Mar 10, 2017

Lake Sturgeon Spawning on the Winnebago System: A Truly Unique Experience

By: Ryan Koenigs

Winnebago System Sturgeon Biologist – WDNR

The Lake Winnebago System is home to one of the nation’s largest lake sturgeon populations (~42,500 adults), while also providing the largest recreational fishery for the species. The spear fishery each February draws considerable interest from the local public with roughly 13,000 license holders taking part in the winter outdoor pastime. Further, tens of thousands of additional non-license holders take part in some aspect of the sport whether it is sitting with a friend or family member that has a tag, coming to a registration station to see fish, or just taking part in the social aspects of the sport. Regardless of the level of involvement, it’s safe to say that the spear fishery offers something to just about anyone and has become a pastime enjoyed by many. However, another component of the Lake Winnebago System lake sturgeon management program draws just as much, if not more, interest from the local communities. That component is the annual spawning migration.

Lake sturgeon within the Winnebago System migrate up the Wolf, Little Wolf, Embarrass and Upper Fox Rivers each spring to spawn. There are additional smaller tributaries that sturgeon may migrate up periodically, but these four rivers are utilized by spawning fish annually. Of the four main tributaries, the Wolf River experiences the largest sturgeon run and thus draws the attention of the most spectators.

Lake sturgeon have been observed spawning at more than 60 sites, ranging from large sites that receive annual spawning activity to small pockets of suitable habitat that a small number of fish will periodically use. Many of the sites are located on private property and thus not publicly accessible, but there are a number of sites where the public can view sturgeon spawning. The three most notable sites, from downstream to upstream, are the Sturgeon Trail on County X in New London, Bamboo Bend in Shiocton, and immediately below the Shawano Dam in the city of Shawano. Each of these sites have spawning activity every spring and offer hands down the best opportunity to view spawning lake sturgeon. Bamboo Bend is the most well-known site and it’s not uncommon to see more than 1,000 spectators line the shoreline at any given time during peak spawning activity! Conservatively, there are more than 5,000 people per day witnessing sturgeon spawn at Bamboo Bend during the peak of the run.

Predicting when the spawning run will occur is like predicting the winning lottery numbers. The run typically occurs for a 4-10 day period in mid to late April when water temperatures are 52-60 degrees. Peak spawning will only occur at a given site for 1-2 days so it’s important to stay informed and flexible with your schedule. This can be difficult for many, but there are some resources available to interested spectators that can better guide when to make the trip. For starters, there are underwater cameras placed at spawning sites and the live feed from those cameras is available online. Shadows on the Wolf, a local conservation group, maintains a number of cameras at Bamboo Bend around the spawning run and camera feeds can be viewed at www.Shadowsonthewolf.org. Live camera feeds from Shawano and Shiocton are also available at http://wolfrivercam.com/. These cameras provide a great scouting tool to see when fish are actively spawning and to plan trips accordingly. Additionally, I send out daily updates during the spawning run to Wisconsin’s Gov. Delivery list. Email addresses on this list also receive daily updates during the annual spear fishery and all survey reports from Winnebago System fisheries management activities. Readers can sign up for Gov. Delivery updates by entering their email and selecting Winnebago System Fisheries Updates at https://public.govdelivery.com/accounts/WIDNR/subscriber/new.

For many, witnessing the lake sturgeon spawn on the Wolf River has become an annual event. Simply put, there is nowhere else in the world where an event like this occurs. There are no other locations where hundreds, if not thousands, of sturgeon can be observed spawning at your feet. Lake sturgeon are the largest fish in the Great Lakes drainage and fish observed in the spawning run will range from 3-7’ in length with some fish weighing in excess of 200 pounds! If you haven’t already witnessed the spawning run, I strongly suggest you add this to your bucket list.

In addition to viewing sturgeon spawn, there is an opportunity for folks interested in getting more involved in the protection and perpetuation of lake sturgeon. Each spring hundreds of volunteers have an opportunity to watch over spawning sturgeon and protect the fish from illegal poaching and harassment at their spawning sites on the Wolf River. Sturgeon are very susceptible to illegal harvest when they are spawning along the river’s rocked shorelines. Therefore, “Sturgeon Guard” volunteers guard spawning fish 24 hours a day throughout the spawning run. The program is coordinated and directed by DNR Law Enforcement staff, while Sturgeon for Tomorrow (local conservation group) and sturgeon spearing license fees fund the guard program. We do our best to ensure that all scheduled guards are patrolling sites with actively spawning fish, thus we do cancel scheduled shifts when fish are not spawning. In those cases, we try to re-schedule guards during a more active period.

Interested volunteers for the 2017 Sturgeon Guard program can find more information on the Wisconsin DNR website by searching “Sturgeon Guard.” The sturgeon guard registration process is available on-line at http://dnr.wi.gov/SGsignUp/. Interested volunteers can also register by calling the DNR call center at 1-888-936-7463 and having DNR call center staff input information into the online database. If possible, make sturgeon guarding a family outing by bringing a son, daughter or your spouse. For many it has become a family tradition.

The annual lake sturgeon spawning migration is also an important time for DNR fisheries staff managing the Winnebago System. Fisheries staff capture spawning fish during the run to collect length, sex, and mark-recapture data to estimate growth, mortality, and abundance. Fish are manually captured from shore using large dip nets, typically with 2-3 dippers working together to corral and net fish. Tagging crews will handle fish at as many spawning sites as possible during the run, and will often handle fish at some point during peak spawning activity at all publicly accessible sites. Our assessments provide a great opportunity to get even more up close and personal with these prehistoric fish, while also learning more about their biology and management. It’s usually an added bonus for Sturgeon Guards stationed at sites on private property when our crews are there handling fish. Sometimes the guards even help out a short-handed crew with some tasks!          

In conclusion, the annual spawning migration of lake sturgeon on the Wolf River and Winnebago System tributaries is not something that should be overlooked. Those that have already witnessed this event are well aware of that fact, but hopefully this article will spark some interest in partaking of this unique experience. I strongly suggest making it a point to take part in the 2017 lake sturgeon spawning run, whether it be as a Sturgeon Guard or a spectator. I hope to see you on the river bank this April!