Spears at the ready: Hoping for more ice as sturgeon season closes in

(MCT) — MILWAUKEE — From a spearer’s perspective, there are three leading indicators for a successful Winnebago system sturgeon season: A large population of lake sturgeon, clear water and solid ice cover.

Decades of scientific management, protective regulations and support from local fishing groups have seen to the former. The Winnebago system is, in the view of many, the strongest lake sturgeon population in the world.

But the last two variables are mostly in the hands of Mother Nature. With the 2013 Winnebago system spearing season a week away, ice conditions were fair to poor on the state’s largest lake.

“We’re hoping for much better ice than we’ve got now,” said Bill McAloon of Oshkosh, a spearer with more than 50 years of experience on the lake. “But we’re fishermen, and we’re optimistic.”

Water clarity is linked to weather, runoff and algae blooms. Reports last week varied from poor to good at sites around the system.

The 2013 season is scheduled to run Feb. 9-24 but could close earlier if harvest caps are reached.

The Winnebago system sturgeon population is estimated to have 29,000 adult males and 19,000 adult females, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

While sturgeon species have been decimated in most of their native ranges, the Winnebago population of lake sturgeon has benefited from professional fisheries management and is perhaps larger than at any time in recorded history.

In a case study of successful natural resource management, the DNR formed a steering committee of local anglers and club members. The committee established regulations that both allow recreational opportunity and protect the sturgeon population.

“We’re fortunate to have very good spawning habitat for the fish as well as the strong support of local clubs and spearers,” said Ryan Koenigs, DNR sturgeon biologist.

The Winnebago sturgeon have access to more than a hundred miles of the Wolf River and associated marshes and tributaries for spawning.

In winter, the fish are found cruising the lakes as they search for food. Primary food sources are lake fly larvae and gizzard shad.

In one of the few such seasons in the U.S., spearers on the Winnebago system place shanties over large rectangular holes in the ice and wait, with a weighted spear at the ready, for a sturgeon to swim within range.

The fish must be at least 36 inches long; many stretch the tape more than 60 inches.

The state-record sturgeon was speared in 2010. It was 84.25 inches long and weighed 212.2 pounds.

The fish are valued for their meat, which is baked, smoked or fried. Some females also yield prized black caviar.

Last year, in a season that featured only fair ice conditions, spearers registered 324 sturgeon from Lake Winnebago and 242 from the Upriver Lakes.

The 2012 season lasted the full 16 days on Lake Winnebago and two on the Upriver Lakes.

The agency sets separate regulations for Lake Winnebago and the Upriver Lakes of Butte des Morts, Poygan and Winneconne.

The Lake Winnebago sturgeon harvest caps for 2013 are 320 juvenile females, 745 adult females and 960 males.

The Upriver Lakes harvest caps are 80 juvenile females, 83 adult females and 240 males.

The spearing season continues to draw high interest from the public. The DNR sold 12,092 sturgeon licenses for the 2013 spearing season (11,601 on Lake Winnebago and 491 on the Upriver Lakes).

The lottery for the Upriver Lakes licenses drew a record 4,894 applications last fall.

To help protect the sturgeon population, the agency limits the number of licenses to 500 on the smaller and generally shallower Upriver Lakes.

Koenigs said all signs indicate the Winnebago sturgeon population is increasing in size as well as age structure.

Assessments of fish taken during the spearing season and fish handled during the spring spawning season show more fish reaching maturity and more fish over 100 pounds.

“The harvest caps that have been implemented are working,” Koenigs said. “The fish are just starting to show us how big and old they can grow.”

The harvest caps are designed to keep harvest rates below 5 percent of each component of the population.

In spring 2012, DNR crews captured, tagged and released an 87.5-inch, 240-pound sturgeon below the Shawano Dam, the largest ever handled by fisheries staff.

Spearing hours are 6:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. each day.

In a regulation change this year, 12- and 13-year-olds are allowed to spear; the minimum age had been 14.

“We hope some of our experienced spearers take a kid spearing with them this year so they can learn the history and tradition of this sport,” Koenigs said.

The biggest variable is the ice. Recent rain deteriorated the ice and high winds pushed it to the east shore.

Colder temperatures over the last week have built more ice.

“Now we’ve had some snow, too, and a lot of slush on the lake,” said McAloon, a member of Sturgeon For Tomorrow. “We’ll just have to take it a day at a time.”

Koenigs said two lines of Christmas trees had been placed last week to mark ice roads on Lake Winnebago. He was hopeful conditions would allow more roads to be marked and perhaps ice bridges to be placed over the coming days. As always, spearers are urged to check for the latest conditions and exercise caution when traveling on the lake.

If Mother Nature cooperates, the season could be historic.

“The 2013 fishery will present spearers with the opportunity to harvest the next record sturgeon,” Koenigs said. “We know they are out there.”