Don’t procrastinate. The deadline for a sturgeon spearing tag is October 31, just a few days away. So jump online (non-residents click here, Wisconsin residents click here) and get your tag. They may be listed under fishing licenses, but in all honesty, it is more like sturgeon hunting than sturgeon fishing.
Recently, I had the privilege of assisting the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Menominee Tribe with tagging sturgeon. I was up close and personal with the impressive namao, in the Menominee language. These elusive fish were the object of my obsession last winter, as I stared down a dark-house hole for hours. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
It was a thrill to be so close to the sturgeon, carrying them to and from the water on their hospital-like stretchers, applying syringes of antibiotic to the sutures, and yes—caressing. Such a geek. As the sumacs burst forth in bright red hues on a beautiful September day, the highlight of my week in Wisconsin was this mini job shadow. I knew I would not miss getting my application in by October 31. Done. Now it is your turn.
Ron Bruch, patriarch of the sturgeon, was there: making the incision, determining gender and maturity, inserting the tag, and suturing the incision. Bruch and his long-time friend and colleague, Fred Binkowski, authored People of the Sturgeon: Wisconsin’s Love Affair with an Ancient Fish. I can’t think of a better coffee table book that you could give as a gift. The photography and information is worth 10 times the price, and sorry, you can’t have my autographed copy.
Ryan Koenigs, the next-generation sturgeon expert to Ron Bruch, Kendall Kamke, and the Tribe’s fisheries biologist, Don Rieter, led the team with a half-dozen others helping. I worked with Kendall for many years bringing fishing tournaments to Lake Winnebago. It was energizing to work on something so hands-on and, well, less contentious than tournaments.
These fish are amazing. Harvesting one in-season by spear is more like hunting than fishing, though. I want to catch a sturgeon by hook and line one day, and hope to next spring in the early season on the Rainy River in Minnesota. But the spearing season is a different phenomenon entirely, more of a hunting experience—and an exercise in cultural immersion. It is definitely a slice of life in central Wisconsin outdoor winter fun.
Spearing is a game of quietly waiting. Yes, I harshly “shushed” those in my shanty, stopping short of a Jeff Dunham Achmed-the-Dead-Terrorist taunt of, “Silence, I kill you.” I did worry, though, that gabbing kept the mysterious fish away. Sturgeon spearing is a trial of luring in your game with a decoy. One must be ever ready to take the shot, if the shot arrives. Seconds, or fractions of a second, will be your only window of opportunity.
All that…is hunting.
So I will hunt a sturgeon in February in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin on Lake Winnebago, through a rectangular opening in the ice. I will reserve my hotel room, book a shanty, make plans with friends, and hopefully get ’er done. You can, too, but order your Lake Winnebago sturgeon spearing license in the next day or two. Upriver is a lottery application. Lake Winnebago, however, is guaranteed and unlimited. The harvest is strictly controlled and the season only lasts until the harvest limits met.
Now, about the aforementioned tagging.
A chain-link fence, placed overnight along a creek near Keshena Falls, in collaboration with the Wisconsin DNR and the Menominee Tribe’s Game and Fish, isolated the few sturgeon needed. Through Tribe funds and from DNR sturgeon spearing tag revenue, we had 10 sonar tags available at a price tag of $330 each. We inserted smaller PIT tags, too, but these larger tags are much more sophisticated and will provide significantly more data over a 10-year period of time.
With the dams built in the late 1800s, many of the sturgeon were able to migrate down river, but not back up. That change in migration significantly impacted resident fish populations in the upper river system, the water within the Menominee Tribal Reservation. Lake Winnebago and the adjoining Fox and Wolf river systems account for the world’s largest concentrated sturgeon population.
“Sturgeon are very important to the people and the culture of the Tribe,” shared Ryan Koenigs, sturgeon biologist for the Wisconsin DNR. Koenigs issues regular sturgeon update emails and you can subscribe to them by getting in contact with him via email.
“We do all we can to understand the movement of the sturgeon and maintain a resident population, but reality is, about only five percent of the sturgeon stay up river,” Koenigs reported.
Stay tuned, we’ll soon cover getting your sturgeon decoy.
K.J. Houtman is the author of the award-winning Fish On Kids Books series, chapter books for eight- to 12-year-olds with adventures based around fishing, camping, and hunting. Her work is available at Amazon and local bookstores. Find out more at fishonkidsbooks.com.
Edit 10/28/13: This article originally incorrectly stated the price of the sonar tags. It has been fixed.
Images courtesy Steve Griffins