Sturgeon Lake

Basic Info
Map Sheets83N/3, 4
Lat / Long55.1000000, -117.5333333
55°6'N, 117°31'W
Area49.1 km2
Max depth9.5 m
Mean depth5.4 m
Dr. Basin Area571 km2
Dam, WeirWeir
Drainage BasinSmoky River Basin
Camp GroundPresent
Boat LaunchPresent
Sport FishWalleye, Yellow Perch, Arctic Grayling, Northern Pike, Lake Whitefish
Trophic StatusHyper-Eutrophic
TP xMain: 92
West: 103 µg/L
CHLORO xMain: 45.2
West: 38.8 µg/L
TDS xMain: 82 mg/L
Photo credit: unknown


Sturgeon Lake is a regionally important recreational lake situated in Improvement District No. 16. It is located 90 km east of the city of Grande Prairie and 15 km west of the town of Valleyview. Highway 34, which joins these two population centres, skirts the southern shore (FIGURE 1). The lake and the two provincial parks on its shores are destination points for about 50,000 local and regional visitors annually. This is a substantial number in an area with a population of just over 100,000 people. Sturgeon Lake has a reputation for good quality lake whitefish, and is popular for all types of boating and water sports. Development pressures and concerns about water quality have led to a series of intensive studies of the watershed and the effects of various land-use policies on the sediment and nutrient loads entering the lake.

It is unlikely that sturgeon have ever lived in Sturgeon Lake. Speculation on the origin of the name has given rise to two possibilities. One is that a family named Sturgeon once lived nearby; the other is that a visitor who paddled up the outlet creek named the lake for the sturgeon, which also travels upstream (Alta. Cult. Multicult. n.d.).

Indigenous peoples have lived in the area since prehistoric times. Beaver Indians inhabited the area prior to the Cree (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1987[b]). The fur trade brought the first Europeans to the Peace Country. Sir Alexander Mackenzie arrived in 1792, but the area was not settled for more than a century. In 1905, St. Francis Xavier Mission was established on the east side of the lake (Mallandaine 1980). The first steady influx of settlers into the area began in 1911, when the Edson Trail was opened; it ran from the present day town of Edson to Grande Prairie via Sturgeon Lake (Odynsky et al. 1956). Sturgeon Lake and Calais settlements, which are located on the southern shore, were surveyed in 1914, and a small settlement was established at Valleyview in the same year (S Peace Reg. Plan. Commis. and ID No. 16 1985). A graded dirt road from Grande Prairie to Calais was completed in 1929, and extended beyond Calais as far as the town of High Prairie in 1933. This road, known as Highway 34 until the new highway was built, still runs close to the south shore of Sturgeon Lake (FIGURE 1). The discovery of the Sturgeon Lake Oil Field in 1952 brought about the rapid development of Valleyview, and the completion of Highway 43 to Valleyview in 1962 greatly increased access to the Sturgeon Lake area.

The two provincial parks at the lake are Williamson and Young's Point (FIGURE 2). Day-use facilities at both parks are open year-round and camping facilities are open from 1 May to Thanksgiving Day. Williamson Provincial Park occupies 17.4 ha of land on the south shore. It was established in 1960 and named for Alexander Williamson, a former owner of the land. The park is surrounded on three sides by Sturgeon Lake Indian Reserve 154 and bisected by old Highway 34. Access to the park is available via the old highway or via a road built in 1971 from new Highway 34. Park facilities include 61 campsites, tap water, a sewage disposal facility, a concession, a boat launch and pier, picnic shelters, a change house, a playground and a swimming area. The 425-m-long shoreline has a 15-m-wide beach with good quality sand. The lake bottom is firm and slopes gently, so that 90 m offshore the water is only about 2 m deep (Alta. Rec. Parks n.d.). In addition to swimming, popular activities at the park are boating, fishing and picnicking.

Young's Point Provincial Park was named for Frederick Campbell Young, who homesteaded in the area in 1920. It is a large park, located on 1,089 ha of land on the north shore. It can be reached from Highway 34 by a 9-km-long local road at the west end of the lake (FIGURE 2). Park facilities include 57 campsites, a sewage disposal facility, a change house, 2 playgrounds, a boat launch, picnic areas, a beach and swimming area, walking trails and a viewpoint. Recreational activities enjoyed by park visitors include swimming, boating, fishing, picnicking, hiking, skating, snowmobiling, tobogganing and cross-country skiing.

