About sturgeon spearing
Each year in February, people who previously purchased licenses stake out spots on Lake Winnebago and occasionally other lakes in the Winnebago System in hopes of spearing a sturgeon, a primitive species of fish dating back millions of years. The fish, which have tubular mouths and torpedo-shaped bodies covered with rows of bony plates, can grow to enormous sizes. Spear fishermen cut large holes in the ice, place a shanty over the top, then sit and stare, waiting for a prize to swim underneath.
More information: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources sturgeon hotline, 920-303-5444.
2011 sturgeon season
The 2011 sturgeon spearing season begins this Saturday on the Winnebago System, which includes Lake Winnebago and the upriver lakes of Butte des Morts, Winneconne and Poygan. The season runs through Feb. 27 or until a pre-set harvest cap is reached. Harvest caps for this season on the Winnebago System are 395 for juvenile females, 790 for adult females and 1,200 for males. There is a bag limit of one sturgeon per license and a minimum length of 36 inches per fish.
STOCKBRIDGE — A wisp of white cedar smoke hangs across State 55 like an aromatic welcome mat greeting visitors who pass Don Ecker's home on Stockbridge's north end.
Ecker feeds his wood-burning stove cedar scraps from dozens of sturgeon spearing decoys — called coaxers by locals — he carved to sell for the approaching sturgeon hunt.
A quarter-mile away on Calumet County E, 71-year-old Jim Nadler checks the sharpness of the points on his home-made, seven-tine sturgeon spear patterned after those made by his grandfather, Tony, in the early 1900s.
Meanwhile, at the crossroads of 55 and E, Marilyn Levknecht works in the kitchen of Gobblers Knob, planning the restaurant's menu and gauging food supplies in preparation for the influx of hundreds of sturgeon hunters and spectators headed for Lake Winnebago.
With less than a week before Saturday's opener of the 2011 sturgeon hunt, Stockbridge is gearing up to assume its self-proclaimed title of "Sturgeon Center of the World."
"You wouldn't believe the number of people who come to Stockbridge for the sturgeon season," said Ecker, whose spearing decoys have found homes as far away as Australia.
Just outside Ecker's home, a large wooden sign welcoming visitors to Stockbridge carries the village logo with a sturgeon as the centerpiece. Maroon-colored banners heralding this village of 679 residents on Lake Winnebago's east shore as the "Sturgeon Center of the World" hang from light posts.
In Ecker's driveway, two plaques cut to resemble a sturgeon advertise his decoys for sale.
"Stockbridge has been a popular place for sturgeon spearing for a very long time," Ecker said.
A mixed history
Ecker recalls seeing photographs of American Indian teepees on the lake used as shelter during sturgeon spearing.
A historical marker near the Harbor Bar, a main entrance point to Lake Winnebago at the west end of Stockbridge on E, notes American Indians occupied the village site as early as 1100 A.D.
According to the marker, Stockbridge earned its name from the Stockbridge Indian tribe that was relocated from its homeland in New York State in the 1830s to the east shore of Lake Winnebago.
A local history book, "The Stockbridge Story," published in 1978, notes American Indian sturgeon hunters "walked out on the ice, cut holes through it and sat huddled in their blankets waiting for 'Old Moses,' the biggest sturgeon in the lake, to swim by. They never speared the first one, but waited for the next one, which they hoped would be much larger."
Stockbridge hasn't always been a center for sturgeon, Ecker said.
He said oldtimers recall back in the days of steamboats, before there was an official sturgeon season, the ancient fish were almost wiped out when steamboats that plied the lake would put out set lines — long lines with many hooks — and catch sturgeon.
"They would just keep the caviar," Ecker said, referring to the sturgeon eggs that are eaten as an appetizer. "And back in those days there might be six spearing shanties here and six down by Quinney."
Ecker said that 30 years ago Stockbridge was a thriving village with two grocery stores and eight taverns, but changes in the economy whittled Stockbridge to a smaller but still vibrant place today, especially during the sturgeon hunt.
"This time of year people start thinking about sturgeon spearing," Ecker said.
Boon for business
Images of sturgeon decorate most businesses in the village, including the State Bank of Chilton and Stockbridge office, where 19 decoys from various carvers line the counters of bank teller stations.
Several doors south of Ecker, more than two dozen colorful decoys, carved by another local craftsman, fill two shelves in a BP convenience store owned by Buddi Subedi "We put the decoys out there for sale to help our customers. The decoys are pretty cool," Subedi said.
This is Subedi's first year living in Stockbridge and his first sturgeon season as a business owner.
"It's pretty exciting. I'm looking forward to it. The previous owner said it gets real busy and I'll need to hire two or three more employees for the sturgeon spearing season," Subedi said.
In the kitchen of Gobblers Knob, Marilyn Levknecht recalls the hundreds, maybe thousands, of sturgeon that have been speared and registered off the shore of Lake Winnebago near Stockbridge since she and her husband bought the restaurant, now run by the couple's sons, in 1976.
"This is our busiest time of year. It's like Christmas," Levknecht said. "It's a busy time for all the small communities along the east shore of the lake. By this time next week we'll have customers packed in wall to wall."
The party begins early this week when thousands of spearing shanties are moved from their summer homes in nearby farm fields and woodlots to the lake. On Thursday, sturgeon hunters can legally cut the large spearing holes and place their shanties.
Jim Nadler has three shanties parked by a family farm on the north side of town.
The orange shanties, to be used by eight spearing members of his family, including his wife, Mary Ellen, rest literally in the shadow of the village water tower emblazoned with a 20-foot-long sturgeon and the town's sturgeon center logo.
"I'm 71 and been spearing since I was 12," Nadler said.
A retired millwright, Nadler began making spears when he was a young man growing up in nearby Kloten.
Tony Nadler, his grandfather, began making spears before the turn of the 20th century, selling them for $3.50. By comparison, spears sell for well over $200 today.
Jim Nadler picked up the spearmaking tradition and his grandfather's reputation for quality spears, which are memorialized in a local newspaper headline from 1949: "They Don't Get Away When You Use His Spears, Says Tony Nadler."
Like most village residents, Nadler has a bad case of sturgeon fever.
"Any night you go into town now all the guys are talking about sturgeon spearing," Nadler said.
Mary Ellen Nadler said Stockbridge acquired its claim to fame as the sturgeon center of the world about 30 years ago when local officials filed for a copyright to the title.
Mary Ellen, who has a 68-pound sturgeon to her credit, said three generations of sturgeon hunters have grown up in Stockbridge, but several more generations of sturgeon hunting tales, such as fish bigger than telephone poles suddenly appearing in sturgeon spearing holes, constantly enrich the local history.
Local craftsmen like Jim Nadler and Don Ecker are scattered throughout the village making decoys, spears and maybe even a shanty or two in this homegrown sport.
"You can't go to the big sports stores and buy sturgeon spearing equipment. And it all goes back to the Native Americans," Nadler said.
Nadler speared his first sturgeon, a 33-pounder, when he was 13.
"I was in a shanty all by myself," he said. "Back in those days you didn't drive out on to the lake. There wasn't four-wheel-drive. And we didn't have chain saws to cut the spearing holes. We chiseled though 30 inches of ice."
Although Nadler has speared his share of sturgeon, the biggest weighing in at 97 pounds, he doesn't care if he spears another.
"I just like to be out there," he said.
Mary Ellen Nadler is looking forward to spearing with her two sons, her daughters-in-law and two grandchildren as the rest of the spearing world passes through Stockbridge.
"We have our own little world out here," she said.
Steve Wideman: 920-993-1000, ext. 302, or email@example.com