Winnebago sturgeon spearing fizzles toward end
APPLETON - The 16-day sturgeon spearing season ended quietly Sunday, the fourth straight day without the harvest of a single fish on Lake Winnebago or the upriver lakes of Butte des Morts, Winneconne and Poygan.
In the past week, only 10 sturgeon were registered: eight on Monday, one on Tuesday and one on Wednesday.
The second half of the season was hampered by a stretch of unseasonably warm weather that caused ice conditions to deteriorate rapidly. Strong winds followed on Friday to break up the ice and create spectacular ice shoves on the south and west shores of Lake Winnebago.
Ryan Koenigs, Winnebago sturgeon biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said few spearers ventured out after the abnormal weather.
"The season had a disappointing ending, but we can't control the weather," Koenigs told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. "That's largely the reason why we didn't have many fish harvested over this last week. There just weren't that many people spearing anymore. It's not normally 60 degrees in February."
The season as a whole was fairly successful.
Spearers harvested 847 sturgeon this year: 552 from Lake Winnebago and 295 from the upriver lakes. That exceeds the 703 sturgeon taken last year (396 from Lake Winnebago and 307 from the upriver lakes).
The 2017 harvest included nine sturgeon weighing more than 140 pounds. By comparison, only 12 fish of this size were harvested in the past four seasons combined.
Koenigs said the scope of the Lake Winnebago spear fishery exceeds all others.
"There's nothing like this anywhere else in the world for sturgeon," he said. "There's only one other spear fishery for sturgeon that I'm aware of that exists worldwide, and they typically harvest five or six fish per year."
The DNR counted more than 5,000 shanties on Lake Winnebago for opening weekend, the second largest number on record. Nearly 13,000 licenses were sold for the season.
"We had pretty good ice conditions and comfortable weather conditions for opening weekend," Koenigs said. "Most license holders were able to get out and take part in the season, even if it wasn't for the duration."
None of the harvest caps was met, allowing the season to last the full 16 days. That was a first for the upriver lakes since the lottery system for licenses was established in 2007.
The average depth of water clarity on Lake Winnebago — a key factor in spearing success — was 9½ feet to start the season, which Koenigs described as "fair at best."
"Even if we would have had better ice conditions for the duration of the season, we probably would have had a 16-day fishery on Lake Winnebago," he said. "We would have had a lot more fish harvested, but I doubt we were going to reach the cap."