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Through the Lens

Plan Now for Sturgeon Spearing Season!

Wed, October 18, 2017

It’s no secret that I have an odd affection – if not outright love for the prehistoric and dinosaur fish. While I can get my ancient fish fix easily enough in warm weather with gar and bowfin – nothing can compare to the lake sturgeon that inhabit Lake Winnebago in Fond du Lac, WI.

Sturgeon spearing – especially opening weekend in Fond du Lac is an experience that I wish everyone could experience just once.

It’s all about the sturgeon in Fond du Lac – even if you don’t go out on the ice to try your hand at spearing one of the lake monsters, the entire city is filled to the gills with activities and events that celebrate the great lake sturgeon.

Once upon a time these magnificent fish were in danger of extinction. In the early 1900s, they had all but disappeared from the Great Lakes.  But thanks to the efforts of conservation groups, like Sturgeon for Tomorrow, many volunteers and population management by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), these giant, dinosaur fish currently thrive in Lake Winnebago.

It is thought that the current Lake Winnebago population of the giants includes more than 15,000 adult females and 30,000 adult males. This qualifies Lake Winnebago as the largest, self-sustaining lake sturgeon population in the world. It is also one of only two places in the country where sturgeon can be legally speared. Here, sturgeon-spearing season lasts 16 days on Lake Winnebago, or until the pre-set cap is met, whichever comes first.

Even though sturgeon season doesn’t open until the second weekend in February, it’s imperative that if you want to try your hand at sturgeon spearing on Lake Winnebago that you obtain your sturgeon tag NOW, make your reservations and seek out a guide NOW.  Sturgeon tags (1 per angler) must be purchased before the deadline of October 31. Spearers must purchase their license by October 31 to participate in the ensuing spearing season on Lake Winnebago at any WI DNR licensed sales location, through the WI DNR’s website at dnr.wi.gov by clicking on the online license center or by calling toll-free 1-877-WI LICENSE (1-877-945-4236).

What can you expect from your sturgeon trip?
Each year, during the second weekend in February, the sturgeon spearing season brings masses of people to Lake Winnebago. Literally, thousands of ice spearing shanties, campers, trucks and cars cover the frozen expanse of the lake, essentially creating a small city, a “shanty town” if you will as the dark houses are often referred to as “sturgeon shanties”.

The trip out across the ice just before sunrise offers a beautiful and surreal look at this true winter wonderland. Once safely in your shanty the wait for a monster fish to swim by is whiled away listening to local radio shows, enjoying food and drink, and even sometimes grilling out on the ice after spearing hours close.

Although there are similarities, sturgeon spearing is quite different than ice fishing and the equipment is different as well.  A spearing shanty, or dark-house as they are also called, is a little more specialized than an ice fishing shanty. It’s designed for spearing fish rather than using a tip up, line, rod and net. The spearing shanty is designed to be as dark as possible inside and is placed over a large hole cut in the ice.  Since the water on Winnebago is relatively shallow this allows the light to come up through the hole in the ice. Most of the equipment is also handmade with hand-carved wooden decoys that are used to attract sturgeon, handmade spears and a gaff. The exteriors of the shanties are often painted to reflect the spearers personalities and can be quite artistic.

If a spearer is lucky enough to spear a fish, things can get crazy. Once the spear is in the fish, the wooden handle of the spear is detached. Typically, the next thing thrown after the spear, is the chair out the door of the shanty.  Successful spearers need all the room possible inside the shanty to get the sturgeon up and out of the hole. The lucky spearer utilizes a rope that is connected to the spearhead to insure they don’t lose the giant fish.  Once speared, the sturgeon will disappear under the water until it gets tired, and the fisherman is able to drag the fish to the hole. Working as a team, the designated assistant stands by with a gaff hook, which is used to take the fish out of the water. Getting the sturgeon out of the hole, away from the water’s edge and completely out of the shanty as fast as possible s most important. The sturgeon, which can weigh up to 200 pounds, are exceptional fighters. If given the opportunity, sturgeon will violently flap back and forth, until they are back in the water and gone forever.

The sturgeon must be checked in as soon as possible after being speared at the closet check station. Most of the check stations are located at local bars and restraunts and the atmosphere is celebratory when the giant fish begin to roll in. It could be said that sturgeon check in is a bit of spectator sport.  The crowds that gather each day at check stations cheer each incoming fish. Successful spearers stop and visit with total strangers to show off their fish, pose for photos, answer questions. The staff from Wisconsin DNR that man the check stations are generous with their time and knowledge as they sample record and check in the sturgeon each day.

The success rate on Lake Winnebago is about 13 percent, so it is not uncommon for people to go home empty-handed. However, it’s not just about the fish. It’s the experience…. following traditions, creating new rituals and enjoying the camaraderie among family, friends and fellow fishermen.

Even if you don’t elect to go out onto the frozen lake to spear –  a visit to Fond du Lac for opening weekend of sturgeon season is well worth the trip. The city of Fond du Lac goes all out during opening weekend, with multiple events such as the “Sturgeon Spectacular”, bonfires on the ice the night before opening morning, ice kiting and sailing, art shows, music and in general quite the sturgeon related festival!  Not only is the city of Fond du Lac chock full of activities opening weekend, the proximity of Fond du Lac to the amazing Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge makes a visit there a must do for winter bird and wildlife watching. The natural wonders and history of the area are showcased at the Friends of Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center. Be sure to add a visit to the marsh to your travel itinerary.

This is a fascinating winter weekend in Fond du Lac, and unique to the Lake Winnebago Area.  If you are a lover of extreme fishing, traditions, heritage, and lots of dinosaur fish fun – you should start today planning for your trip to Fond du Lac in February. 

The lovely folks at Fond du Lac Area Convention and Visitors Bureau will be most helpful in helping you to plan your winter wonder visit to one of the only two places in the world where you can experience the magnificent tradition of spearing sturgeon.

A limited number of shanty rentals are available. Fond du lac area local contacts do offer rentals which typically include scouting the location, ice cut in, ice shanty, spear, gaff hook, decoy & heater plus some sturgeon 101 guidelines for first time spearers.  The Fond Du Lace Area CVB can provide you with an up to date list of locals who offer shanty rental and guide services.

Spearing Rules:
Spearing Dates: The lake sturgeon spearing season begins the second Saturday in February annually and runs for 16 days or until pre-set harvest caps for Lake Winnebago are reached, whichever comes first.
License requirements: Spearers must purchase their license by October 31 to participate in the ensuing spearing season on Lake Winnebago at any WI DNR licensed sales location, through the WI DNR’s website at dnr.wi.gov by clicking on the online license center or by calling toll-free 1-877-WI LICENSE (1-877-945-4236).
Spearing Hours: 7:00am to 1:00pm
Size Limit: Sturgeon must measure 36” or longer
Bag Limit: One lake sturgeon per license
Ice Holes: May not exceed 48 square feet (8’x6’) or (12’x4’); cut ins are allowed 48 hours prior to opening morning of spearing.

Hope to see you in Fond du Lac for sturgeon spearing this year! It’s an experience you will cherish for a lifetime! Winter beauty, fun activities, great food and drink, history, heritage, and more await you in Fond du Lac!

Comments

Great photos as usual and a fun read.  I’ve kept track of the Sturgeon spearing on lake-links for a few years but never made the trip.  Be a fun winter weekend with the family!

Posted by BOWHUNTR on October 25

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