This past weekend, the Wisconsin sturgeon spearing season opened on Saturday, February 11th on sprawling Lake Winnebago and the Upriver Lakes of Winneconne, Buttes des Morts, and Poygan. The spearing season can last up to 16 days, if the harvest caps are not reached earlier. Wisconsin is one of only two states that have a sturgeon spearing season with the other state being Michigan’s Black Lake in the Lower Peninsula.
Here’s a little background information for those not familiar with the lake sturgeon in Wisconsin. Lake Winnebago, which is the only lake where sturgeon spearing is allowed in the state, is the third largest freshwater lake in the United States encompassing over 137,000 acres and 88 miles of shoreline and this doesn’t include the three Upriver Lakes. Wisconsin has the best remaining stocks of lake sturgeon and the greatest diversity of the lake sturgeon fisheries left in the species original range. The lake sturgeon is a prehistoric fish that is very slow growing, long living, and late maturing fish. The Lake Winnebago system has the largest natural producing lake sturgeon population in the world and its eggs are used for sturgeon reintroduction and rehabilitation in the original range in North America.
The lake sturgeon was nearly destroyed by commercial fishing, over-harvest, illegal harvest, and lack of proper management in late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The plight of the lake sturgeon might have been worse if it wasn’t for the creation of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress in 1915. Starting then, the harvest of lake sturgeon was banned on all state waters until 1932 when the ban was lifted. This 17 year ban was a “savior’ for the fish after so many years of exploitation and overharvest. Though this ban helped the sturgeon recovery, 17 years doesn’t span even one generation of the fish’s life span after so many years of exploitation. Adult female sturgeon can live to be 100 years old and even older.
During the 1960’s, the 4.7 % annual harvest or exploitation rate was adopted and became the base for managing the sturgeon population from then on. There has been dozens of rules, regulations, and laws adopted since the 1960’s and they all have been based on the 4.7 % harvest limit. There also were environmental changes in the 1960’s from non-point pollution that caused an increase in the water’s turbidity and coincided with the loss of macrophytes or aquatic plants in the whole Winnebago system. The aquatic plants provided cover for fish, substrate for invertebrates, produce oxygen, and serve as food for some fish. The water turbidity during the 1960’s thru the 1980’s created difficult spearing conditions, added to the lower harvests, and helped the sturgeon rebound. Fish movement patterns and weather can affect harvest, but water clarity is the single greatest factor affecting harvest numbers. If you can’t see the fish, then it’s very difficult to spear them!
Improved water conditions in the late 1980’s and 1990’s increased sturgeon harvest and exploitation and resulted into more rules and regulations. There was low harvest numbers from 1968-1989 which again helped the growing population. This was also the time that a great sturgeon advocacy group, Sturgeon for Tomorrow originated and funded the Sturgeon Guard group who helped protect spawning sturgeon from spring poaching on the Wolf River. Other factors, like raising the size minimum from 30 to 36 inches and the development of man-made spawning sites on the Wolf River also helped the resurgence of the lake sturgeon. The Winnebago Citizen’s Sturgeon Advisory Committee was formed in 1992 and helped the DNR fisheries staff to develop and recommend all the new sturgeon regulations and rules since 1992.
The population estimates through the 1990’s showed that the adult sturgeon population had increased four-fold from the 1950’s to the 1990’s. Increased data showed that the lake sturgeon population had reached or approached its carrying capacity in the 1990’s. The explosion of the drum population, who compete with the sturgeon for food, caused a strain on sturgeon population till a series of warm winters allowed the gizzard shad population to explode and the sturgeon found the winter shad die-off to be a great food source. From 1988-2008, the sturgeon population depended upon the shad numbers. The Lake Winnebago sturgeon population grew to carrying capacity in a matter of 30 years due to environmental conditions, management actions, and harvest regulations that have resulted in low harvest rates over these 30 years.
