Wisconsin’s warm winter causing ‘really slow year’ for sturgeon spearing

As of Thursday, anglers would have to spear over 1K sturgeon to hit last year's totals

Biologists collect gametes during the spring lake sturgeon spawning run.
Biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Georgia, biologists from the Wisconsin DNR and volunteers collect gametes at the Shawano Dam during the spring lake sturgeon spawning run. (Photo Courtesy of the Wisconsin DNR)

Wisconsin’s unseasonably warm winter has put a damper on this year’s sturgeon spearing season.

As of Thursday afternoon, anglers on the Winnebago System were more than 1,000 lake sturgeon shy of last year’s total harvest of 1,405, according to data from the state Department of Natural Resources. This year’s season is set to end on Sunday.

Margaret Stadig, a biologist for the DNR, said the warm weather has created ice conditions that aren’t safe for trucks, requiring anglers on Lake Winnebago to get creative. In general, Stadig said anglers are staying closer to shore than they would in a typical winter due to the unsafe ice conditions. 

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“What people are actually now doing is basically going back to what’s been done centuries ago — they put their little pop-up (tent) in a sled, and they walk it a mile out,” she said. “A friend of mine actually bought one of those Norwegian ice saws, the hand size, and they still cut a gigantic hole and put a pop-up around it.”

When temperatures this week hit 50 degrees Wednesday and Thursday, Stadig said the number of people going spearing fell, in what’s already been a down year. The DNR only registered five sturgeon on Wednesday and five on Thursday.

“We’re just not seeing the number of fish registered we usually do,” Stadig said. “Usually it’s pretty slow during the week, but we’re talking about a really, really slow year.”

Patchy ice cover on Lake Winnebago
Patchy ice cover is seen on Lake Winnebago near Menominee Park in Oshkosh on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. Joe Schulz/WPR

This year’s sturgeon season came as the state is on pace to have its warmest winter on record. December was the warmest ever recorded in Wisconsin. January saw temperatures that were 8.5 degrees warmer than average. And February has been about 19 degrees warmer than usual. 

The warm weather this winter hasn’t been exclusive to Wisconsin. February is expected to end with record-setting warmth from the Upper Midwest to the East Coast, with temperatures expected to rise at least 20 to 40 degrees above average, according to the Washington Post.

Dave Ortlieb, vice president of the Stockbridge Harbor Fishing Club, typically goes sturgeon spearing each year with a group of friends, but didn’t this year because there was no ice cover at his usual spot on Lake Winnebago near the village of Stockbridge.

“I wasn’t going to travel around to the other side of the lake every day, fight the traffic and the crowds in the parking lots over there,” Ortlieb said. “I wasn’t familiar with those areas, so just to be on the safe side, I just decided not to go.”

He said past seasons have come during warm spells, but there was often thicker ice on the lake from earlier freezes. This year, he said the ice was “pretty minimal,” with no cover in some areas after long periods of warm weather.

“We went out some years after we had an inch of rain, but the ice was strong enough because it was thick enough prior to the season,” he said. “We’ve gone out with just four wheelers a couple of times because we had thinner ice.”

Even though the sport looks different this year, Stadig said those going spearing have seen some success. 

A father and son duo stand next to a lake sturegon
Father/son duo Tom and Anthony Keller celebrate Anthony’s 57.8-inch, 31.4-pound, sturgeon at the Winneconne registration station. Photo Courtesy of the Wisconsin DNR

Stadig also said many are just excited to be out and participating in the pastime, even as the conditions have forced them to work a little harder to get one of the prehistoric fish.

“They might not have gotten the big fish they usually do or the big fish they were expecting, but they’re just happy they got a fish,” she said. “This fish almost means more to them because of the amount of work, effort, time and thought that they had to put into this — this wasn’t just a drive out, pop a hole and call it a day.”

This year’s sturgeon season also came as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contemplates giving lake sturgeon a listing under the Endangered Species Act

The DNR’s 2023 Lake Sturgeon Spawning And Population Assessment for the Winnebago System estimates the watershed had 23,625 adult male lake sturgeon and 18,061 adult female fish. The report said the Winnebago System has a stable number of lake sturgeon, describing it as a “good, sustainable population.”

Stadig said collaboration between the agency and local fishing clubs is a big reason why Lake Winnebago has a healthy sturgeon population.

“There are so many things that go into making sure this population is healthy and maintained and the spearing season is successful, not just this year for what it is, but also that we have spearing seasons into the future,” she said. “There are so many different players that go into that, not just the DNR.”