Jan 16, 2019
Winnebago Sturgeon Spearing
A different type of people with a different type of gear, all pursuing a very different type of fish
By Paul Muche
If you’ve never experienced opening weekend of sturgeon spearing on the Winnebago system, do yourself a favor and take a ride over and check out what is “going down.”
This always takes place the second Saturday in February – this year it starts on Saturday, Feb. 9. What you will see will amaze you, and after experiencing it for over 47 years, it still amazes me.
If 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. Now if you’re viewing this scene from shore, you might be asking, “what exactly is in all of those shacks?”
What you will find in those shacks is a very different breed of people, with a very different type of gear, all hoping to get a glimpse of what can only be described as a very different type of fish!
A different breed
The 2018 whitetail deer season concluded here in Wisconsin with more than 760,000 hunters who participated in this years’ hunt. In contrast, there were about 13,000 sturgeon spearing tags sold in 2018.
The numbers alone tell you sturgeon spearers are in a class by themselves. Now factor in the conditions they face every day out on the ice, and you may begin to question why they are out there at all?
It certainly is not a sport for everyone. Ice is never 100 percent safe, pressure cracks always exist, temperatures can often sink well below zero degrees, and now crank up the wind …. Brrr! Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that very seldom is the water crystal clear. Most of the time you are peering into water that’s at least a bit cloudy, questioning whether you will see the fish if indeed one does swim across your hole.
Lake Winnebago covers approximately 138,000 acres and the average size of a sturgeon hole is roughly 25 square feet. Now plug into the equation there are only about 43,000 adult sturgeon estimated in the entire Winnebago system, and you realize chances of even seeing a fish are questionable at best.
Have I painted a picture of the kind of people who put themselves at risk with such poor odds of success?
Let’s examine the equipment used by these crazy people. Everyone has some type of shelter. I have seen things as simple as tents – which may cost as little as $200 – and I have seen things as complex as an “ice castle” which can cost upwards of $30,000. Most spearers use a shack or shanty which on average are eight feet long by six feet wide and cost around $1,000.
All shelters are used for one main purpose – to get out of the elements. Given the average temperature and conditions in February, I would not suggest any type of tent. In the old days, many of these shacks were heated with wood burning stoves and the shacks were seldom insulated. Today it’s simple to insulate a newly built shack, and the extra money and time invested in doing so is well worth the effort and cost. The old wood stoves have been replaced with stoves that run off liquid propane, and you can choose from a cast iron plate to a state-of-the-art wall heater that takes up very little space. The cost of a heater will range from about $50 to $300.
As you look across a sturgeon shack you will see a large hole cut into the floor which is on average about the size of a refrigerator door. This hole in the shack is pushed over a hole cut into the ice, which regulations do not allow to exceed 48 square feet.
This hole in the ice is cut with either a large chain saw geared specifically to cut ice, or a sled saw also specifically made for cutting ice. These chainsaws are anything but typical, and very impressive when in use. There’s a real danger of cutting off a foot or leg in the process of cutting these holes, so extreme caution is required. The cost for a new ice chain saw is around $1,600.
In every sturgeon shanty you will find a sturgeon spear. It’s the most important piece of equipment used.
You won’t find a sturgeon spear at Cabela’s or Gander Mountain, and believe it or not, you won’t find them online either! Each quality sturgeon spear is crafted by a small handful of individuals that typically live close to the Winnebago system. When these craftsmen produce spears, they don’t produce them by the thousands or even hundreds, but one at a time.
What constitutes a quality sturgeon spear? Many people have their favorites for one reason or another, but the main characteristic I look for is flying barbs. Flying barbs are movable pieces of metal that lie tight up against the tine when the spear enters the fish, but when the spear tries to be pulled out of the fish, they retract. Sometimes you may only get one tine from the spear into the fish, but if it’s a good spear with the proper barbs, it should be able to hold most sturgeon. Once the sturgeon is on the ice and the spear needs to come out, flying barbs also make it easier to remove the spear from the fish without performing major surgery.
Spears can usually be purchased at a few select taverns around the Winnebago lake system. Wendt’s On the Lake along the west shore of Lake Winnebago north of Fond du Lac has one of the largest selections you will find. Most spears can be purchased for between $200 to $300.
You might think the decoys used to lure a sturgeon into a hole must be important. It’s true that some of the best sturgeon spearers purchase very fine decoys typically carved from basswood and shaped like some type of fish. But after they purchase these exquisite pieces of art, they put them on display in a case or on their fireplace mantel!
The truth is just about any object has the capacity of luring in a sturgeon. Once a sturgeon comes into view and that sturgeon spear is thrown – particularly if the sturgeon spearer has little to no experience – chances are good that whatever is being used for a decoy might not be coming back.
If you are a conservation warden working for the Department of Natural Resources, you will say that the most important piece of equipment is your sturgeon spearing license. And I agree. Sturgeon Spearing sets itself apart again when it comes to purchasing a license. Permits need to be purchased by Oct. 31, which is a full three months prior to the season opening.
So, if you have never experienced sturgeon spearing and are reading this article or maybe are just viewing all those shanties from the shoreline, you may think everyone out there is a bit crazy! It’s dangerous with risks taken every day, temperatures can be life threatening, the equipment needed can be on the expensive side, you need to commit to your season months in advance, and then after all of that, your chances of being successful stink!
What you would fail to see up to this point is what lies beneath the surface. Beneath the surface of the water, the sturgeon shacks, and the skin of those who call themselves sturgeon spearers. The sturgeon itself is “ghost like” when it comes floating into your hole. You sit and look at an empty hole for so long, when the moment does present itself, you are almost in unbelief that it is really happening. Things are so quiet and still at one moment, and the next second everything is in complete chaos! It is truly a sport of contrast. While the temperature outside is bone chilling, the temperature inside of the shacks is typically very comfortable and warm. While the outside world is making us go faster and faster, sturgeon spearing makes us slow down, simplify and forces us to sit down and be still! Patience….Patience….Patience….Everyone that sturgeon spears needs at least some patience, but those that are out on the ice the most often seem to have a bit more than others.
When a sturgeon does swim into your hole and you are fortunate enough to get a spear in him and get it out of the water, it is a moment that you do not soon forget. You are in an elite class of successful spearers and this is the only place in the world you can enjoy this type of season for 16 days! Dangerous conditions, frigid temps, costly equipment …. Crazy people? Worth every penny!!!
Paul Muche was born and raised on the west shores of Lake Winnebago where God, family, and the outdoors are his focus. He is the father of four boys that love the outdoors as much as he does, and blessed to be married to a woman that lets them enjoy it all! He is also on the board of directors for Sturgeon for Tomorrow.