois, said shovelnoses are throughout Illinois’ large rivers. The Wabash had commercial fishing to get hackleback caviar.
That has led to thought on putting restrictions on the Rock population.
Illinois also has the federally endangered pallid sturgeon, in the Mississippi, and the state endangered lake sturgeon. Shovelnoses are state protected where they overlap with pallid sturgeon.
There’s 27 sturgeon worldwide; shovelnose are the smallest.
“Ten, 12, 15 pounds is a really big one,” Colombo said.
Pallid sturgeon can reach 50 pounds, lake sturgeon hundreds of pounds.
Shovelnoses look different with a flat nose that evolved to be on the bottom of swiftly flowing water.
“They are opportunistic omnivores, Whatever they can catch and fit their mouth they will eat: small crustaceans, fish, mostly macroinvertebrates,” Colombo said.
Friday mornings, after work, Troy often fishes with his uncle. On Dec. 12, they hit it.
“It was like they started biting in a flurry, three on that time,” Marty said. “It was almost like times you catch white bass. That is how I ended up with that one, because he was busy. Luckily he was preoccupied and I got the really big one.”
“Three fish in the boat and tangled up in lines,” Troy said.
Now the wait for the genetic testing, which may explain the unusual tails on the Rock shovelnoses.
“Still to be determined if that is genetic or if it’s just something that happens when they get that big, but my gut says it’s a local characteristic,” Haas texted. “I’ve handled a lot of sturgeon on the Mississippi River and it never stood out, but I’ve never really directly looked either, that’ll change this May/June. It is so prominent, even on the small ones on the Rock River. . . . We’ve been doing a lot of theorizing on this population for years, and are looking forward to some hard data.”
“Pull something like that out, it is an experience you don’t get to have every day,” Marty said.