Feb 10, 2018

STURGEON SPEARING ON THE WINNEBAGO SYSTEM – WHAT MAKES IT SO SPECIAL?  

By: Paul Muche

I don’t recall the first time that I stepped into the darkness of a sturgeon shack or even how old I was, but I can tell you in great detail, the first time I ever saw a sturgeon! I was 10 years old and the year was 1982. It was a Sunday, the sun was shining and the temperatures were in the 20’s.  Our sturgeon shack was set up about a mile off the west shore of Lake Winnebago and fortunate for me, it was placed directly in front of my house. I was able to go to church that morning, and then walk out to the sturgeon shack and enjoy the rest of the day with my Dad. By the time I showed up, he had already seen one that he couldn’t quite get the spear into, and anticipation was high for seeing another! I recall seeing a gar fish, at least one perch and a northern before the main event came swimming through. The water was crystal clear, and I was laying on the floor of the shack on a mattress. Everything was quiet when my Dad asks me “Do you see him? “ He was tight on the bottom moving “Sturgeon Slow,” but fast enough where you need to make things happen before he is gone! My Dad patiently waited for the fish to be underneath us, lowered the spear into the water, and made a textbook shot on one of the most memorable spearing experiences I have! I was only ten years old when I saw my first sturgeon swim through the hole, but immediately when it happened, I knew there was something very special about this sport! 

I have had 46 years to think and ponder about what makes sturgeon spearing so unique, and my explanations still change from year to year as I try to wrap my mind around this incredible sport! Sturgeon spearing sets itself apart from any other outdoor activity without question! How does it compare to deer, turkey, duck, or any other type of hunting for that matter? It really doesn’t. It is true that you need a bit of patience to do any type of hunting, but when it comes to sturgeon spearing, patience brings on a whole new meaning! Lake Winnebago covers approximately 138,000 acres and the average size of a sturgeon hole is roughly 25 square feet. Now factor in water clarity and the amount of sturgeon in the lake which is approximately 43,000 adults. If you are good at math and like to determine your odds, you will soon see that your odds of seeing a sturgeon -- are a bit on the poor side. I believe that is the reason that when one does finally show itself to you, and you are fortunate enough to get your spear into it, you feel like you just won the lottery!  

I actually like my odds and try to “Keep the glass half full!” Beer, wine, whiskey, brandy… whatever is available usually works! Seriously, you need to keep in mind that you are spearing among the nation’s largest lake sturgeon population. If you want to give sturgeon spearing a shot, you are on the right place on the map! Sturgeon spearing is a sport that goes from being so slow, that you may be starting to fall asleep ---- to a sport that can get your heart racing so fast, you feel like it might jump out of your chest! It’s not like sitting in a tree or blind where you can usually see your game coming from a long distance away or maybe even hear it coming. When you see a sturgeon, it is up close and personal, and they tend to show up in a “ghost like” manner, and it is always dead silent! After spotting one, you first have to convince yourself that it is real and this is really happening, and then in the same breath, you need to grab your spear and make the shot before it is too late! At the same time, you can’t freak out and move so fast that you rattle the spear and spook the fish away. Sturgeon can feel vibrations in the water, and they also can see up and in front of them, so you do not want to make any unnecessary motions that they might see! If you are spearing in deep water, (which I would consider 13 feet+) you also need to be able to handle your spear, which is a whole other topic that I won’t elaborate on. Other than that, it’s like spearing olives in a jar!!! 

One of the greatest reasons I enjoy the sport, is the fact that it is a level playing field and everyone has the same opportunities. When it comes to any type of hunting other than sturgeon spearing, there are always limiting factors. These factors include property lines, permission to hunt, and probably the biggest factor, how much money do you have to put toward the hunt. We just finished up another deer season in Wisconsin, and it is great to see a hunter harvest a huge racked whitetail. But, while that hunter or group of hunters celebrate that one deer, there are typically other hunters in the area that may be disappointed in seeing that particular deer gone. It is totally opposite with sturgeon spearing! If someone spears a huge fish and you are lucky enough to be in the same area, that is the best news there is!  Where there is one big sturgeon, there is often a good chance that there are others. A huge sturgeon being harvested is celebrated by everyone, and the atmosphere that goes with those celebrations can only be found on the Lake Winnebago System! 

Opening day of sturgeon spearing on the Winnebago System is something everyone should see at least once in their lives, particularly if you live in Wisconsin! When ice conditions are good, the entire Winnebago System turns into an incredible network of roads and highways and thousands of sturgeon shacks are spread out over the ice in hopes to harvest the legendary fish. There are about a dozen or so bars along the shores of the Winnebago System that have a specific “Sturgeon Pole” where they allow successful spearers to hang their sturgeon. At these establishments you can view the harvested fish and maybe even get a picture, but even better than that, you can talk to the people that harvested these fish and get a first hand story that I guarantee you will not forget any time soon!  

The older I get and the more chances I have to explain what makes sturgeon spearing so unique, it becomes clearer to me that it truly is the people that set this sport apart. The sturgeon have been here long before there ever was a sturgeon spearing season, and they are the main ingredient, but it has been the work of many key people that make this sport what it is today. The Winnebago System has been blessed with a number of people who care for the sturgeon and the sturgeon spearing heritage. The Wisconsin DNR and their fish biologists, along with men and women who live throughout the Winnebago System, have worked hand in hand to create the world-class fishery that we have before us today! Legendary biologists with names such as Folz, Bruch, and Koenigs, worked with fishing clubs such as “Sturgeon For Tomorrow” and “The Sturgeon Advisory Committee.”  Together these people and all the spearers within the Winnebago System have created the elite sturgeon season that is before us now. It is a beautiful culmination of the sturgeon, the people, and the stories that truly set this sport apart from any other! 

If you are interested in taking a closer look at this sport, all you need to do is take a little drive the second Saturday in February. Stop at one or two of the following bars/restaurants and ask someone to tell their story, you will enjoy it! Wendt’s On the Lake, Blanck’s Lake Aire, TJ’s Harbor Bar, and Jerry’s Bar in Oshkosh are some of the hot spots on the west shore of Lake Winnebago, while Jim and Linda’s, the Stockbridge Harbor Bar, and the Quinney Quencher are some along the east shore, just to name a few. If you happen to be “Upriver” in the vicinity of the town of Winneconne, it would serve you well to stop in at Critter’s, which is also home to Woodeye’s Bar and Grill. Your chances are good to see a sturgeon hanging at any one of these establishments, and don’t be afraid to go to the successful spearer and get the story straight from the horse’s mouth! Tell them you are new to the sport and are looking for any helpful hints they may be willing to share. Successful spearers are usually very social characters, and are typically more than willing to share their success stories!!!