TOPEKA, Kan. — A local angler who hooked a rare “one in a million” fish while on the Kansas River shared his experience with sister station KSNT.

Kevin Zirjacks wasn’t looking to catch anything particularly special when he started casting lines into the Kansas River in late November.

As luck would have it, he hooked a fish so rare in Kansas that only 15 have reportedly been caught in the last 25 years, according to the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

Zirjacks was out with his spinning rod and reel combo using nightcrawlers for bait in an area about half a mile upstream on the Kansas River from where it meets the Missouri River when he felt something hit his bait.

Thinking that he’d hooked a carp or buffalo fish, he began reeling in. It wasn’t until he saw what was on his line jump out of the water that he knew he had something else.

“What really let me know that it was something different was that it jumped all the way out of the water,” Zirjacks said. “It really made the fight more exciting after that, more nerve-wracking getting it into the net.”

Zirjacks had just landed his first lake sturgeon, a fish that is considered to be rare and endangered in neighboring Missouri and even harder to find in Kansas waters. To say that the catch was a surprise for Zirjacks wouldn’t be an understatement.

“I usually go out fishing for carp and buffalo,” Zirjacks said. “Catching that sturgeon was not even on my radar at all.”

A few quick pictures and a short video later, Zirjacks released the sturgeon back into the river. He told KSNT that while he didn’t weigh it, he estimates that it measured up to be around 44-45 inches in length. He would later post these to his social media, gaining attention from Kansas biologists eager to document the rare catch.

Jeffrey Seim, a wildlife biologist with the KDWP, reached out to confirm the catch and the presence of the rare species in Kansas. He told 27 News that the fish are not often found in Kansas for many reasons, even though they are natives of the state.

“Historically, they are a large river species, occupying Mississippi and Missouri Rivers,” Seim said. “Prior to damming and dredging, they were fairly common. But dams block their upstream movement while dredging has damaged their habitat.”

Sturgeons require at least 15 years to sexually mature, according to Seim. This leads to problems for the species as their reproduction cycle can be disrupted by human efforts.

Those that are found in the Kansas and Missouri rivers could be part of an older population that precedes the creation of the Gavins Point Dam on the Missouri River in 1957 as some members of the lake sturgeon species can live beyond 100 years in age.

Lake sturgeon have a unique appearance to them with National Geographic likening them to an “armored torpedo.”

“It was crazy, just the look of it is way different from other fish you catch,” Zirjacks said. “I knew once I landed it there are a couple of different types of sturgeon. I knew it was one of the rare sturgeon that was out there. Just with the shape, it kinda reminds you of that… a dinosaur.”

No state fishing record exists for lake sturgeon in Kansas due to their status as an endangered species. This is to discourage active efforts on the part of anglers to catch lake sturgeon, according to Seim.

While lake sturgeon are very rare in Kansas, there are two other species that are found with greater frequency: pallid and shovelnose sturgeon. It was one of these varieties that Seim thought Zirjacks had caught initially.

“I thought ‘oh it’s probably a shovelnose,'” Seim said. “There’s always a chance of catching a pallid sturgeon. It was kinda cool to see the third and probably most rare species pop up.”

This was the first time in Seim’s five years with the KDWP that he had seen a lake sturgeon caught in Kansas.

When asked what the odds of catching one were in the Sunflower State, he said it was “tempting to say one in a million.” Out of the 23,000 fish that the KDWP has caught and surveyed in the last four years none have been lake sturgeons.

If you see or catch a rare species in Kansas, you can reach out to the KDWP at rare.species@ks.gov.

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