OSHKOSH, Wis. - When sturgeon spearing gets underway on Lake Winnebago and the upriver lakes this Saturday, spearers can look forward to seeing some big fish.
Ryan Koenigs, Lake Winnebago sturgeon biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said this season should allow for some great opportunities to spot sturgeon cruising beneath the ice. During a recent survey of conditions, DNR crews measured water clarity ranging from 8 to 13 feet on Lake Winnebago; 4 to 5 feet on lakes Poygan and Winneconne and 2 to 4 feet on Lake Butte des Morts.
"While the length of the season remains to be seen, one thing we can say for certain is that there are some very big fish out there this year," Koenigs said. "Typically when water clarity averages 12 feet or more, spearers have higher success rates and we tend to have shorter seasons. It's hard to predict how long the season will be this year."
Sturgeon spearing opens at 7 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 11 and may run for up to 16 days until Feb. 26. However, an earlier closure may be triggered when pre-set harvest caps are reached.
Interest in sturgeon spearing continues to be strong with 12,962 licenses sold for the 2017 season, including 12,479 for Lake Winnebago and 483 for the Upriver Lakes. For 2017, the system-wide harvest caps are similar to 2016 with 430 juvenile females; 950 adult females and 1,175 males.
It takes at least 10 years for a sturgeon to reach the legal harvest size of 36 inches, while fish at the 100 pound mark are at least 45 years of age. Koenigs said an abundance of gizzard shad turned up in fall forage surveys, indicating the fish could be in better condition this year.
"There are some very large fish present in the system, with 10 of the 11 heaviest fish on record harvested since the 2004 season," Koenigs said. "This is saying a lot given that the tradition dates back more than 85 years. Thanks to careful management, the system retains a very healthy sturgeon population and this spring alone we handled and released two fish in the 80 to 82 inch range."
Last season, the largest sturgeon harvested measured 77 inches and weighed 147.9 pounds when it was registered at Indian Point by spearer Daniel Bloesl.
To help keep tabs on the population, DNR is asking successful spearers to donate their sturgeon heads for an age estimation study. For most fish species, the otoliths or ear bones are the preferred structure for estimating fish age. Sturgeon otoliths are a bit more difficult to work with than most species so DNR fisheries staff members are starting a project to evaluate different methodologies for estimating sturgeon age and growth including use of the otoliths as one of the methods.
Koenigs said this year, spearers should make note of the updated tagging procedures. Tag validation must occur immediately upon harvest by writing the date and time on the tag, but the tags do not need to be attached to the harvested fish prior to registration as long as the spearer and tag is with the fish. If you leave the fish, the harvest tag must be attached to the sturgeon. DNR recommends spearers bring a clear plastic zip-top bag and tie to protect and secure the new paper tag to the fish.
Spearing hours run from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and all sturgeon must be presented at a registration station by 2 p.m. on the same day they are harvested for registration by DNR personnel.