Tyler Koller, 8, of Appleton, touches a sturgeon at the registration station at Waverly Beach on Saturday, the opening day of sturgeon spearing. / Post-Crescent photo by Ron Page
NEENAH — Abundant food supplies kept sturgeon close to home while cloudy water made it hard for sturgeon hunters to find the sitting fish on Saturday, the opening day of the 2011 spearing season.
The first-day harvest was down 33 percent from opening day of 2010, according to state Department of Natural Resources sturgeon biologist Ron Bruch.
A tally of registered fish from Lake Winnebago and the upriver rakes of Butte des Morts, Poygan and Winneconne, show 442 fish harvested, compared with 656 taken on opening day last year.
Sturgeon photos: opening day 1 | opening day 2 | preparations | cut in | your photos
"Water clarity was excellent in some areas and fair to good in other areas, so not consistent across the whole lake system," Bruch said. "Reports from spearers indicate that fish movement, while very good in some areas, was not as good lake-wide as it was on opening day in 2010."
The smaller harvest could mean a full season of spearing, much to the delight of sturgeon hunters. The season is slated to continue through Feb. 27 unless pre-set harvest quotas for one of three categories of male or female sturgeon is reached. In 2010 the season lasted just six days.
"It'll be nice with a long season to have a little down time and be able to sit in the shanty and talk to my daughter," said Stacy Frakes of Neenah, who harvested an 83 pound fish in 2010, her first year spearing.
Frakes is now teaching her 21-year-old daughter, Jordan, a first-year sturgeon hunter, the basics of spearing in a "women only" shanty near Neenah.
"We didn't see anything on Saturday, but we'll be back out there on Sunday," Frakes said.
Saturday's harvest included 23 fish 100 pounds or larger, down from 34 on opening day 2010.
The biggest fish, weighing in at 172.7 pounds, was speared by Jeffrey Nozar of Oshkosh.
Bruch said the sturgeon harvested on Saturday were in excellent condition, the result of an abundant population of lake fly larvae and gizzard shad food resources in the lake this year. Gizzard shad, a small silvery fish, were found in large numbers this year, but die off naturally during the winter. The sturgeon consider the shad a delicacy and eat large numbers of the dead and dying fish.
Spearers on Saturday harvested 283 fish on Lake Winnebago and 159 on the upriver lakes, which is governed by a lottery system to regulate the harvest.
The harvest totals for the most sensitive category of sturgeon, the adult females, were 17.7 percent of harvest caps on Lake Winnebago and 46.8 percent of separate caps for the upriver lakes. Overall harvest caps for the Winnebago System are 395 juvenile males, 790 adult females and 1,200 males.
Once spear hunters reach or come close to the caps on Lake Winnebago or the upriver lakes, the season closes in that area or on the entire Winnebago System.
Lance Kohl of Hortonville doesn't have to worry about when the season closes, because he reached his one-fish limit about 10 a.m. Saturday on Lake Winnebago, two miles east of Paynes Point.
The 57.3-pound, 60-inch fish appeared suddenly to the right side of Kohl's spearing hole.
"It came right toward me. I was a spearing virgin until today," Kohl said. "It was exciting. I just barely got it with two tines of my spear. I waited eight years to get this fish and it was definitely worth the wait."
Kohl harvested the fish with a spear he acquired pretty cheap when considering most spears sell for upward of $200.
"I traded a case of beer and 15 bucks for this spear back eight years ago," Kohl said.
The spear didn't perform as designed on Saturday when the head of the spear, meant to detach once a fish is speared, become stuck on the spear handle.
And Kohl was alone in his shanty.
"The handle of the spear got lodged on the sides of my shanty. I had to use my gaff hook to open the door so I could pull the fish out. I would have dove in to get that fish if I had to. He wasn't getting away," he said.
Kohl said water clarity in his spearing hole wasn't bad, but not so for Buff Steinke, 62, of Redgranite, who was sturgeon spearing for the first time in nearly 20 years after retiring from a job that took him from his hometown of Fond du Lac to Iowa.
"I thought I would give it a whirl again," Steinke said. "But you can only see down about 10 feet in 14 feet of water. It's going to be one of those years when it's going to be a little tough getting a sturgeon."
Like most spear hunters, Steinke had long hours to ponder the past and future.
"I have speared sturgeon for most of 40 years. I used to live on the shore of Lake Winnebago in Fond du Lac and went spearing since childhood with my high school buddy, Dick Schmitz. We speared a lot of sturgeon together. One year they only harvested 12 sturgeon on all of Lake Winnebago and we got two of them," he said.
Schmitz died, leaving Steinke to plug along by himself if his sons were unavailable as shanty partners.
"It's a boring sport, but when you see one come through the hole it's the thrill of a lifetime," said Steinke, whose shanty is east of Paynes Point. "I'm not out here just to get another sturgeon. I'm out here to get a big one. Look at all the people that are around out here. That's what everyone is here for, to see that big one."
Steve Wideman: 920-993-1000, ext. 302, or firstname.lastname@example.org