Retired Sturgeon biolgist, Ron Bruch, with a 150 pound sturgeon tagged in a past spring spawning season. / Gary Engberg/For Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com
An early day sturgeon. / Gary Engberg/For Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com
DNR sturgeon being netted on the Wolf River. / Gary Engberg/For Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com
Retired DNR Biologist Dan Folz and Ron Bruch who retired last year as the head biologist. / Gary Engberg/For Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com
The 2013 Wisconsin spring spawning season is nearing the end with a short, but successful spawn.
I’ve written about the state’s sturgeon spearing season before during the month of February when Wisconsin has a 16 day season on the Lake Winnebago system which includes Lake Winnebago and the Upriver Lakes of Winneconne, Poygan, and Butte des Morts. Here’s a little background information on this amazing and prehistoric fish.
The lake sturgeon is a slow-growing, long-living, and late-maturing fish. The Lake Winnebago system has the largest natural reproducing lake sturgeon population in the world and its eggs are used for lake sturgeon reintroduction and rehabilitation projects throughout the fish’s original range in North America. Lake Winnebago is the third largest freshwater lake in the United States encompassing over 137,000 acres and 88 miles of shoreline. Wisconsin has the best remaining lake sturgeon stock and the greatest diversity of lake sturgeon left in original range.
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
The lake sturgeon was nearly destroyed by commercial fishing, over-harvesting, illegal harvesting, and lack of proper management in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Great Lakes sturgeon population is now showing some signs of a comeback after decades of near extinction.
The plight of the lake sturgeon could have been much worse if it wasn’t for the creation of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress in 1915. Starting in 1915, the harvest of lake sturgeon was banned on all Wisconsin waters including the Winnebago system until 1932 when the ban was lifted.
The ban on sturgeon fishing turned out to be a “savior” in disguise because the 17-year ban gave the fish some much needed protection after many decades of overharvest. Though the ban helped the recovery on the Winnebago System, a harvest ban doesn’t span one generation of a sturgeon after many years of high exploitation. During the 1960s, the 4.7% annual exploitation rate was adopted and became a base for managing the sturgeon population. There have been dozens of rules, regulations and laws adopted since the 1960s to protect and manage the Winnebago sturgeon and they all have been based on the 4.7% exploitation limit.
There also were some environmental changes in the 1960s due to pollution which caused the lake’s water to become more turbid. This change in the water clarity coincided with the loss of aquatic plants throughout the entire system. The plant loss was caused by the water quality problems. This turbidity helped the harvest regulations during the 1960s thru the 1980 by creating difficult spearing conditions. Water clarity is one if not the most important factors in sturgeon spearing. The winter water clarity has a close relationship to the year’s sturgeon harvest rates.
During the 1980s, the pollution was reduced by new regulations which improved the water clarity in the 1990s leading to another round of increased sturgeon harvest and exploitation that resulted in another series of new sturgeon harvest restrictions.
The low harvest rates and increased sturgeon stocks from 1968 to 1989 had produced a growing sturgeon population and a new group, Sturgeons for Tomorrow, was formed in 1977 that started and funded the Sturgeon Guard program to protect spawning fish, eliminate spring poaching, and add a $1500.00 fine for possession of an untagged sturgeon in 1985.
There were also a few more factors that had an impact on the sturgeon population including; an increase in the number and development of man-made spawning sites on the Wolf River and the increase in the minimum sturgeon spearing size from 30 inches to 36 inches.
Starting in 1975 when Dan Folz became the biologist responsible for sturgeon management, the DNR started to include the sex and stage of maturity from harvested sturgeon and increased their efforts to tag adults during the spring. Before, all that the registration stations did was to measure, weigh and collect demographic data from harvested fish.
All of these facts added to and helped develop the new laws and regulations enacted between 1993 and 2006 to address the overharvest of the adult female sturgeon. Ron Bruch was the sturgeon biologist since 1990 till this year when Ryan Koenig took over the position. Bruch said that “the added data gave the DNR an opportunity to more accurately figure what the adult sturgeon stock by sex and set up harvest caps which would allow for tighter control of over harvest by sex.”
The Winnebago’s Citizen’s Sturgeon Advisory Committee was also formed in 1992 which worked with the DNR fisheries staff to develop and recommend all the new sturgeon regulations and laws since 1992. Population estimates through the 1990s showed that the adult sturgeon population had increased four-fold from the 1950s to the 1990s. The lake sturgeon population in the Lake Winnebago System grew to a carrying capacity level of abundance in a short time (30 years) due to environmental conditions, management actions, and harvest regulations that resulted in low harvest rates for most of these 30 years.
Throughout the 2000s many more rules and regulations were implemented like the harvest caps for males, females, and juvenile sturgeon. Some of these new permanent regulations included; no night spearing, no lights allowed, the hole size was reduced to 48 square feet, only one hole per shanty, reduced spearing hours and the continued harvest exploitation rate of 5%.
During the 2004 season, the large number of sturgeon and clear water limited the season to a two day season with 1,854 sturgeon harvested and a new one-day harvest record of 1,303 fish. The 2009 sturgeon season was another one for the record books with 32 sturgeon taken over 100 pounds and then the 2010 season broke the record again with 42 sturgeon over 100 pounds.
A 100 pound sturgeon is anywhere from 65- to 80-years-old. The DNR says that the number of trophy size fish has been increasing over the last decade and this is due to the distribution of age classes currently present in the population and to the impact of harvest regulations implemented over the last 17 years designed to increase the survival of these large fish
Sturgeon don’t spawn until they are 20- to 25-years-old. The new state record was also set in 2010 by Ron Grishaber of Appleton who speared a 212.2 pound sturgeon that was 84.2 inches long. There have been numerous 200 pound plus sturgeon tagged and handled during the last few springs. A 200 pound sturgeon is at least 100-years-old.
This spring, the sturgeon started spawning the third week of April and continued through the first few days of May. Wisconsin finally had warmer weather at the end of April which got the sturgeon spawning.
Sturgeon exhibit a few pre-spawn behaviors that usually allow the DNR workers to predict when the short spawning period will happen and take place. The first behavior is 'porpoising’ where the fish rise above or jump out of the water and this happens just before spawning. This activity increases as the sturgeons get closer to the spawn. The second pre-spawn activity is 'cruising' and usually involves the males moving up and down the Wolf River shoreline. Cruising usually happens anywhere from 1-2 days before the spawning gets started and increases as spawning gets closer. The water temperature is now 54 to 58 degrees and the sturgeon have been spawning since April 28 or 29. Peak spawning only takes a few days to be completed.
The spawn has mostly wrapped up on the Wolf River. The DNR sturgeon crew tagged 47 fish in one day last week at Sturgeon Trail and 61 fish at Bamboo Bend. The sturgeon spawn went fast this year and there may still be a few sturgeons spawning near the Shawano Dam which is the furthest upstream the fish can move.
The Winnebago System is a tremendous fishery that has gotten where it is by the work of the DNR and the numerous volunteer groups that have helped over the years. This is success story for the Wisconsin DNR and in a world of so many negatives; it’s good to see this success story!
The Wisconsin River has a number of lake sturgeon and a hook and line season in the fall. I’m sure that the sturgeons in the Wisconsin River spawn too, but I haven’t been able to find much information on their spawning.
I’ll keep checking and let you know what I find out.
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.