Sturgeon fishermen, having braved some of the most brutal weather conditions in memory, closed out the 2015 spearing season on Lake Winnebago today with a total harvest of 2,158 fish, the sixth highest harvest on record.
Conservation wardens with the state Department of Natural Resources said the more than 13,100 licensed fishermen pulled off a safe season with no reported injuries and generally excellent compliance with regulations.
DNR sturgeon biologist Ryan Koenigs said sturgeon fishermen are experts at dealing with conditions many people would consider life threatening. They are also a patient lot, he said, often waiting inside their darkened shacks hour after hour, day after day and season after season before opportunity suddenly arrives, to be followed by seconds of sheer pandemonium.“Sturgeon spearing is an exercise in patience, persistence and perseverance,” Koenigs said. “I think most people were happy this year. Anytime they can fish in clear water they know they have a better chance of seeing fish and being successful. The big thing is that people were able to get out and pursue their passion, and they did it safely.”
The sturgeon spearing season is largely a family affair on Lake Winnebago – home of the largest, native population of lake sturgeon in the world – where the pastime has been passed down through the generations and new stories are added to family lore with each new season.
Today, on the eighth and final day of the season, a father and son from Oshkosh registered their fish together. Derek Drexler, 12, in his first season of eligibility, was fishing out of the same shack with his father, Robert, 44. Derek speared a 70-inch fish that weighed 76 pounds. A half hour later, the father threw his spear and landed a 50-inch sturgeon weighing 24 pounds. They were photographed together, creating a family heirloom.
The largest fish of the season – 81.3 inches long and weighing 137.5 pounds – was speared Tuesday by Chad Cherney and registered at Payne’s Point.
While there were more fish speared on Lake Winnebago this year than last, the weights of the fish were down. A drop in the shad population – a fatty food source – meant the sturgeon were a bit “skinny” this year, with heads that were bigger around than their bodies.Cherney’s fish, for instance, when compared to the top 11 heaviest sturgeon ever registered, was longer than 9 of those behemoths.
Koenigs said this year’s sturgeon weight loss is not a concern for their long-term viability. Shad populations will rebound quickly when conditions are favorable and the sturgeon will pack on the pounds.
“The decrease in shad has nothing to do with the numbers of sturgeon,” Koenigs said. “And this isn’t going to be any real detriment to the sturgeon. The fish just aren’t quite as heavy this year.”
The season on Lake Winnebago lasted 8 days this year. The closure was set for today after the harvest of adult female sturgeon reached the “90 percent trigger” Friday. The cap was set at 878. In the end, 911 adult female sturgeon were speared. Koenigs said exceeding the cap by 33 fish was not a problem. There are many years, he said, when the cap is not reached, often because cloudy water limits visibility. This year, spearers enjoyed good water clarity.
“The system is set up so we can keep the harvest at or very close to 5 percent of the adult population,” Koenigs said. “This was a sustainable harvest.”
Detailed records of the season can be found online at dnr.wi.gov by typing “sturgeon” into the search box and a photographic record can be viewed on the DNR’s Facebook page – www.facebook.com/WIDNR
Ryan Koenigs is a DNR Fisheries Biologist