Outdoor Notebook: Watching the sturgeon harvest was a unique experience
Last weekend, we drove to the Appleton area to visit our son, Craig, and his family. Friday evening Craig asked if I would be interested in visiting several registration locations where speared sturgeon would be registered. Of course, it did not require any sales pitch for me to say “let’s go.”
In northern Wisconsin, two special days that attract outdoor enthusiasts are the Wisconsin gun-deer season and the opening of walleye fishing season. In the Fox River Valley Area, the sport that attracts attention is the sturgeon-spearing season.
Craig suggested that we drive to the registration station located in Winneconne. When we arrived at the station, there were perhaps a dozen pick-ups and 10 sturgeons lying on the black top. The harvest number that was set for 2014 was the second strongest since Wisconsin instituted a six-hour daily hunt in 2002. The opening day take was so strong, according to Winnebago sturgeon biologist Ryan Koenigs, he predicted that the season on the big water and the upriver lakes might be very short. The season on the upriver lakes was closed Monday at 1 p.m.
Spearers were able to harvest more than 42 percent of the Lake Winnebago adult female harvest cap on opening day.
It appears that half of the license holders for the lottery fish were registered the first day. Koenigs said the hot spots Saturday included the south end of Lake Winnebago, with 211 fish being registered at a station called Wendt’s and 121 fish were registered at a supper club on the lake.
After watching the registration of so many large sturgeon I became more curious about this prehistoric fish and the sturgeon-spearing season.
Biologist Koenigs said that 50 fish taken opening weekend surpassed 100 pounds, 44 from the big lake and six from the upriver lakes. The largest fish on opening weekend weighed 143.9 pounds and measured 75.4 inches. Another large fish weighed 140.1 pounds and was 77.8 inches long. Sturgeon must be a minimum of 36 inches long to be speared.
The total harvest cap was 2,428 sturgeon for the 2014 season. As of Monday, Feb. 10, 1,495 fish had been registered. Predictions were that the season would end before the end of the week.
Sturgeon spearing is strictly regulated and the rules are carefully re-visited each year to insure that the population of sturgeon is not negatively affected. The season may last as long as 16 days in February but will end sooner if any of the pre-set limits are reached earlier.
This year the water was very clear thus the spearers could see the big fish and had relatively good action. Spearing may take place from 6:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. No artificial light of any kind may be used when spearing.
Spears may be used on the Winnebago lakes only during the sturgeon-spearing season. They can be harvested only with a spear thrown by hand from inside a fishing shelter placed on the ice during the season. Angling equipment is not allowed inside a sturgeon-spearing shanty.
Ice holes larger than 12 inches in diameter can be used only for spearing sturgeon and holes may be cut no earlier than 48 hours before the season opens. The total area of a sturgeon-spearing hole may not exceed 48 square feet.
Once the holes are cut, spearers set up their home away from home. The shanty is positioned over the hole and snow is packed around the base to block the wind and any rays of light. Spearers drill holes in the ice at the corners, drop ropes in and cover the holes with snow. The ropes are tied to the corners of the shanty and anchor the shack in place. Today some of the shanties are well equipped with a thermostatically controlled gas furnace. Some have a generator to fire up coffee pots and satellite televisions or a variety of other conveniences. Obviously shanties range from luxurious to practical.
Sturgeons are curious fish and frequently swim under a hole to investigate a wooden decoy being pulled by a spearer.
Sturgeon spears weigh from 12 to 25 pounds and can be anywhere from six to nine feet in length. Most are made by the spearers who use them. If a spearer wants to purchase one they may expect to pay from $150 to $200.
As we watched at the registration station, we observed several biologists taking samples from the fish. They removed spawn from several of them. One large sturgeon had 45 pounds of eggs in it.
The sturgeon is an ancient fish that deserves to be safeguarded.
Longtime Northwoods outdoors personality Roger Sabota writes a bi-monthly column for the Star Journal.