For the first time in 22 years, people gathered at sturgeon registration stations around the Lake Winnebago system will hear a new voice on the radio and see a new face at the scales.
Biologist Ryan Koenigs officially takes over Feb. 9 as the new leader of Wisconsin’s efforts to manage lake sturgeon. This ancient fish species can live more than 100 years and exceed 200 pounds, providing a unique harvest season that brings together generations of families and friends.
Koenigs takes over from Ron Bruch, DNR’s lead sturgeon biologist from 1990 through 2012. Bruch now directs budgeting, strategic work planning, and communications and outreach for DNR’s statewide fisheries program.
“I am looking forward to my first sturgeon spearing season in my new job,” says Koenigs. “I know I have big shoes to fill after taking over for my predecessor and mentor Ron Bruch, but I am looking forward to the responsibilities and challenges that lie ahead during the upcoming season and the rest of my career.”
Koenigs, who turns 28 on Feb. 2, is only the third sturgeon biologist in the past 40 years in a century-old sturgeon management program that has gained international acclaim for its pioneering research and management, as well as television and cinematic fame. DNR has played a leading role in helping other states and countries restore their sturgeon populations by providing technical expertise, sturgeon eggs and other assistance.
Koenigs follows Bruch, and before him, Dan Folz. Folz, nicknamed “Father Sturgeon,” is credited with building the initial population assessment program the DNR used as a foundation for the modern harvest management program.
Bruch expanded that assessment program and helped foster strong public involvement in the program to sustain the fish population and fishery. Working with the Winnebago Citizens Sturgeon Advisory Committee, Bruch led successful efforts to develop a harvest cap system and other protective regulations to sustain and grow populations of the slow-growing, late-maturing fish while preserving a unique spear fishery.
Bruch’s work, along with Folz’s, grew from the original biological studies and science-based management program on lake sturgeon in the Winnebago System that began in 1941 and continued under Ed Schneberger, Robert Probst, Tom Wirth and Gordon Priegel.
Dan Groeschel, president of the founding chapter of Sturgeon for Tomorrow, says that both Bruch and Folz have been very good and they are looking forward to working with Ryan Koenigs.
Sturgeon for Tomorrow, which was founded in 1977, has played a critical role in helping manage lake sturgeon, raising more than $800,000 to supplement state resources to buy boats and other equipment, while also promoting research and habitat improvement projects.
Groeschel said Koenigs is off to a good start.
“He’s going to be a great follow up to Ron,” Groeschel said. “He’s on top of the sturgeon management issues, he can conduct himself well in the public and he’s pretty good at explaining about sturgeon and walleye. He’s a real down-to-earth and intelligent young man.”
Koenigs holds a bachelor’s degree in fisheries and limnology from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and a Master’s Degree in biology from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
He served as a seasonal fisheries technician with the U. S. Forest Service in the Hiawatha National Forest before joining DNR as a part-time fisheries research technician and then as a fisheries management technician stationed in Oshkosh for the past four years.
Koenigs grew up a few miles from Lake Winnebago and remembers going out during the spearing season with his father. He has participated in the spearing season every year since he could legally spear.
“One of the real joys of this job is interacting with the heavily engaged public in the area. I enjoy getting out and interacting with sturgeon enthusiasts, and I am very excited to once again experience the unique culture that accompanies sturgeon spearing.”
Bruch and Folz will be visible presences at the sturgeon registration stations, and both remain very active in sturgeon management issues. Folz, though long retired, works most during sturgeon spearing season and spawning assessments. He plans on working the full 2013 sturgeon spearing season.
Bruch also will be helping out at DNR registration stations during the spearing season and will remain active in sturgeon issues statewide and internationally. He was among the founding members of the World Sturgeon Conservation Society, was successful in bringing the 4th International Symposium on Sturgeon to Oshkosh in July 2001 and is currently the president and a founding member of the North American Sturgeon and Paddlefish Society.
Bruch, who helped hire Koenigs, says the time was right to add to the sturgeon management lineage.
“I figured I wasn’t going to be around forever and we had a chance to hire an exceptional biologist able to carry on the program and take it to new heights,” he said. “Ryan is a very well-trained biologist and in addition to his outstanding analytical skills he has exceptional people skills.”
Image courtesy Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources