BY Ryan KoenigsI don’t know where the time goes, but it seems like just yesterday I was writing a similar article to hype the upcoming 2014 sturgeon spearing season on the Winnebago Pool Lakes. Now here I am in December of 2014 drafting another, chronicling the successful 2014 spearing season and forecasting the 2015 season. Spearers experienced favorable spearing conditions in 2014, and I am hopeful that similar conditions will persist for the upcoming season that gets underway on February 14, 2015.
To start with, I would like to take a step back and summarize the 2014 sturgeon spearing season, a memorable season that showcased the phenomenal sturgeon resource within the Winnebago System. It’s fairly common knowledge to sturgeon spearers that water clarity and ice thickness are the two factors having the largest impact on spearing success. Well, the frigid winter of 2014 provided favorable conditions for both. Lake Winnebago was covered with more than 2’ of strong, solid ice and the water was the clearest it had been since 2010. The season was met with great anticipation and the table was set for a short yet successful spearing season.
Fortunately for spearers, the favorable conditions translated into a successful harvest and a shortened season on both Lake Winnebago and the Upriver Lakes. In fact, the 6-day season on Lake Winnebago was tied for the 3rd shortest since 2002. In total, spearers harvested 1,513 fish from Lake Winnebago, which is the largest harvest since 2004 (1,854 fish). Spearers on the Upriver Lakes had a 3-day season with a total harvest of 341 fish.The high harvest in 2014 made for a memorable season, but the number of large, trophy sized fish was the real highlight of the season. Typically lake sturgeon in excess of 100 pounds are considered “trophy,” once in a life time fish. From the infancy of the sport (1930’s) through the early 2000’s, these fish were quite rare in the harvest, with less than 1% of the annual harvest composed of these large fish. However, these trophy sized fish started to become more common in the mid-2000’s and the record books have been completely rewritten over the last 10-15 years. Further, 8 of the top 11 heaviest fish on record (dating back to 1932) have been harvested within the last 5 years. The 2014 season didn’t contribute any fish to the top 11, but a record 106 fish (95 from Lake Winnebago and 11 from the Upriver Lakes) 100 pounds and larger were harvested during the season. The largest fish was a 77.1,” 161.0 pound female speared by John Skahen on February 12.
Overall, the 2014 season did not disappoint. A shortened, successful season with a high harvest of large fish was anticipated and that is exactly what transpired. Spearing conditions were the best they had been in close to five years, which allowed the Winnebago System sturgeon population to once again be showcased.
We can now close the book on the 2014 season and begin to look forward to the rapidly approaching 2015 season. To start with, a record 13,134 licenses (12,650 for Lake Winnebago and 484 for Upriver Lakes) were purchased for the 2015 sturgeon spearing season, which is an 11% increase over license sales for the 2014 season. The increase is mostly attributable to the overall success of the 2014 season. To perspective spearers looking to break into this outdoor pastime, the 2014 season likely provided ample incentive.
The increase in license sales does not automatically translate to a shorted season. Rather water clarity and ice conditions will play the largest role in determining if and when the sex-specific harvest caps are reached, and ultimately season closure. For those not familiar with the harvest cap system, there are sex-specific harvest caps designated for both the Upriver Lakes and Lake Winnebago fisheries. Harvest caps are tied to sex-specific estimates of sturgeon abundance and allow for a sustainable harvest. For this system to be effective, DNR must register all harvested fish and determine sex and maturity of all fish within the harvest. Once 90% of any harvest cap is reached, the season will close at the end of the next spearing day, whereas the season closes the same day that 100% of any of the harvest caps is reached. Spearers will be happy to know that adult female harvest caps will increase by 50 fish (6%) for the 2015 season. This increase coincides with an increase in sturgeon abundance, and is the result of a successful sturgeon management program.As the days pass, the 2015 sturgeon spearing season draws closer and spearers will hope for strong ice and clear water. One thing is for certain, the Winnebago System boasts a robust population of lake sturgeon, 2nd in numbers only to the St. Lawrence River Estuary. The population also contains an unprecedented number of very large fish, which has resulted in the record books being almost completely rewritten over the last decade. DNR staff have handled potentially record breaking fish during recent spawning surveys, and it’s only a matter of time until someone is lucky enough to harvest one of these fish.
Regardless of spearing success during the upcoming 2015 season, I hope sportsmen and sportswomen are able to pursue the sport safely and are able to take a step back and enjoy themselves. This fishery is the largest recreational harvest of lake sturgeon in the world, and the sport is truly unique. The cultures and traditions that accompany the sport are what make it so special, as most of the equipment has been homemade and passed down from generation to generation. Simply put, the sturgeon provide the sport, but the traditions associated with the sport, the camaraderie of spearing groups, and the “fish tales” are what keep people coming back year after year begging for more.
I wish all of you spearers safe travels and good luck during the 2015 spearing season. Hopefully our paths will cross and I will be able to hear stories about more memories being created during the upcoming season. To non-spearers, I strongly encourage you to venture out to one of our sturgeon registration stations on February 14. An event like this simply doesn’t take place anywhere else in the world, and the sport truly needs to be experienced before it can be fully appreciated. Our DNR staff operating these stations are very knowledgeable and more than willing to answer any questions. Let’s make the 2015 sturgeon spearing season another season to remember.
Looking forward to February 14!
Ryan Koenigs – Winnebago Sturgeon Biologist