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Roy Mathison builds six-tine spears for sturgeon fishermen on the Winnebago System. His spears weigh 14 pounds and measure 90 inches.
Roy Mathison builds six-tine spears for sturgeon fishermen on the Winnebago System. His spears weigh 14 pounds and measure 90 inches. / Patrick Durkin/Correspondent

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Roy Mathison of Larsen never has speared a lake sturgeon nor stared into those coffin-sized holes on Lake Winnebago, hoping one of these prehistoric fish swims by.

Even so, this 73-year-old retired machinist has established himself as one of the Winnebago System's most masterful spearmakers. He handcrafts every piece of these 90-inch, 14-pound, six-tined spears in his workshop, precisely milling, turning and assembling the parts to create a lethal, sturdy and reliable fish-getter.

More headlines and photos from sturgeon season.

Mathison estimates he's built 40 sturgeon spears the past two years after his friend Jim Wollerman of Allenville encouraged him to put his metal lathe and milling machine to work. Wollerman brought Mathison several spears of various design, and explained their nuances and performance theories as Mathison examined their construction.

Once Mathison understood how a sturgeon spear must function, he began building custom spears for Wollerman and others. In itself, that's not unusual. When sturgeon season opens Saturday nearly every spear used by the record 12,400-plus sturgeon fishermen on lakes Winnebago, Poygan, Winneconne and Butte des Morts will owe its origins to local craftsmen.

After all, you don't buy or order sturgeon spears from major retail stores. Commercially made spears for gar and carp are too small and flimsy for sturgeon, which often weigh more than 100 pounds and measure more than 5 feet. Appleton's Ron Grishaber speared the state-record sturgeon on Winnebago a year ago, a 212.2-pounder that broke the previous record by 24 pounds.

No, a quality, handcrafted sturgeon spear more resembles the tridents carried by sea gods Poseidon and Neptune in Greek and Roman mythology. But instead of the trident's three-barbed tines, sturgeon spears usually sport five or six. Mathison prefers six, reasoning an extra tine might boost his customers' success rates.

Mathison's spears are also unique because they command a price, $175 to be exact, at Critter's Wolf River Sports in Winneconne. He said he sells just enough spears there to stay busy. "I'm not sure I want another store selling them," Mathison said. "I have all the work I need right now. I work on them when I get the urge and take a break whenever I feel like it."

Given Mathison's low-key approach, it's no surprise he hasn't given his spears a brand name, even though he builds two models. His more popular spear features a heavy steel collar just above the spearhead. Spearers claim this weight-forward design makes the spear less likely to plane off target when launched into Winnebago's deeper waters.

Mathison also makes a more centrally balanced spear, with the heavy collar 32 inches up the shaft. Spearers who draw one of the coveted 500 sturgeon tags for the shallow upriver lakes (Poygan, Winneconne or Butte des Morts) often prefer this model.

Either way, Mathison builds his spears one at a time after cutting, milling and shaping their many individual components. One box in his workshop contains more than 50 of the nearly foot-long steel tines, and a smaller box holds scores of the knife-like, retractable barbs that attach in pairs near each tine tip.

As the spearhead enters the fish, the barbs lie nearly flat in a pair of angled slots Mathison machines into the tines. The spearhead separates from the long shaft on impact, and as the sturgeon takes off, the barbs snap outward to prevent the fish from pulling free.

All the while, the spearhead remains attached to a 35-foot rope, which the spearer uses to fight the fish until it tires. He then works it into the hole, gaffs it, hauls it out and drags it into the shanty and out the door as quickly as possible. The faster he gets the sturgeon outside, the less damage it wreaks to chairs, stove and other gear inside.

Extracting the spearhead from a sturgeon can be difficult because of the barbs. Mathison, however, designed his spearhead so the tines can be removed with an Allen wrench and pushed through.

As he explains each pin, joint, slot, bevel and screw head in his spears, it's clear Mathison is forever fine-tuning and improving his product. But with each spear he builds, he's no closer to taking up sturgeon spearing.

Some men build ships and some men sail them, right?

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