If you catch a sturgeon, let it go. LARRY WOODY

If you’re fishing in the Cumberland River and catch a giant, armor-plated prehistoric monster with a long bony snout, put it back.

You’ve caught one of the 250,000 lake sturgeon stocked in the Cumberland, French Broad and Holston rivers in the past 20 years.

They seem to be thriving – an 80-pounder was caught in Old Hickory Lake last spring – but at present, they remain a protected species.

Since 2006 when the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency began compiling reports of sturgeon catches, 481 were tallied. There’s no way to know how many more were caught and went unreported.

It is illegal to keep a sturgeon. If you catch one, you can snap a photo, then release it quickly. How quickly? You try holding your breath while the sturgeon holds its breath.

Signs are posted at most boat ramps, showing an image of a sturgeon and reminding fishermen not to keep or injure one.

The TWRA asks anglers to report any sturgeon catch to its fisheries division, providing information about when and where the fish was caught, and its approximate length and estimated weight.

An angler who submits a sturgeon report will receive a certificate of appreciation from the TWRA.

Detailed information about the sturgeon program and how to report a catch is available in the Tennessee Fishing Guide.

Fossilized remains of sturgeon date back to prehistoric periods. Sturgeon are known to live as long as 150 years and can weigh more than 300 pounds.

Sturgeon are indigenous to Tennessee, at one time thriving in pristine streams across the state. But their numbers began to decline with settlement. They fell victim to over-fishing – sturgeon eggs made into caviar are valuable – and water pollution.

Sturgeon vanished from the state by the early 1900s. They continue to thrive in some other states, primarily in waters of the northwest.

In 2000, the TWRA launched a sturgeon-restoration program. Since then, 250 million hatchery-raised sturgeon were released, and the agency monitors their survival and growth rates. Based on the number of reported catches, the stocked fish are adapting well.

The TWRA’s goal is to establish a sustainable sturgeon population that will permit their harvesting, just as it did with its elk restoration program.

Elk, like sturgeon, are indigenous to Tennessee, but vanished in the mid-1800s. Thanks to the TWRA’s restoration program, elk are currently abundant enough to permit limited hunting each fall.

Such restoration programs are not only nostalgic – reviving a long-lost species – they have huge economic and recreational potential. In states where sturgeon thrive, the large, hard fighters are a favorite of sports fishermen. Eventually they may become likewise for Tennessee anglers.

Meanwhile, if you catch a sturgeon, put it back and settle for a photo, a certificate and a memory.

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