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OSHKOSH -- A record number of fish weighing more than 100 pounds, a full 16-day season, and difficult travel conditions were the stories during the 2011 Winnebago System sturgeon spearing season that wrapped up Feb. 27.

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Spearers harvested 1,426 fish, close to the average of 1,405 since the harvest cap started in 1999, but the fish were bigger than they've been since the 1950s.

"This year, 6.6 percent of the fish harvested were over 100 pounds, compared to less than 1 percent 20 years ago," says Ron Bruch, the Department of Natural Resources fisheries supervisor in Oshkosh.

Bruch says the big fish -- 94 in all -- are reflective of a shift in the population to include more older and larger fish. "It appears that the strategies we began putting in place in the early 1990s to increase the number of older females in the population are working -- and the male sturgeon are benefitting from this as well," he says.

DNR and the Lake Winnebago Citizen Sturgeon Advisory Committee recommended a series of changes in the 1990s -- 22 in all -- to ease harvest pressure on vulnerable adult female fish and stabilize the fishery. Female lake sturgeon, which can live more than 100 years, don't start spawning until they are 20 to 34 years old, and then spawn only once every three to five years.

Those measures appear to have done their job well. Their implementation began to have an impact on the sturgeon harvest just as the size and age structure of the Winnebago sturgeon population was coming back from excessive legal and illegal overharvest during the 1930s to 1950s, Bruch says.

A third factor was at work as well: a big forage base. "Sturgeon weight can go up and down like a yo-yo," Bruch says. "In the mid-2000s, poor food resources kept weight down. Now food resources are abundant, and the fish ballooned up. Abundant gizzard shad populations are floating this whole thing."

Full 16-day season the fourth to run that long

While the Upriver Lakes season closed Feb. 24, the Lake Winnebago season ran the full 16 days allowed by law, the fourth time since the harvest cap system was put in place.

The length of the season helped push up the harvest after an opening weekend when spearers were slowed by travel problems. Heavy snow and drifting before opening day made moving around on the lake difficult for the record 12,423 people who had purchased spearing licenses. Warm weather, snow melt, and deteriorating travel conditions on the ice the first week of season forced a majority of spearers to pull their shacks off the lakes, dropping the shanty count by the second Saturday of the season 59 percent on Lake Winnebago and 81 percent on the Upriver Lakes

"A lot of spearers got off the lake and never got back, so for some of them, it may have been a disappointing season," Bruch says. "But for the diehards and the people who were able to get back out there -- these people are saying it was a fantastic season."

The overall success rate was 9 percent for Lake Winnebago, below the average of 13 percent for that waterbody. Success rate on the Upriver Lakes was better, as it usually is, at 66 percent.

"With the travel problems, the success rate wasn't what it's been in past years, but even so I think there are a lot of happy people, and the source of that happiness is not only knowing they can go sturgeon spearing and have the fun they do with their families and spearing buddies, but because the program we have here was built with the public," Bruch says. "They own this. This is something they take great pride in."

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