In 1997, more new rules went into effect as part of the Safe Management System and probably the most important rule was the implementation of the harvest cap system to limit sturgeon harvest. Under this rule, the season will close 24 hours after reaching 80% of the total allowable harvest of adult females, juvenile females, and males. There also have been more rule changes with the exploitation rate raised to 5% and a 90% allowable harvest. Harvest caps for the sturgeon population have been raised during the 2000’s with harvest “trigger closures” and the introduction of 500 special spearing tags for the Upriver Lakes where you have to apply by August 1st.
According to Ron Bruch, the senior DNR sturgeon biologist, “The number of trophy size fish has been increasing over the last decade and this is due to the distribution of age classes currently present in the population and due to the impact of harvest regulations implemented over the last 17 years designed to increase the survival of these large fish.” In 2009, there was an influx of larger fish with 32 fish over 100 pounds registered and in 2010 there were 42 fish over 100 pounds which is the record for the state.
This year with the warm temperatures and lack of snow, there was considerable concern whether or not there would be a sturgeon spearing season because of lack of access and the poor ice conditions. The DNR sent out an email to past spearers saying that the ice was poor and they would not recommend relying on the “word of mouth’ for the location where one spears and the ice condition. The word was know for yourself how good the ice is where you planned to travel. A vast majority of spearers relied on ATV’s, snowmobiles, and walking to get to their spearing areas this season. The bottom line from the DNR was that the season would go on, but make sure you “use good judgment when going out”.
The weather cooled down last week just before the Saturday opener and helped firm up some of the ice. The Saturday opener was about what the DNR had said in earlier reports. There was fewer spearers out on big Lake Winnebago and the clearer water conditions on the Upper Lakes resulted in a higher than average harvest on these waters.
There was a record 12,680 licenses sold for the 2012 spearing season, but many spearers decided to stay off the ice opening weekend because of the poor conditions and lack of visibility. The aerial survey counted 2197 shanties on Lake Winnebago and 418 shanties on the Upriver Lakes. Normally, there are over 4500 shanties on Winnebago and 500 on the Upriver waters. A record 4597 spearers applied for an Upriver Lake permit this season. The DNR allows 500 permits with a August 1st deadline for the drawing. I applied again, unsuccessfully for one of these and failed again to obtain a tag, but I’m building up preference points for future lotteries.
Saturday, the opening day, saw only 39 sturgeon registered on Lake Winnebago which was the lowest number since the new rules were added in 2007 when 183 sturgeon were registered. The 171 sturgeon registered on the Upriver lakes was the most since 2007. There were 12 fish registered over 100 pounds with 2 from Lake Winnebago and 10 from the URL’s. The largest sturgeon registered on opening day was a 79.6 inch and 179.9 sturgeon speared by lady spearer, Chris Haedt, of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. This sturgeon was the 5th largest speared since 1932. The current record is a 212.2 sturgeon speared in 2010 by Ron Grishaber of Appleton. The DNR sees many sturgeon in excess of 200 pounds during the spring spawn and it’s just a matter of time before another 200 pound fish is harvested. These trophies are over 100 years old and possibly older. The DNR says that the sturgeon stock in the Winnebago system is as good a shape as it’s been in since the 1800’s due to great work by the DNR, the many volunteers, and citizen groups.
The Upriver Lakes needed only 9 more adult female sturgeon to be harvested before the 90% closure trigger would go into affect and close the season on the URL’s. Only 17 more adult females would trigger the season’s closing and it happened when 20 adult females were registered on Sunday closing the Upriver Lakes with the 100% closure trigger of 83 adult females. The 2012 Upriver season closed with 242 fish registered and this is the shortest season (2 days) since the lottery began in 2007.
Sunday, the harvest on Lake Winnebago, was slow again with a few more spearers out on the lake, but it looks like the season will most likely run the full 16 days. It is very doubtful that any trigger closures will come into play on Lake Winnebago. Be careful and know the ice condition where you plan to spear!