Other recreational developments around the lake include the Sturgeon Lake Bible Camp, a commercial campground just north of Williamson Provincial Park in Indian Reserve 154, a commercial campground and marina on the southern shore of the west bay, a Girl Guide camp and a Navy League of Canada camp on Crown land on the eastern shore, and a commercial resort within Calais (S Peace Reg. Plan. Commis. and ID No. 16 1984). The island in Sturgeon Lake's west basin (FIGURE 2) was designated a natural area in 1987. Mature stands of trembling aspen and white spruce and stands of paper birch grow on the island, and the shoreline is surrounded by emergent vegetation (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1987[a]).

Sturgeon Lake is rich in nutrients and supports extensive blooms of blue-green algae during summer. In some winters, dissolved oxygen concentrations have become critical for fish; winterkills were recorded in 1976 and 1977. The sport fish in the lake are walleye, northern pike and yellow perch. There are no sport fishing regulations specific to Sturgeon Lake, but provincial limits and regulations apply. Goose Creek, the main inflow to Sturgeon Lake, is closed to sport fishing during April and May to protect spawning walleye (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1989). The lake also supports commercial and domestic fisheries, which mainly catch lake whitefish. Aquatic vegetation is abundant along most of the shoreline; it can hamper motor boats at the western end of the west bay, in the cove at Young's Point, and in scattered areas along the north and east shores of the main basin. There are no boating restrictions over most of the lake, but in posted areas such as designated swimming areas, all boats are prohibited, and in other posted areas, power boats are subject to a maximum speed of 12 km/hour (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1988).

Drainage Basin Characteristics

Sturgeon Lake has an extensive drainage basin (571 km2) that is about 12 times the size of the lake (Tables 1, 2). The major inflow is Goose Creek, which drains Goose, Long and Grassy lakes to the south and flows into the south side of Sturgeon Lake (FIGURE 1). Several small streams also flow into Sturgeon Lake. The outlet, Sturgeon Creek, is located on the eastern side. It drains into the Little Smoky River, which eventually flows into the Peace River.

Most of the Sturgeon Lake drainage basin is part of the Wapiti Plain physiographic division, which is a broad, generally flat lowland. The northern portion of the drainage basin is influenced by a second landform known as the Puskwaskau Hills (S Peace Reg. Plan. Commis. and ID No.16 1984). Except for steeper terrain north of the lake, most of the land is gently rolling (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1987[b]). Elevations range from 884 m above sea level at the northern tip of the drainage basin to 777 m at the southern tip and 678 m at Sturgeon Lake. The watershed is underlain by the nonmarine sandstone and shale bedrock of the Wapiti Formation. Underneath this formation lies a sequence of marine shales and sandstones known as the Smoky River Group.

The main soils in the drainage basin are imperfectly drained clay loam to clay textured Gleyed Gray Luvisols and moderately well-drained loam to clay loam textured Orthic and Solonetzic Gray Luvisols. The Gleyed Gray Luvisols have developed on lacustro-till and are found on the lower slopes of the till plain and in basins and valleys adjacent to stream courses. These soils support a forest cover of trembling aspen, balsam poplar, white spruce, willow, alder, birch and shrubs. The Orthic and Solonetzic Gray Luvisols have developed on glacial till, and are found on the upper and midslope positions of the landscape. These soils support a forest cover of trembling aspen, white spruce, lodgepole pine, birch and various shrubs (Odynsky et al. 1956). Over 20% of the surficial deposits in the watershed are Organics (Mallandaine 1980), which support a cover of Sphagnum moss, occasional sedges, Labrador tea, cranberry, and stands of black spruce, tamarack, birch and willow (Odynsky et al. 1956).

Most of the drainage basin is forested, but large areas near the west bay of the lake and along the eastern boundary of the watershed have been cleared for agricultural use, including the Valleyview Provincial Grazing Reserve (FIGURE 1). The crops are mainly cereal grains and oil seeds, and secondarily, forage crops such as hay (S Peace Reg. Plan. Commis. and ID No. 16 1984).

Since the early 1970s, Sturgeon Lake has been the subject of a number of land-use planning studies (Alta. En. Nat. Resour. 1971; 1983; Peace R. Reg. Plan. Commis. 1975[a]; 1975[b]; 1979; S Peace Reg. Plan. Commis. and ID No. 16 1984; 1985; Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1987[b]). In 1977, development around Sturgeon Lake was restricted when the provincial government passed the Lake Shoreland Development Operation Regulations, which were administered by Alberta Environment. These regulations required future lakeshore developments to conform to a lake management plan and an area structure plan. Lake management plans determine the extent of future land developments, allocate land use, and determine ways to minimize environmental impacts and conflicts in the use of the lakeshore. In 1979, the lake management plan was completed and adopted by Improvement District No. 16. It was updated in 1985 when the improvement district completed an area structure plan, which guides development around the lake. In 1987, the provincial government prepared the Sturgeon Lake-Puskwaskau East Sub-regional Integrated Resource Plan (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1987[b]). This document presents the government's resource management policy for public lands and resources within the area.

