Saturday, February 8, 2014

Sturgeon spearing season opens on Lake Winnebago

During most of the year, we'lll see groups of shanties parked in many nearby farmers fields.  But a week from now we'll be watching a small shantytown spring up on the frozen waters of Lake Winnebago with up to 5,000 shacks and countless cars, campers and trucks.

Early Saturday morning, anglers will head out to their shanties, to begin the wait for the elusive sturgeon to appear beneath the fishing hole previously cut in the ice under their shanty. (Shanties will be allowed to be moved to cover ice holes within the 48 hour period prior to the opening of the season at 7:00 am on February 8th.)

As February approaches preparations have begun for the 2014 sturgeon spearing season which will open February 8 through February 23 on Lake Winnebago or until any of the pre-set harvest caps for Lake Winnebago are reached, or any of the pre-set Winnebago System-wide harvest caps are reached, whichever comes first. Bridges have been put out by local fishing clubs earlier than in recent years. The fishing clubs need at least 12 inches of ice before the bridges go out. By the beginning of January 2014, there were over 13 inches of ice on 95 percent of the lake.  If they don't put the bridges together and there's a crack out there, you wouldn't be able to get across.  When the weather warms up, the crack is going to open up. Dozens and dozens of Christmas trees have been  installed, guiding the way for those venturing across the lake. Every eighth-mile there will be a tree line. If it's a standing up Christmas tree, it usually tells you it's safe. If you see a Christmas tree laying down, that's a bad spot.

Christmas tree line off the old State Park Rd boat landing
The unseasonably cold weather this year has resulted in ice thick enough to support the weight of the expected traffic, though ice may be much weaker near stress cracks and rivers flows.

Ice safety tips
• Wait for four inches of ice
• ATVs and snowmobiles need 5+ inches and cars and light trucks need 8-12 inches to travel on
• Travel with a buddy and keep safe distance apart

In the 1860s, sturgeon were looked at as a nuisance to commercial anglers and were deliberately destroyed in large numbers. By the1870s, people realized that sturgeon could be useful for products such as: glue from their skeleton; oil from fat; leather from their tanned skins; roe (eggs) for caviar; and gelatin from their swim bladder, used for liquid clarifyers, jellies and jams. Sturgeon became relatively scarce, a casualty of dams, pollution and overfishing of the late-maturing, slow-growing fish (lake sturgeon don't  reach sexual maturity until they are 14-33 years old and may live over 100 years). The first length limit was set in 1903 to protect sturgeon in Wisconsin and the harvest season closed statewide in 1915.  The ban was overturned during the Great Depression, in part because hungry locals wanted the right to spear and eat the large fish swimming right under their noses.

In 1978 a group of sturgeon enthusiasts, lead by Bill Casper, formed Sturgeon for Tomorrow.  Since then SfT has raised nearly a million dollars for research and conservation efforts, and every year they organize volunteers for Sturgeon Guard.  During spawning season, sturgeon become especially vulnerable to poaching, so the Sturgeon Guard program places volunteers along their spawning grounds to watch out for poachers 24 hours a day. Through their efforts in sturgeon research and management, plus the work of hundreds of volunteers and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Lake Winnebago is now home to the world’s largest self-sustaining population of lake sturgeon: close to 16,000 adult females and 32,000 adult males. There is currently a short lake stugeon spearfishing season, with 2014 harvest caps of 400 for juvenile females, 828 for adult females and 1200 for males for the Winnebago system, all a minimum of 36" in length. The only place in the country other than Lake Winnebago that offers a spearing season for sturgeon is Black Lake in Michigan.

No person may cut, use, or maintain an ice hole larger than 12 inches in diameter or square for the taking of fish in any manner through the ice except spearing sturgeon on the Winnebago System during the open season. The total area of a sturgeon spearing hole, or combination of holes, in an individual spearing shelter may not exceed a total of 48 square feet. Decoys, often hand-carved, are used to lufe the sturgeon towards the ice holes.  The direction and depth the sturgeon are coming in at help fishermen/women judge their size relative to the decoy.

Decoys on sale at home along 55 in Stockbridge
on the east shore of Lake Winnebago
The spearer uses a hadmade spear to jab at the fish, while everybody else clears the shack. With any luck, the barbed tips of the spear will embed deeply into the and break away from the spear’s long, wooden handle. The fisherman then throws aside the spear pole and works the rope connected to the spearhead. Once speared, the sturgeon go back under the ice.  The spearer swork the rope until the fish tires before can he drag the fish to the hole.

His partner stands ready with a gaffe hook, which is used to pull the fish out onto the ice.

A spearer with a valid, unused sturgeon license and tag who spears a lake sturgeon must immediately validate and attach their carcass tag to the sturgeon (just forward of the tail). Any harvested sturgeon must be present at a registration station by 2:00 PM of the same day it was speared.  The success rate is only 12-13 percent on Lake Winnebago, where the sturgeons are more dispersed and the water is deeper and murkier.

Both the sturgeon carcass tag and registration tag must be retained until the carcass is consumed.  I've been wondering what do folks do with the sturgeon once they leave those registration stations.

I've seen a few mounted on the walls of local supper clubs.

The state-record sturgeon, a 212.2-pound female speared by Appleton's Ron Grishaber
 on Feb. 13, 2010, hangs in the Lake Park Pub in Menasha. The fish, harvested in a shanty
 on the northern edge of Lake Winnebago not far from High Cliff State Park,
 measures 84.2 inches in length and was hatched two years before the Titanic sank in 1912.

And we hear folks do enjoy eating them, especially when they're smoked. Keeping the sturgeon fresh is usually not a problem, because often the fish is so frozen by the time the spearer get it home that it may take a couple of days to thaw it out before they can butcher it. Before they go home though, some sturgeon spearers will first take their fish to a self serve car wash to use the power washer to cut the slime off the fish before they bring it into their garage or basement to do the actual butchering. Sturgeon are extremely slimy, and the power washer does a nice job of cutting enough slime off to make handling a little less messy.
Once home, after dressing and washing out the fish, many spearers will steak their fish into 1 to 1.5 in thick pieces with the skin on to prepare it for smoking. Unlike other fish, sturgeon has a fat that is marbled through the meat which makes for an excellent smoked product.Other preparation methods include sturgeon nuggets breaded and fried, boiled, pan fried, and broiled. The other edible product from a few of the lake sturgeon harvested are the eggs, better known as caviar. Lake sturgeon females in an F4 (fully developed) stage of maturity have large, black eggs (about 0.11 inch in diameter), typically 20 to 40 lbs, that can be cleaned, salted, and processed into caviar.
(No part of any lake sturgeon harvested in Wisconsin – meat, eggs, or any body parts can be sold, bartered or traded – a law designed to prevent illegal harvest and sales of this valuable resource.)

Fishing this year is projected to be favorable with more than 30" of ice in areas. There is a benefit to the unseasonably cold weather this winter whas had a favorable effect on water clarity, which the DNR estimates is up to 16 feet deep. But it could also mean the season won’t go the full 16 days.

To view a trailer for the "Frozen Chosen" chronicling adventures sutrgeon spearing on Lake Winnebago.

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