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Mikey Galligan with a 175-pound sturgeon in 2012. / Submitted by Gary Engberg
Gizzard shad, the main forage for sturgeon. / Submitted by Gary Engberg

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Saturday, February 9 marked the Wisconsin sturgeon spearing season opener for the 81st time on Lake Winnebago and the Upriver Lakes of Poygan, Butte des Morts, and Winneconne. Wisconsin is one of only two states with a sturgeon spearing season with the other state being Michigan. Lake Winnebago is the third largest freshwater lake in the country at 137,000 acres and 88 miles of shoreline. The Lake Winnebago system (including the Upriver Lakes) has the largest natural reproducing lake sturgeon population in the world and its sturgeon eggs are now being used in lake sturgeon rehabilitation projects throughout North America.

Here is some information and facts on this prehistoric fish for those not familiar with this Wisconsin tradition:

Lake sturgeons are slow growing, long living (can live to over 100 years old), and a late maturing fish. The lake sturgeon population was nearly destroyed by commercial fishing, over-harvest, and illegal harvesting in the early 1900’s. If it wasn’t for the creation of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress in 1915, the plight of the lake sturgeon could have been much worse. Beginning in 1915, the harvest of all lake sturgeon was banned on all Wisconsin waters including the Winnebago system until 1932. This ban turned out to be the “savior” because the 17 year ban gave the fish some needed protection after decades of overharvest.

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

In the 1960’s, a 4.7% annual harvest or exploitation rate was adopted and became the base for managing the sturgeon population from then on. There have been dozens of rules, regulations, and laws adopted since the 1960’s to protect and manage the Lake Winnebago sturgeon population and harvest and they have all been based on the 4.7% exploitation limit. The Winnebago system also experienced changes in the system due to pollution which caused an increase in the water’s turbidity. This coincided with the loss of aquatic plants in the system. These plants provide cover for fish, substrate for invertebrates, produced oxygen, and food for the fish. The plant loss was due to the poor water quality. This turbidity helped the effectiveness of the new harvest regulations during the 1960’s-1980’s by making spearing more difficult. Water clarity is the most important factor in sturgeon spearing and has a close relationship to harvest rates. Fish movement patterns and the weather also affect harvest, but not near as much as the water clarity.

During the 1980’s, pollution was reduced and the water clarity improved in the 1990’s which caused an increase in harvest numbers and more regulations. The low harvest rates from 1968-1989 helped produce a growing lake sturgeon population. Then, a citizens group, Sturgeons for Tomorrow, was formed in 1977 to help protect spawning sturgeon in the Wolf River. This helped eliminate spring poaching and added a $1500.00 fine for possession of an untagged sturgeon in 1985.

Beginning in 1991, the DNR began to record the sex and stage of maturity of harvested sturgeon and increased tagging in the spring. This new information helped develop the new sturgeon regulations and laws that were enacted from 1993 to 2006 to address the overharvest of adult female sturgeon. Ron Bruch, the DNR sturgeon biologist at that time, said that “this data provided an opportunity to more accurately figure the adult sturgeon stock by sex and set harvest caps which would allow for a tighter control of exploitation by sex.” Another important group, the Winnebago Citizen’s Sturgeon Advisory Committee, was formed in 1992 and worked with the DNR fisheries staff to develop all the sturgeon regulations and laws since then.

Population estimates through the 1990’s showed that the sturgeon population had increased greatly since the 1950’s. Data showed that the sturgeon population had reached its carrying capacity by the 1990’s. A problem was caused by the large growth of the drum population because they compete with sturgeon for food. Sturgeon found the gizzard shad population to be an excellent forage fish and this helped improve the sturgeon population. The sturgeon population depended heavily on the shad population for food.

The harvest cap system was implemented in 1999 by emergency rules to manage the harvest. Harvest caps are the number of sturgeon that could be harvested. There are three categories; adult females, juvenile females, and males. Initially, the season could be closed 24 hours after 80% of any harvest cap was reached. Other changes included; reducing the season to 16 days, lowering the size minimum to 36 inches, requiring spearers to accompany their sturgeon to the registration station, and spearing hours were reduced to 6:30 am to 12:30 pm. Harvest caps have changed too with the most important change came with the “Fast Start” regulation where the season could close at the end of a spearing day when 100% of any of the caps were reached or exceeded that day. The “Slow Finish” was also added where there would be closure after 24 hours when 90% of any cap was reached.

A lottery was begun in 2007 requiring spearers to apply by August 1st for the 500 tags and the allocation of 20% of the juvenile females, 10% of the adult females, and 205 of the males to be harvested from the system.

On opening day, last Saturday, the spearing on the big Lake Winnebago was slow with poor visibility and less than ideal ice conditions. The total harvest on the lake was only 39 sturgeons. Spearers on the Upriver Lakes did much better, harvesting a total of 140 lake sturgeon. This year, opening was much like last season with the Upriver Lakes doing much better. The harvest of big fish has continued with 9 of the total harvest of 179 sturgeons being over 100 pounds. The harvest of large fish has re-written the record books over the past decade. In fact, 9 of the ten top fish in the record books have been taken between 2004 and 2012. This year was no exception, with an 80 inch and 179 pound fish harvested by Peter Vander Weilen and registered at Quinney on Saturday is the 6th largest fish ever harvested on the system.

The season on Lake Winnebago will most likely go the entire 16 days like last year with no harvest caps in jeopardy. But, the Upriver Lakes could be closed any day with harvest caps close to the 90% trigger. There needs to be only 29 adult females harvested for the automatic season closure to take affect.

The DNR did an aerial survey and counted 2,724 shanties on Lake Winnebago and 397 on the Upriver Lakes. These numbers are up slightly from last year. As I said earlier, the poor water clarity on Lake Winnebago is the cause for the low harvest numbers. Hopefully, the water will clear and the spearing will improve. But, it looks like the Winnebago spearers will have the full 16 day season while the Upriver Lakes should close shortly.

The lake sturgeon population is in very good shape and from the spring reports of 200 pound sturgeon, a new record could come anytime. Another Wisconsin tradition continues and there is nothing like this anywhere else in the world. Be safe and good luck!

Gary Engberg is a professional tournament angler, fishing guide, and writer. He began fishing tournaments in the early 1990’s and has fished the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT), North American Walleye Association (NAWA), Masters Walleye Circuit (MWC), World Walleye Association (WWA), FLW, and Mercury Nationals in the years since. Gary has hosted the Outdoor Horizons radio show weekly for 14 years in Madison on WTDY 1670 AM and WTDY 106.7 FM Saturdays at 8:05 am. and is also a correspondent for the Wisconsin State Journal for the last 12 years. Visit http://www.garyengbergoutdoors.com for more from Gary Engberg.

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