The main group of permanent residents living around Sturgeon Lake belong to the Sturgeon Lake Indian Band. Members, who are descended from Woodland Cree, numbered 895 in 1986 (Alta. For. Ld. Wild 1987[b]). The Sturgeon Lake Reserve covers 9,091 ha and comprises three areas: 154 and 154A on Sturgeon Lake, and 154B on Goose Lake (FIGURE 1). The portion of the band living near Sturgeon Lake, together with the Metis living in the Sturgeon Lake Settlement, made up 88% of the 600 permanent residents living around the lake in 1984 (S Peace Reg. Plan. Commis. and ID No. 16 1984). Local farmers, most of whom live around the west bay, and private landowners account for the remainder of the permanent residents. Residential developments on the lakeshore consist of three cottage subdivisions: Boyd Lakeshore Properties, on the western shore of the main basin; The Narrows, on the southern shore at the entrance to the west basin; and Sandy Bay, immediately west of Reserve 154A. In 1987, these subdivisions had a combined total of 164 approved and surveyed lots, on which 125 cottages and mobile homes had been built (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1987[b]).

Lake Basin Characteristics

Sturgeon Lake has a large surface area (TABLE 2). It is divided into a main basin, with a maximum depth of 9.5 m, and a long, narrow bay at the western end, which has a maximum depth of 3 m (FIGURE 2). Two control structures have been built on the lake's outlet. The first was a rock-filled log crib constructed by Ducks Unlimited (Canada) in 1949. The weir raised the lake's elevation by about 0.76 m, to approximately 677 m. Construction of a new weir began in 1968 and was completed in late 1969 (Taggart 1982). The crest elevation of the new concrete weir was 676.87 m, approximately 0.13 m lower than the original weir (Lowe and Taggart 1987). The new design incorporated a step-pool fish ladder with five steps and four resting areas, and a gate for riparian flow (Bishop 1971). The gate ensured an adequate supply of water to the town of Valleyview, which uses Sturgeon Creek as a water source.

The elevation of Sturgeon Lake has been monitored since 1966 (FIGURE 3). Over the period of record, the maximum range in lake levels was 1.58 m. Between 1966 and 1981, the average annual fluctuation was 0.43 m, which is a very narrow band (Taggart 1982). During the mid-1980s, Alberta Environment studied the feasibility of reducing the maximum range of elevations by modifying the control structure, but they concluded that the existing structure provided adequate protection from both the upper and lower extremes of lake level fluctuations (Taggart 1982; Lowe and Taggart 1987). Figure 4 illustrates changes in the lake's area and capacity with fluctuations in water level.

Water Quality

A researcher at the University of Alberta examined Sturgeon Lake's water quality during the summer of 1978 (Mallandaine 1980). During 1983 and since 1986, the lake has been monitored jointly by Alberta Environment and Alberta Recreation and Parks. As well, in 1984 and 1985, it was sampled by Alberta Environment as part of a two-year lake survey program (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]; Mitchell 1986).

The major ions and related water quality variables in the main and west basins are very similar: the alkalinity, concentration of total dissolved solids, and total hardness are low for a prairie lake and the main ions are calcium and bicarbonate (TABLE 3). The water is highly coloured and not very turbid (4 to 6 NTU).

Both basins are shallow and well-mixed during summer; thus, temperature profiles in 1984 were uniform from top to bottom (FIGURE 5). Despite the mixing, there was a gradual depletion of dissolved oxygen in deeper water over summer (FIGURE 6). During some winters, as in February 1985, the bottom water in the main basin becomes anoxic. Although there is usually sufficient oxygen in the upper layers of this basin to sustain fish, winterkills occurred in 1976 and 1977. In the west basin in February 1985, the concentration of dissolved oxygen was very low at all depths (FIGURE 6).

Sturgeon Lake is hyper-eutrophic, and is one of the most productive lakes in Alberta. The shallower west basin has a slightly higher average concentration of total phosphorus than the main basin (TABLE 4). Over a four-year period from 1983 to 1986, the average concentration of chlorophyll a was 34 mg/L in the west basin and 27 mg/L in the main basin. Chlorophyll a concentrations can vary considerably between years. In 1984 (TABLE 4), chlorophyll a levels were the highest of all years sampled. Variations between years may be caused by year-to-year differences in weather conditions, and the intervals between, and timing of, sample collections.

