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Joe Muthig (left), of Greenville, helps his friend Ken Biettler, of Larsen, load up a large sturgeon after registering it at Payne's Point Bar and Grill last February in Neenah. The 171-pound, 83-inch fish is the first sturgeon Ken has caught since he began spearing in 1975. / Post-Crescent photo by Dan Powers

Lake Winnebago water clarities as of Feb. 5, 2011

Location Miles from shore Water depth (ft) Clarity (ft)
Paynes Point 1 15 13
Fire Lane 8 1 16 11
Stockbridge 1 19 15
Quinney 2 19 15.5
Calumet Harbor 1 15.5 12.5
Wendts (Fond du Lac) 2 15 12
Oshkosh 2 17 12.5

Harvest limits/ season dates

The season begins on Saturday and continues through Feb. 27 on the Winnebago System unless pre-set harvest limits in one or more categories of fish are reached on Lake Winnebago, the Upriver Lakes of Butte des Morts, Poygan and Winneconne or the entire Winnebago System. Daily spearing runs from 6:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Season spearing limits on the entire Winnebago System are 395 juvenile females, 790 adult females and 1,200 males. Specific limits on Lake Winnebago are 316 juvenile females, 711 adult females and 960 males. On the Upriver Lakes season limits are 79 juvenile females, 79 adult females and 240 males.

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NEENAH Bring plenty of friends, an extra four-wheel-drive truck or two and snow shovels, veteran travelers of Lake Winnebago are telling sturgeon hunters hoping to spear the ancient fish beginning Saturday.

Recent heavy snow whipped by strong winds created drifts in excess of 6 feet in some places, which are promising to make access to the sturgeon hunting grounds a challenge.

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"A lot of guys are getting stuck on the ice," said Gary Kerkman of the Paynes Point Hook and Spear Fishing Club in the Town of Neenah. "Most people are going out with two or three trucks to help each other when they get stuck. And people will get stuck. You could find yourself doing a lot of shoveling this weekend."

Kerkman said it's nearly impossible to see large snowdrifts, ranging in height from 3 feet by Neenah to more than 6 feet around Oshkosh and Fond du Lac. View hundreds of photos from previous sturgeon seasons.

Regardless of deep snow or continuing reports of cloudy water conditions, a record number of sturgeon hunters are expected to take to the ice of Lake Winnebago and the upriver lakes of Butte des Morts, Poygan and Winneconne beginning at 6:30 a.m. Saturday to kick off the 16-day season.

The season will last on Lake Winnebago until one of the three Lake Winnebago harvest caps is reached or 16 days pass, whichever occurs first. Since 2002, when the six-hour spearing day went into effect, the spearing season on Lake Winnebago has lasted an average of 10 days. The season will last on the upriver lakes until one of the three upriver lakes harvest caps is hit there. Since the first lottery season on the upriver lakes in 2007, the season there has lasted an average of five days.

State Department of Natural Resources sturgeon biologist Ron Bruch said he expects a trend toward harvesting more fish weighing100 pounds and over to continue.

"At some point I expect the harvest of large fish to stabilize," Bruch said Wednesday. "Last year, 5 percent of the fish harvested weighed in excess of 100 pounds. I expect to see the same this year. What we are seeing in the harvest is truly a reflection of the sturgeon population in the lake."

A new state record was set and the 200-pound barrier broken in 2010 when Ron Grishaber of Appleton speared a 212.2 pound sturgeon.

Season harvests increased this year on Lake Winnebago and the upriver lakes, but cloudy water might prevent the record number of 12,423 licensed spear hunters from reaching the new quotas.

The 2011 caps will be 395 juvenile females (up from 350 in 2010), 790 adult females (up from 740), and 1,200 males (up from 1,000).

Murky waters were the hot topic of conversation among sturgeon hunters for the past month, but conditions are clearing, Bruch said.

"Runoff (of chemicals and animal wastes) are basically to blame for the cloudy water, but the water seems to have been clearing though the winter," Bruch said.

Water clarity affects the ability of sturgeon hunters to see their quarry in water ranging from 5 feet in the upriver lakes to 18 or 19 feet in Lake Winnebago.

Some sturgeon hunters use a frame made of white PVC pipe to make it easier to see the fish passing through a spearing hole.

Bruch said the upriver lakes, which are generally shallower than Lake Winnebago, have clearer water.

"You can see the bottom in some spots," he said.

On Lake Winnebago, water clarity generally ranges from 15 feet to 19 feet of water as measured 1 to 2 miles from shore.

The recent snow and winds turned the focus of talk among lake watchers from clarity to lake access.

The Paynes Point club has two plow trucks working from sunup to sundown carving a network of roads on the lake east of Neenah. Other fishing clubs around the lake plow their own roads, all at their own expense.

"We've spent more than $2,000 the past week for gasoline to plow roads and help others out. By the end of this coming weekend, we'll probably have spent $3,000 for gasoline," Kerkman said.

Plowing operations are primarily funded through memberships sold by the clubs.

"People should really support those clubs, especially in a year like this when it is hard to get around on the lake," Bruch said. "That's the reason these clubs came into existence to provide public access to the lake."

The deep snow may mean a longer-than-average season.

In 2010, sturgeon hunters met the harvest quotas after six days of spearing.

Kerkman said there is good driving on the plowed roads, "but when you get off the roads you can run into 3-foot drifts."

"You'll be driving on 6 inches of snow and all of a sudden be in a 3-foot drift. You'd think it would be easy to see such a big drift, but it isn't," Kerkman said. "Once people get off the plowed roads, they'll have to be ready to bust their own trails."

The snow is so heavy it is pushing down on the enormous sheet of ice covering Lake Winnebago.

"When someone cuts a spearing hole the water could come gushing out onto the ice. There's a lot of weight on that ice and just like the land there are high spots and low spots on the lake," Kerkman said.

If temperatures warm to near 40 degrees as predicted by Saturday and Sunday the ice could crack, presenting the possibility water would seep up through the cracks and mix with the snow to create slush.

"You could end up with big slush holes on the lake, and those holes could be pretty deep," Kerkman said.

Steve Wideman: 920-993-1000, ext. 302, or swideman@postcrescent.com

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