A beer in one hand and a cell phone in another, Richard Plum of Fond du Lac celebrated Saturday after hauling in his first sturgeon in seven years of spearing.
The 49-pound juvenile female swayed on a hook outside Wendt's on the Lake in Van Dyne, an official weighing station for the 2011 sturgeon spearing season.
"The conditions are pretty good this year. The water is clear and the ice is good," said Plum, who landed his sturgeon about 10 a.m. off the shore from Subway Road.
A record number of sturgeon spearing enthusiasts came out on opening day, as did the sunshine. The spearing season continues to Feb. 27 or until pre-set harvest caps are reached.
The overall harvest for the day was 442, compared to 656 registered on opening day in 2010, reported Ron Bruch, Winnebago sturgeon biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources. Spearers registered 23 fish 100 pounds or larger, with 18 coming from Lake Winnebago and five from the Upriver Lakes. Last year, 34 sturgeon over 100 pounds were registered on opening day.
Largest of day
The largest sturgeon caught Saturday was a 172.7-pound, 76.9-inch female by Jeffery Nozar of Oshkosh.
This year's biggest hindrance seemed to be the buildup of snow on the lake, as travelers to and from the shanty towns far out on the ice kept getting stuck. Ice thicknesses of anywhere from 15 to 24 inches were reported.
"Someone pulled us out and our fish flew off the back of the truck," said Kris Schaefer of Fond du Lac, as her husband Matt Schaefer pulled their 86.2-pound prize across the snow with a dog leash.
Spearing since the age of 12, Matt said he'd hoped his sturgeon would break the 90-pound mark this year. He headed out on the ice about 6:30 a.m. Saturday and pulled in his catch at 11:30 a.m. Kris said she just comes along for the fun of it.
"My job is to throw the chairs out of the shanty when the time comes, so there's room to pull the fish out," she said.
A total of 73 sturgeon were recorded at Wendt's, with four weighing more than 100 pounds. Crowds gathered around a 94.4-pound fish landed by Jay Barfield of Van Dyne. He transported the fish using a child's plastic sled.
"It's like being a celebrity for day," he said as a child bent down to stroke the sturgeon's head.
Bruch says that for sturgeon spearers, opening day is bigger than the Super Bowl. Unlike other hunting and fishing sports, sturgeon spearing is growing and that's good for local economies, which see an influx of $3.5 million during the short season.
Last season, 82 fish larger than 100 pounds were taken, including a record 212.2-pounder speared by Ron Grisaber of Appleton. Bruch says there are fish bigger than that in the system.
Mark Weimer and his buddy Tom Esslinger, both of Hartford, used spears they handcrafted at Esslinger's Hartford Machine Shop. Both men bagged a sturgeon from the south end of the lake.
"You open some 'brewskies' and get out the cold, rolled steel," Esslinger explained of his spear-making technique.
Saturday's numbers were about average for an opening day, said Dave Wedan from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He helps check the sturgeon for overall health and possible diseases.
"There's a huge population of shad right now in the lake drawing more sturgeon in," Wedan said.
Bruch said the vast majority of fish brought in Saturday were in excellent condition — a result of the abundant lake fly larvae and gizzard shad food resources in the lake this year.
The 2010 hatch of gizzard shad was the largest since the early 1990s. Gizzard shad experience a natural die-off of a portion of their population each winter and the lake sturgeon take advantage of this high-quality food source by eating large quantities of the dead and dying shad laying on the bottom.
Opening day shanty count was 4,321 on Lake Winnebago and 372 on the Upriver Lakes.