Over the ice-free period, phosphorus and chlorophyll a in Sturgeon Lake are generally lowest in May and June, increase dramatically during July and August, and then decline in September (FIGURE 7). Although this pattern is typical of many lakes in Alberta, it is more pronounced in Sturgeon Lake. The seasonal patterns in the two basins are similar, except that the chlorophyll a maximum usually occurs earlier in the west basin. This is probably because water in the west basin warms faster than in the main basin. In 1984, chlorophyll a levels throughout the lake were highest in August.

The supply of total phosphorus to Sturgeon Lake from various sources has been estimated. External sources such as runoff from the watershed, sewage inputs, atmospheric deposits and inflow from upstream lakes provide about 6,732 kg of total phosphorus to the lake each year (TABLE 5). The major source of phosphorus, however, is internal. Phosphorus release from the sediments is estimated to be 59,000 kg/year, which is 9 times the estimated load from external sources. Much of the internal loading occurs during July and August. This released phosphorus stimulates the growth of algae and results in intense algal blooms.

The effects of further agricultural development in the watershed on water quality in Sturgeon Lake were studied in 1985 (Stanley Assoc. Eng. Ltd. 1985). The study provided a data base for the Sturgeon Lake-Puskwaskau East Integrated Resource Plan. Nutrient loadings to the lake were estimated under four scenarios that included various amounts and types of agricultural development. It was not possible to predict the effect of land-use changes on water quality because internal loading of phosphorus may have an overriding effect.

Biological Characteristics


The phytoplankton community in Sturgeon Lake was sampled monthly by Alberta Environment during the ice-free period in 1984 and 1985 and in February and July of 1986 (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]). In 1984 (TABLE 6), the average biomass in both basins was similar: 9.11 mg/L in the main basin and 10.89 mg/L in the west basin. The highest biomass recorded in the main basin (35.69 mg/L), however, was higher than that recorded in the west basin (28.45 mg/L). In May 1984, the dominant group in both basins was diatoms (Bacillariophyta). The most important diatoms in the main basin during May were Stephanodiscus hantzschia, S. niagarae and Melosira italica subarctica. In the west bay, the diatom Asterionella formosa was dominant in early May and M. italica subarctica became dominant later in the month. By June, blue-greens (Cyanophyta) were the largest group. In both basins, the blue-greens Anabaena flos-aquae, Anabaena spiroides crassa and Aphanizomenon flos-aquae were important at various times throughout the summer and early fall. As well, in the west bay during August, a large part of the biomass was composed of Microcystis aeruginosa. By October, the diatom S. niagarae had regained its earlier importance in the main basin, and the golden-brown alga (Chrysophyta) Chrysochromulina breviturrita was codominant with the blue-green Aphanizomenon flos-aquae in the west basin.

There are no detailed data available for the aquatic macrophytes in Sturgeon Lake. A band of vegetation with an approximate width of 90 to 250 m completely circles the lake's shoreline. Emergent vegetation grows mainly along the eastern shore of the main basin, the channel into the western bay, and the area east of Williamson Provincial Park. Floating vegetation is most abundant along the western and northern shores of the west bay, and along the western shore of Young's Point. Submergent vegetation is ubiquitous and it is especially abundant in shallow areas and at the mouths of creeks (Peace R. Reg. Plan. Commis. 1975[a]).


Fish and Wildlife Division determined the relative abundance of zooplankton in the deepest part of Sturgeon Lake between June 1969 and April 1970 (Bishop 1971). The most abundant cladocerans were Chydoridae in October and Daphnia spp. throughout the sampling period. Unspecified cyclopoid copepods were present on all but one sampling date and were most abundant from October through April.

Benthic invertebrates were collected in 28 dredge samples taken from 5 depth zones in 1969 and 1970 (Bishop 1971). Midge larvae (Chironomidae), which were the largest group, accounted for 74% of the total number/m2. The most important genus was Tendipes. Aquatic earthworms (Oligochaeta) were the next largest group (15%). The remaining 11% of the samples comprised phantom midge larvae (Chaoborinae), snails (Gastropoda), scuds (Amphipoda), leeches (Hirudinea), clams (Pelecypoda) and unidentified organisms. The average wet weight (g/m2) for each 2-m depth zone was determined. The highest biomass (71.7 g/m2) was present at depths of 2 to 4 m, and the lowest biomass (20.6 g/m2) at depths of 0 to 2 m. The standing crop was estimated to be 66.8 kg/ha wet weight. This figure is similar to those determined for other northern eutrophic lakes such as Big Peter Pond, Saskatchewan, and Lac La Biche, Alberta (Bishop 1971).


