Water clarity will determine sturgeon spearing success

Nearly 13,000 spearers are patiently crouching over holes in the ice of Lake Winnebago and three upriver lakes this morning as they wait for a lake sturgeon to swim past.

Water clarity will be one of the biggest factors in determining which spearers bring a fish to a weigh station, and which go home with only fond memories.

Department of Natural Resources sturgeon biologist Ryan Koenigs says a combination of January rains and an algae bloom under the ice have caused poor water clarity on Lake Winnebago. His crews did some testing before opening day and found the visibility there to be 3 to 9 feet, with an average of 6½ feet (the worst conditions since 2006).

Since the lake is more than 12 feet deep in many spots and most sturgeon hang around near the bottom, spearers may not see fish that are right below their spearing holes.

Koenigs recommended the eastern and northern shores for the clearest water on Winnebago. The clarity story is different on the upriver lakes of Poygan, Winneconne and Butte des Morts, where it takes a special permit to spear.

Koenigs told me earlier this week that it takes about seven or so years to draw an upriver lakes permit, where the shallower water (around 6 feet or so) means a success rate of around 66 percent. The success rate is about 9 percent on Winnebago. Biologists could see the bottom clearly in two spots on the upriver lakes, including one spot that was 8½ feet deep.

Because of the poor water clarity on Winnebago, it’s likely that the season will go the full 16 days, since the various harvest caps there probably won’t be reached (like last year). At the same time, separate harvest caps on the upriver lakes probably will be reached sooner, so the season there likely will close well before the 16 days are up.

This year’s harvest caps are: Lake Winnebago — 344 juvenile females, 855 adult females and 960 males; Upriver Lakes — 86 juvenile females, 95 adult females and 240 males. The systemwide caps are the totals of both caps (430, 950 and 1,200, respectively).

If any harvest cap is reached, the season on that waterway closes. If at least 90 percent of a harvest cap is reached, the season closes in 24 hours on that waterway. Reaching a systemwide cap would close the season on all lakes and a 90 percent harvest would close the season on all lakes in 24 hours.

Most anglers hope for an adult female, which is typically full of eggs (many love the taste of this prized caviar) and heavier than the juvenile females or males. DNR biologists at 10 weigh stations record the data on all harvested fish and check the sturgeon for PIT tags, which are implanted in some sturgeon when they are netted during the spring spawn.

When a tagged fish swims past one of many receiver devices placed along their Wolf River migration route, the receiver records the tag number, time and date so that very detailed migration patterns are revealed.

Stomach contents reveal the typical sturgeon diet and measurements help determine the health of the entire population, and eggs are gathered from some females for use in captive breeding programs. So the anglers harvesting these prehistoric fish help ensure the survival of this species by giving back much-needed data!

Sturgeon management meetings

As spearers wait for a legal fish over 36 inches long to appear, you’ll soon have a chance to help manage the sturgeon fishery into the future.

A series of meetings have been set up to garner input for an updated management plan. The Lake Winnebago system’s estimated 43,000 sturgeon are currently being managed by a plan that dates back to 2000.

Koenigs hopes to get input from anglers and anyone else interested in the future of this species. The new management plan also will include shovelnose sturgeon for the first time.

The public meetings include one at 6 p.m. March 6, in Oconto City Hall, 1210 Main St., Oconto; and 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 21, in Oshkosh’s Coughlin Building, Conference Rooms A and B, 625 E. County Road Y.

There are additional meetings Feb. 20 in Eau Claire, Fitchburg and Webster; Feb. 21 in La Crosse and Park Falls; and March 6 in Ashland.

There will be opportunities to comment online as well. Wisconsin began regulating the sturgeon harvest since 1903, and has since gained a national and international reputation for sturgeon management. The percentage of speared fish exceeding 100 pounds each season reflects the success of that management, and the DNR plans to continue that success.

There is currently a hook-and-line season on several major rivers, and although Wisconsin has the largest self-sustaining population of lake sturgeon in the world, plans include rebuilding those numbers in areas where the population is down.

Ross Bielema is a freelance writer from New London and owner of Wolf River Concealed Carry LLC. Contact him at Ross@wolfriverccw.com.