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More anglers, leaner fish on tap for this year’s sturgeon spearing season

Last year's harvest in 16-day season included dozens of sturgeon weighing more than 100 pounds

Speared Sturgeon hanging outside a bar in Calumet, Wisconsin
Speared sturgeon displayed outside a bar near Calumet, Wisconsin, in 2018. Molly Stentz/WPR

Beginning Saturday, Wisconsin anglers will again have an opportunity to stalk prehistoric, bottom-dwelling lake creatures using one of humanity’s oldest hunting tools.

Lake Winnebago is believed to be home to the world’s largest self-sustaining lake sturgeon population. The annual 16-day sturgeon spearing season brings more than 12,000 people to the region and out onto the lake ice, with an economic impact that’s been estimated at $3.5 million.

License sales this year are up from last year. In a media briefing, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources sturgeon habitat biologist Aaron O’Connell said the state has sold 12,693 licenses, a small increase from the average of 12,500 in recent years. The state will allow spearers to harvest 1,200 male sturgeon, 875 adult females and 400 juvenile females. If those harvest caps are met before the end of 16 days, the state will end the season.

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Participants may see relatively leaner fish this year due to a poor spawning season for the sturgeon’s favorite food, the gizzard shad. But even a small lake sturgeon is a massive creature, with large adults measuring some 60 inches. Last year, spearers on Lake Winnebago caught dozens of fish that weighed more than 100 pounds.

The record for heaviest sturgeon to be speared on Lake Winnebago went to a 212.2-pound fish caught in 2010.

The sturgeon has no teeth, which means it tends to stay in deep waters where it can find snails, clams and other invertebrates to eat. That can make the fish difficult to spot. The DNR’s clarity readings for this year found murky conditions below 10.71 feet, probably because of strong winds at the beginning of winter, prior to freezing.

Still, for those who want a shot at spearing a sturgeon, the anticipation ahead of the season is very real.

“I often compare opening day of sturgeon spearing to the opening day of the gun-deer season,” O’Connell said. “Especially to folks around the area, it might even be a bigger event than the opening day of gun-deer season. Folks are already out on the lake, taking part in the scouting. … The buzz has really been going since the new year started.”

Last year, the opening of the season coincided with the discovery of a criminal conspiracy to trade sturgeon caviar that involved the state’s top sturgeon biologist, Ryan Koenigs. According to court records in that case, one DNR employee said he and his colleagues would share the caviar, sometimes adding it to pizza. A Fond du Lac bartender and an octogenarian couple were among those charged in the investigation.

Koenigs, who had held the position known as “sturgeon general” since 2012, pleaded no-contest to misdemeanor charges and resigned from his post in July. The DNR has not named a replacement.