Sturgeon Lake is one of the most important fishing lakes in the Peace River area. It is managed for commercial, domestic and sport fisheries. Ten species of fish from the lake have been identified: northern pike, walleye, yellow perch, lake whitefish, burbot, Arctic grayling, trout-perch, white sucker, longnose sucker and spottail shiner. The west basin and Goose Creek are important fish spawning areas, primarily for walleye (S Peace Reg. Plan. Commis. and ID No. 16 1984). Whitefish spawning grounds are mainly located along the eastern shore, and secondarily along the northern shore. Whitefish spawning takes place under ice in late December (Walty 1980).

Sturgeon Lake maintains an important commercial lake whitefish fishery. Other species taken are northern pike and walleye, but they account for less than 1% of the total catch. Between 1943/44 and 1984/85, the annual commercial whitefish harvest fluctuated between a low of 7,300 kg in 1945/46 and a high of 39,700 kg in 1962/63 (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.; Alta. Rec. Parks Wild. 1976). During the 1940s and early 1950s, the whitefish harvest remained quite stable, but during the late 1950s and early 1960s, it increased rapidly to the 1962/63 high. From that season to 1969/70, the annual harvest gradually declined. The whitefish quota was lowered from 22,727 kg to 18,181 kg in 1969, and to 13,600 kg in 1980. By 1988, however, the quota had increased to 28,000 kg (Walty 1988). The lake whitefish catch in 1987/88 was 33,305 kg. During the 1970s and 1980s, the number of licences issued increased sharply, from 12 to 14 during the 1960s, to 91 to 133 during the 1980s.

Studies of the whitefish population conducted during 1977 and 1978 concluded that growth rates had declined since 1969 (Bishop 1971; Walty 1979; 1980). In 1972/73, the mean length, weight and age of maturation of the whitefish population began to change. The mean length of whitefish in the commercial catch declined sharply in 1972 and 1973 and then stabilized after 1973. Mean weight also declined sharply over those two years and then continued to decline gradually until, by 1979, it was almost half the 1969 value. Age of maturation increased from age 3 in 1969 to age 5 in 1978 and catch per unit effort declined. Prior to 1973, age classes 5 to 13 were well represented in commercial catches. In 1974, age classes greater than 10 and fish of lengths greater than 50 cm disappeared from the fishery. Between 1974 and 1978, the commercial catch became increasingly dependent on age classes 8 and 9, but by 1988, the catch was dominated by age classes 9 to 11 (Walty 1979; 1988). As well, the mean age increased from 6.7 years in 1974 to 9.4 years in 1988 (Schroeder 1989).

A creel survey was conducted on Sturgeon Lake by Fish and Wildlife Division from 1 May to 31 August 1984 (Buchwald 1985). Over this period, an estimated 35,130 anglers spent 41,953 hours fishing (TABLE 7), which is an increase over the average angling reported in a 1976 survey (Bishop 1977). Most anglers (46%) in 1984 came from Grande Prairie; 40% came from elsewhere in the Peace Country. Walleye were the preferred catch: 55% of the total number of fish caught were walleye, 38% were northern pike and 7% were yellow perch. Only 9% of the walleye, 16% of the northern pike and 14% of the yellow perch caught were released. Fishing success, in terms of both catch rate and total numbers, was greatest for northern pike in May and for walleye and perch in June.


A total of 81 bird species were identified in a 1976 survey of Sturgeon Lake (S Peace Reg. Plan. Commis. and ID No. 16 1984). More recently, 159 species were identified in Young's Point Provincial Park; 73 of these species nest there (Finlay and Finlay 1987). Eighteen species of warblers breed in the park; they include Canada, Palm, Magnolia, Cape May, Black-throated Green and Bay-breasted warblers. Other special birds that have been sighted include Great Gray and Barred Owls, Bald Eagles, Cinnamon Teal, Greater Scaup, Hooded Mergansers, Surf Scoters and Western and Solitary Sandpipers (Finlay and Finlay 1987). As well, Red-necked Grebes nest on floating water lilies, mainly in the west bay (S Peace Reg. Plan. Commis. and ID No. 16 1984).

The west bay and northern shore provide habitat for moose, deer and bears. Beaver, muskrats and mink are the most common small fur bearers in the area. Coyotes, lynx and fishers are present, but less common (S Peace Reg. Plan. Commis. and ID No. 16 1984).

M.E. Bradford


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