Although dinosaurs are thought to have died out some 65 million years ago, not everything from ancient times has gone extinct. The Coelacanth for example, a prehistoric fish thought to have died out with the great reptiles, apparently did not get the memo - a specimen was discovered by a South African museum curator on a fishing trawler in 1938.
Like the Coelacanth, the Lake Sturgeon is also a “living fossil”, belonging to a family of fish that has existed for over 135 million years. It is in pursuit of this veritable finned dinosaur that anglers from around the Midwest flock to the hallowed frozen surface of Lake Winnebago each February to “hunt.” Welcome to the annual sturgeon spearing season in Wisconsin.
Kirk and Derek Hemauer of Hatley are of the “dinosaur hunter” order. Kirk, a senior at D. C. Everest Senior High School, credits family for turning the brothers on to sturgeon spearing. “We heard about it for years from our aunt and uncle and always wanted to try it,” says Kirk. The duo’s maiden voyage onto the Winnebago ice in search of their first spearing experience came in 2010. Borrowing a shack and spear from their relatives, the pair set up roughly 3 miles off Stockbridge Harbor. Conditions were not the best as Kirk recalls, “Water clarity was terrible – we would lose sight of the decoy only five or six feet down.”
More on sturgeon season: More headlines and video | Tweets collected during the season | Browse photos from the 2013 season | Browse photos from the 2012 season | Share your sturgeon photos | Watch cameras on the Wolf River | Watch cameras positioned in Stockbridge
So did the Hemauer brothers experience beginners luck? According to Kirk, not quite. The spear-wielding twosome saw only a smattering of walleyes and one small sturgeon. The two were (pardon the pun) hooked, and as Kirk tells it with an ear-to-ear grin, “I could stare down that hole forever.” Thanksgiving of the same year found Kirk and Derek hard at work in their home shop preparing for the 2011 spearing season. The pair built their own shack and Kirk fashioned a homemade metal spear. Using patterns given to them by their uncle, the brothers also produced 10 fish-shaped decoys made out of pine.
Embracing the arrival of the 2011 season, Team Hemauer hastily made its way to Appleton the Friday prior opening day. The day, ripe with anticipation, consisted of cutting an over-sized hole through the frozen surface of the lake and placing the shack. Hours later the screech of an alarm clock broke the calm and stillness of pre-dawn and opening morning had arrived. When mechanical issues with one of their four-wheelers delayed their arrival to the spearing grounds, neither brother would allow the delay to dampen their enthusiasm.
Sturgeon spearing is a game of waiting, watching, and wishing – and then wishing some more. At 9:50 a.m. on opening day 2011, a 72” 101 pound “granter-of-wishes” swam under the Hemauer’s hole. “I didn’t even see it right away until he (Derek) threw the spear,” Kirk admits sheepishly. The spearhead detached as planned, and with Kirk acting as the gaff man, the pair was able to wrestle the behemoth up out of the hole. Unable to contain the broad smile that has crept across his face Kirk continues, “The head went from the door all the way back to the hole. I was like wow!” He pauses a moment before continuing, “As we were pulling it out it was whipping its tail and hit our wood stove, cracking one of the legs. It was Awesome!”
Cheers to the glow from a wood stove, fellowship amongst good friends, and memories to last a lifetime – dinosaur hunting at its finest. May you be able to reflect back on the 2013 sturgeon spearing season and say, “It was awesome!” I’ll see you on the water…
Joel DeBoer is a Professional Musky Guide, Author, Internet Personality, Outdoor Educator, and Tournament Angler. He can be reached through his website at: http://www.wisconsinanglingadventures.com. Joel will be sharing hunting, fishing, and other outdoor-related information through the perspective of one of North-Central Wisconsin's most successful and accomplished guides.