A large male sturgeon is measured Wednesday along the banks of the Embarrass River at Pfeifer Park in New London by Bob Marin (from left), Dave Paynter and Ron Bruch. / Post-Crescent photo by Wm. Glasheen
MUKWA — The undulating tails of dozens of large fish, resembling sharks in a feeding frenzy, cut forcefully against the Wolf River's swift current near the Wolf River Sturgeon Trail bordering County X west of New London.
The tails belong to male lake sturgeon gyrating on large rocks along the river as they closely follow a much larger female sturgeon through the murky water.
Sticky gobs of up to 700,000 eggs deposited by the female cling to the same rocks the smaller males fight over to fertilize.
Weeks ago the big females, some approaching 200 pounds, migrated from Lake Winnebago to the Wolf River to wait with their male harems for water temperatures to reach the optimum egg-laying mark of 53 degrees Fahrenheit.
For days, sturgeon watchers looked to other, less scientific signs like large numbers of high-flying geese, pussy willows in full bloom and aspen leaves as big as beaver ears to appear and mark the beginning of spawning.
Finally, the 2011 sturgeon spawning run is on for spectators lining the Wolf River shores from New London and Shiocton to the dam at Shawano.
"That's the biggest fish I've ever seen," said Esther Bucher of Weinfelden, Switzerland, who is visiting relatives in the Waupaca area, as she watched sturgeon netting and tagging activities on Wednesday along County X. "I've never seen anything like this and we've been all over the world fishing."
The state Department of Natural Resources on Wednesday netted a 70-inch male sturgeon with an estimated weight of 150 pounds in the Embarrass River in New London's Pfeifer Park.
"The state spearing record for a male is 116 pounds set in 2009. This fish was a monster," said DNR sturgeon biologist Ron Bruch. "When we laid that fish on its stomach, its back was 14 inches above the ground. We estimate it had a 50-inch girth."
A colder-than-normal spring, high water and low water temperatures delayed the usual start of sturgeon spawning a few days, but the ancient fish could no longer wait to begin spawning activities in the Wolf River at New London, Bruch said.
"The river temperature is not at an optimum range level yet, but some fish that spawn at lower temperatures are spawning," Bruch said.
Bruch led a crew of DNR personnel on Tuesday and Wednesday in netting and tagging sturgeon on the Wolf River along County X.
"There are nice numbers of fish out here. There are probably several hundred fish spawning here. It's probably the biggest concentration of fish we've seen this season. If we only would have had one more day like we had on Monday, there would be a lot more action," he said.
Bruch said the big push for spawning could come this weekend when temperatures are expectedto reach into the 60s.
The Wolf River Sturgeon Trail, a milelong trail bordering County X two miles west of New London, is one of three local hotspots to view the sturgeon during the annual spawning ritual.
Bruch said high water flow on the Wolf River this year could limit the spawning sites, which number well over 100 along the river.
"That could result in high concentrations of fish at County X, Bamboo Bend near Shiocton and the Shawano Dam," Bruch said.
Bamboo Bend, a rock-lined bend in the Wolf River a half-mile west of Shiocton on State 54, is a popular gathering space for sturgeon and sturgeon watchers as the river winds to the south.
The end of the line for sturgeon looking to spawn is at the Shawano dam near Richmond Street, where hundreds of the fish are visible during peak spawning.
Bruch, who calls the Shawano spawning activity "the big show," said the Shawano dam could be busy with spawning sturgeon by the weekend.
Burch said the average date of peak sturgeon spawning activity on the Wolf River over the past 50 years is April 25. Generally, lake sturgeon do not spawn every year. Winnebago lake sturgeon females don't spawn for the first time until they are 20 to 34 years of age (48 inches to 60 inches long) and then only spawn every three to five years.
Males don't spawn for the first time until they are 14 to 31 years old (40 inches to 55 inches) and then spawn every one to three years.
Steve Wideman: 920-993-1000, ext. 302, or firstname.lastname@example.org