The 2012 sturgeon-spearing season will be remembered for bad ice and reduced water clarity but also for a record number of licenses sold and an impressive number of big fish.
"Unfortunately, the warm winter threw a giant wrench into many spearers' plans," said Ron Bruch, Winnebago sturgeon biologist, who added that the average 8 to 14 inches of ice wasn't enough to drive on with a vehicle over most of Lake Winnebago.
Many of the record 12,680 license-holders opted not to go out on the lake this year. Opening day harvest numbers were less than half of what is typically seen.
For the second consecutive year, spearing on Lake Winnebago extended for the full 16 days.
Bruch said the "large fish phenomena" continued this year and has been consistent for almost the last decade.
On Lake Winnebago, 21 of the 324 fish registered (6.5 percent) were 100 pounds or more. On the Upriver Lakes of Poygan, Butte des Morts and Winneconne), 15 of the 242 fish registered (6.2 percent) weighed 100 pounds or more.
"The proportion of large fish in the harvest is a reflection of the increasing numbers of large fish in the populations due to our management program and the way older age classes have been stacking up in our population the past 15-20 years," Bruch said.
Female spearer Chris Haedt of Oshkosh harvested the fifth-largest sturgeon on record for the Lake Winnebago spear fishery with a 179.8-pound, 79.6-inch female taken opening day from Lake Butte des Morts.
Bruch said he has been asked whether harvest caps will be raised next season because just 566 fish were harvested this year.
"We don't automatically raise the caps in any given year," he said. "We set the caps each year independently using the population estimates we develop from spring tagging data and harvest tag return and catch data."
The statistics won't be ready for several more weeks.
Bruch said the harvestable population of sturgeon has been growing over the past 15 years, allowing managers to increase caps during the past decade.
"The population can not continue to grow indefinitely, and the day will come when we will max out the caps or even possibly have to reduce them from time to time," Bruch said. "In any event, though, our sturgeon management program works well, and we can expect to see robust populations and a very viable spear fishery for many years to come."
Of the 566 sturgeon speared, 405 (71.6 percent) were harvested by people residing in the immediate counties around the Winnebago System (Calumet, 55 fish; Fond du Lac, 104 fish; Outagamie, 75 fish; and Winnebago, 171 fish).
Residents of adjacent counties took a total of 109 sturgeon. People living in Wisconsin but not in the Winnebago System area speared 39 fish. Out-of-state residents harvested 13 sturgeon.
Of the 566 fish speared, there were 324 sturgeon speared in Lake Winnebago; 92 in Lake Butte des Morts; 145 in Lake Poygan; and five in Lake Winneconne.