ALTON — Patrick McRae and Jake Mitchell were in for a surprise when they went fishing in the Mississippi River on Sept. 1.
The two were fishing below the Mel Price Locks and Dam in preparation for the inaugural Alton Catfish Classic on Sept. 14 when McRae caught what he considered to be an odd looking sturgeon.
"I thought to myself, 'Wow — this is not something you see everyday,'" McRae said.
He was right.
After returning home McRae learned he had caught a rare pallid sturgeon, on the Endangered Species list since 1990. The bottom dwelling, slow-growing fish feed primarily on small fish and immature aquatic insects. The ancient species is believed to have existed since the days of the dinosaurs.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the species of sturgeon is seldom seen and is "one of the least understood fish" in the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
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According to federal officials, the pallid sturgeon experienced a dramatic decline since the mid- to late 1960s as nearly all of its habitat has been changed through river channelization and the construction of impoundments which has changed water flow, destroying spawning areas and the fish's ability to obtain food.
The surviving pallid sturgeon live in the Mississippi River downriver from its confluence with the Missouri River, as well as in parts of the Ohio River. They have been found in Illinois, Missouri and 11 other states. Recovery efforts for the species have included habitat improvement and artificial propagation.
McRae posted a photo of his pallid sturgeon on Facebook on Sept. 3. Since then, the post has received hundreds of likes — and given McRae an opportunity to promote the upcoming Alton Catfish Classic, which had 82 teams entered as of Thursday.
"Lots of people come to our water to catch world class fish," McRae said.
Tournament anglers on Sept. 14 will start entering the river at 4 a.m. for a 6 a.m. tournament launch. Teams of up to three people in a boat must return to their ramps by 2:30 p.m., with a drive-through weigh-in at the amphitheater before awards around 4:30 p.m.
To register a team, visit http://altoncatfishclassic.com/html/registration.html or Bluff City Outdoors, 2813 E. Broadway Ave., Alton. For more details, call 618-465-6175.