Steve Karow has made over 700 of his spears for sturgeon spearers all over the Lake Winnebago region. He has developed his spear over the years and has perfected his design. It takes him about 40 hours for each spear that he builds. Joe Sienkiewicz/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin


OSHKOSH – In the old days, before snowmobiles and four-wheel drive, it was mainly farmers who speared sturgeon on Lake Winnebago.

They had time to spare in the winter and tractors to take them out on the frozen lake. And they used pitchforks to wrest the mammoth fish from the water.

But pitchforks were made for tossing hay, not dueling fish. A writhing sturgeon could shake the tines and escape. So Steve Karow of Oshkosh dreamed up another way.

“I wasn't happy with the old pitchfork,” Karow said. “I wanted something more.” 

A toolmaker by trade, Karow began tinkering in the basement of the home overlooking Lake Winnebago where he grew up. He fashioned fluted tines modeled after a hunting arrow with barbs which flap out like wings to keep a catch from wriggling away. His preferred pipe-handled spear is weighted near the base to keep a plunge on-target.

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For more than 40 years, Karow has been making spears from his meticulously organized basement workshop, where nuts and bolts are stored in peanut butter and baby food jars glued to the ceiling. Each of the nearly 800 spears Karow has made took about 40 hours of labor to finish. 

"I enjoy being in the basement," Karow said. "If someone took my basement away from me, I'd be totally lost." 

There's no global supply chain to serve those who chase sturgeon in northeast Wisconsin, home to the world's largest self-sustaining population of lake sturgeon. The sport's most crucial tool still comes from the garages and basement workshops of fellow fishermen like Karow.

Karow fashions his spears from steel, though some prefer wooden handles. A complete spear runs $215, and lasts a lifetime, Karow said. A little vaseline keeps rust away. 

"If it's good enough for a baby's butt, it's good enough for a sturgeon spear," Karow said.

The work is in service of a sport which brings hours and sometimes years of tedium for one exhilarating payoff.

For Jim Gibson, fishing manager at Dutch's Trading Post in Fond du Lac, despairing over the time wasted staring at a hole in the ice is missing the point. He's on a five-year drought after landing fish three years in a row previously — including an 80-pound fish, his largest. 

Still, he's giving the first shot at a fish this year to his son, who hasn't yet landed a whopper.   

"During the rest of it, we cook out, we have a good time," Gibson said. "You can’t take it too seriously."

Karow, meanwhile, figures there are just two paths leading to a sturgeon obsession. You either have to be raised with it, or luck out and snag a fish on your first try. 

The boredom barrier is real. Karow ties himself to his ice shack so dozing off doesn't end in a swim. 

"My wife won’t sit in a sturgeon shack," Karow said. "She says ‘I can sit and stare at the television set turned off and it’s much more comfortable than fishing. Until you see a fish in that hole, it’s the most boring sport you could ask for.”

But on the fridge in the corner of the workshop is a photo of Karow beaming next to his biggest haul, a 161-pound sturgeon he caught in 2008. 

An improbable catch like that is the payoff for all those hours spent hovering over a hole in the ice. 

"If you’ve ever gotten a fish, it’s probably the biggest rush you’re ever going to have," Karow said. "When you consider the amount of area you’re looking at and the amount of square feet in Winnebago, the odds are not in your favor."

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