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FOND DU LAC – Benjamin Berger of Omro takes seriously the ancient battle between man and the fish lurking beneath the icy waters of only four Wisconsin lakes.

His prize is a prehistoric bottom feeder which can top 100 pounds and live for more than a century in Lake Winnebago and the Upriver Lakes of Butte des Morts, Winneconne and Poygan.

Berger bagged the biggest prize of the 2018 sturgeon spearing season out of Lake Poygan. The 75.6-inch female weighing in at 155.6 pounds and carrying 30 pounds of eggs was likely 60 years old, according to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

The eggs were turned into caviar and the rest of the sturgeon was frozen in chunks, then smoked in small batches to enjoy throughout the year, Berger said.

“Spearing is a family tradition that draws everyone together for the thrill of getting a fish,” he said. “It takes a bit of luck, and it pays to do some legwork ahead of time to see where the fish are feeding and the water is clear.”

Water clarity are the magic words that can make or break a sturgeon spearing season, said Ryan Koenigs, DNR sturgeon biologist. The 2019 season kicks off at 7 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 9, and will run for 16 days or until set harvest caps are reached, whichever comes first.

Typically if spearers can’t see at least 12 feet down, the chances of spearing one of these prehistoric fish will be reduced, he said. Last year, clarity was only at about 6 1/2 feet, and a total of 951 sturgeon were harvested system-wide, compared to 2,158 in 2015 — the sixth largest harvest on record.

Lake Winnebago is host to the largest naturally self-sustaining lake sturgeon population in the world, which is estimated to be around 19,000 females and 24,000 adult males. The system is highly regulated with pre-set harvest caps to control populations.

Koenig's said this year's caps are set at 430 juvenile females, 950 adult females and 1,200 males. If those numbers are reached before Feb. 24, the season will close early.

RELATED:Fond du Lac's Sturgeon Spectacular receives grant 

RELATED: Opening day scenes from the 2018 sturgeon spearing season

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Numerous activities on shore kept people busy during Sturgeon Spectacular while thousands were out on the ice trying to spear a sturgeon fish. Doug Raflik/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Andy Abhold of De Pere was about 10 years old when he was first learned how to scout for sturgeon. Now, his group uses underwater cameras to search the lake bottom for beds of red worms. That's where he'll find the sturgeon feeding on their favorite food.

His method seems to pay off. Last year Abhold speared a 75.5 inch, 128.8 pound female on ice off of Wendt’s on the Lake near Van Dyne.

“There’s a lot of guys that go out on the lake to party and drink beer, but I can do that anytime. When I go to spear that’s my sole focus,” Abhold said.

He describes the taste of sturgeon as “not flaky" — more like the consistency of a pork chop — and says the fish has to be meticulously cleaned of its fat, otherwise it will taste bad. 

Weather will determine ice thickness and the arctic blast could help the season

Spearing enthusiasts have a close watch on weather leading up to opening day. Mild temperatures the first half of winter left acres of open water on the southwest corner of Lake Winnebago, Fond du Lac County Sheriff’s Office is reporting. The wave of arctic air could firm things up, but a recent major snowfall to the sturgeon spearing region hinders ice-buildup by acting as a layer of insulation across the lake.

The weekend weather forecast with highs of 44 degrees and possible rain further complicates anticipating conditions this early in the game. 

Local fishing clubs and conservation groups maintain access points for getting onto the lakes by plowing roads and lining them with evergreen trees, but they've had difficulty getting out on the lake.  Scott Blanck, president of Friendship Fishing Club on the west side of Lake Winnebago, said members will lay out an icy road where Cemetery and Fisherman’s Roads meet in Van Dyne, once it's safe to venture out. 

“Ice conditions are starting to look pretty good, we’ve got between  10 to 12 inches built up here,” he said.  "A bigger problem is the amount of ice buried underneath the snow."

He warns spearers traveling in vehicles to take it slow and be on the lookout for large chunks of shove ice which formed on Lake Winnebago when winds blew the ice open and then it refroze.

Farther north, Scott Engel at Otter Street Fishing Club in Oshkosh is worried about the weather. A major snowfall could lay down a blanket of insulation and hinder ice build-up. He’s reporting a solid 16 to 18 inches of "old ice" in the area, and 9 to 10 inches of "new ice" where there was open water about a quarter-mile out, just a week ago.

It's a celebration of winter and really big fish

Several sturgeon-themed events are planned for hearty winter-lovers. Foot of the Lake Fishing Club along the southeast shore of Lake Winnebago is hosting a fundraiser for Fishing Has No Boundaries from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Roosevelt Park. The club is offering ATV and snowmobile rides as well as other activities geared for families.

Fond du Lac's quirky, fun take on the legendary hunt is its Sturgeon Spectacular, which runs Feb. 7 through 10. There’s Ice & Sailing world championships, a “Running of the Sturgeon” parade, outdoor curling, Wisconsin's state snow sculpting competition and the inaugural Sturgeon Spearing and Beering event at Lakeside Park, presented by Lakefront Brewery. 

Koenig said no matter what the weather brings, die-hard spearers won’t be deterred. Last season, more than 5,000 ice shanties dotted the lake, and he expects the same this year. License sales for 2019 totaled 12,411 for  Lake Winnebago spearers and 479 for the upriver lakes.

Because Wisconsin's strong sturgeon population continues to thrive, year after year, spearers have an opportunity to hunt some really big fish. Last year, 53 lucky spearers brought in sturgeon which tipped the scale at more than 100 pounds. 

The DNR has kept harvest numbers from as far back as 1941. The first modern sturgeon spearing season on Lake Winnebago occurred during the winter of 1931-1932, but it wasn’t until 1952 that the first spearing season occurred on the Upriver Lakes.

The largest harvest year occurred in 1993, when 3,173 sturgeon were speared during the season.

Only one other opportunity exists in the world to spear lake sturgeon and that’s at Black Lake in Michigan. With the harvest limit of five to six fish, the season can usually be counted in minutes.

"When you look at the odds, even in a good year, only 13 percent of spearers actually get a fish," Koenigs said. "The sport's real allure will always be the social culture you just can't experience anywhere else."

The DNR provides daily updates of the spearing season at  dnr.wi.gov/topic/fishing/sturgeon/sturgeonlakewinnebago.html or by calling the Sturgeon Hotline: 920-303-5444.

Sturgeon spearing registration stations

Spearers must be off the lake by 1 p.m., so a good time to view all the big fish starts around noon.

Lake Winnebago:

  • Jim & Linda's Lakeview Supper Club, W3496 County Road W, Malone
  • Wendt's on the Lake, N9699 Lake Shore Drive, Van Dyne
  • Stockbridge Harbor Bar & Grill, 191 W. Lake St., Chilton
  • Quinney Quencher, W3496 County Road W, Malone
  • Jerry's Tavern, 1210 Ceape St., Oshkosh
  • Waverly Beach Resort, N8770 Fire Lane 1, Menasha
  • Payne's Point Bar and Grill, 1557 Payne's Point Road, Neenah

Upriver Lakes:

  • Critters Wolf River Sports, 700 W. Main St., Winneconne
  • Indian Point Tavern, County Trunk H, one half mile east of Tustin
  • Boom Bay Bar & Grill, 7884 Cut Off Lane, Larsen
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Smoking seems to be the preferred way, but sautéing in butter works just fine too. Doug Raflik/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

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