By: Joanne M. Haas/Bureau of Law Enforcement (story and photos)
The only thing more powerful than the 179-pound, 80-inch sturgeon wrestled out of Lake Winnebago by Sherwood’s Pete Vanderwielen on opening day of the 2013 Sturgeon Spearing Season was the undeniable bond among the families and their friends who filled the thousands of heated ice shanties scattered in every direction.
And in the middle of all the activity covering miles of lake ice, county roads and all points between was Conservation Warden Mike Disher, serving Calumet County as he has for the last 10 years. Warden Mike is a well-known face in the community. No quick stop is a quick stop. Once he's spotted, he is presented questions, comments and some advice. With his quick smile and pleasant demeanor, he fulfills the mission of the wardens to protect the natural resources and the people who use them.
Warden Mike enjoys working the sturgeon spearing season which he says involves a lot of "meeting and greeting" spearfishers who are as serious about the fishing as they are about spending the season with their families and friends.
There was the Chilton mother-daughter spearing team of Kayleen Schneider and Kristy Schefdore who swapped treasured stories of seasons past while keeping cozy in their oh-so-warm shanty, waiting for a sturgeon to cruise into spearing range of their perfectly cut rectangular hole above the cloudy water of the lake.
Within walking distance of the snow-covered lake was their good friend, Tom Roberts. A retired teacher who reluctantly joined the Schneider family for a spearing experience nearly a dozen years ago -- he has been at it himself for the last 11. It’s not so much the actual sitting for hours, with eyes transfixed on the rectangular square waiting for one of these massive fish to ease into view that grabs him. It’s the process, the handmade tools, tradition and the time with family and good friends that has this guy hooked.
Back on shore, the popular Quinney Quencher was packed to the gills -- and loud! People dressed in layers of snowpants, knitted caps and sweatshirts swapped colorful stories and belly laughs that poured outside into the parking lot where the Quinney Registration Station became one of the most popular stops in the greater lake community. That’s where Pete Vanderwielen registered the 179-pounder that grew in size as the story spread in every direction, and stayed for hours to talk to onlookers and to gather cheers about this 6th largest sturgeon ever to be speared in Lake Winnebago.
The east side of Lake Winnebago and the communities and neighborhoods lining that shore – Quinney, Stockbridge, Brothertown and more – was one big smile with a hug chaser Saturday. Sturgeon Spearing Season was on -- and Warden Mike was ready!
Opening day, February 9, started late for some. That’s because of the unexpected thick fog that blanketed the lake area, accompanied by gorgeous hoar frost that spread across a lot of the eastern and southern counties.
Not long after dawn, the roads leading to the lake were more populated with vehicles hauling trailers loaded with ice shanties. A gasoline station in Pipe had its share of sturgeon spearfishers topping fuel tanks and grabbing snacks for the day's several hours worth of assuming the sturgeon stare position.
This was the case with Robert Kinder of Lisbon and buddy Glenn Stange of Waupun, hauling an ice shanty loaned by a friend. “Yeah, we’re late getting started,” Linder said, as he started to pump gasoline into his truck around 8 a.m. Saturday. “We got this shanty from our friend. He’s already on the ice.”
Warden Mike says latecomers didn’t miss much. The fog made it very difficult for people to see much of anything on the lake. It was best to wait for more light and dissipation of the fog before venturing onto Lake Winnebago. Where spearfishers planted their shanties was dictated by the ice conditions, which varied from side to side. The east side of Lake Winnebago had ice conditions solid enough to hold trucks on this opening day.
The east side of Lake Winnebago in this Calumet County area has two registration stations. Each are staffed with a mix of DNR fish biologists, retired fish biologists and natural resources students from nearby Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton.
The Stockbridge Registration Station is led by Kendall Kamke, a DNR fisheries biologist stationed in Oshkosh. He is helped on this opening day by two Fox Tech students Dave Westphal and Mandy Stanford.
Spearfishers must register their sturgeons before they leave the general area. “We’ll get the spearfisher and the fish information,” Kamke says. “We’ll weigh the sturgeon and see what its maturity stage is.” The team also will determine if it is a male or female.
Those are the same steps taken at the nearby Quinney Registration Station where two DNR fish biologists John Thompson and Dan Nelson are on duty with DNR retired fish biologists Michael Penning and Dan Folz. Folz was the DNR Winnebago Sturgeon Biologist from 1974 – 89.
“Fish are coming in and I’m older than they are,” Folz says with a grin and a laugh.
Spearing hours are 6:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. By the end of this first day, there would be 39 sturgeon of various sizes registered at the stations surrounding Lake Winnebago – including Pete Vanderwielen's sixth largest ever to be speared in Lake Winnebago.
Warden Mike says the success rate for spearers in Lake Winnebago is 10 to 15 percent and that's because the odds are against them. Lake Winnebago is about 28 miles long and about 8 miles wide. “Chances of a sturgeon swimming by an ice fishing hole are low.” He says there can be upwards of 5,000 shanties on the lake, representing 12,000 tags – all in search of a sturgeon.
Yet, those odds don’t stop people from flocking to the lake to enjoy a season that is uniquely Wisconsin.
Back on the lake in the truck, Warden Mike follows bumpy yet plowed roads provided by local clubs. There are also lines of small fir trees stuck in the lake’s snow cover. “The local fishing clubs use those trees lines to mark safe areas on the ice and plowed roads,” he says.
He’s on his way to check in on some of the shanties occupied by Chilton's Schneider family and friends.
First stop – Tom Roberts of Chilton, who got to his shanty by all-terrain vehicle. Others drive trucks or snowmobiles.
“This is the most boring part,” Roberts says, as he sits in his heated shanty, eyes down toward the fishing hole. The shanty is very warm thanks to the space heater. Like many others, he has placed a blanket just inside the door to keep as much light out as possible. It’s dark – except for the illumination from the open lake water of his rectangular ice fishing hole. “Your eyes will adjust.”
He has dropped a decoy into the cloudy water. It is barely visible. He has his spear nearby should a sturgeon float into view. In his 11 years of spearfishing, he has speared one sturgeon. That was about four years. But he doesn’t mind. That’s not what keeps this retired teacher coming back.
“I’m not a real good sitter,” Roberts says. So why is he doing this?
He was a teacher for 30 years, then retired and moved to Chilton. His friends – the Schneiders of Chilton – politely pestered him to come with them to experience sturgeon fishing. He gave it a try. And that try became a habit.
“The total process is what fascinates me,” Roberts says, glancing about the shanty. “Everything is handmade.” That includes the shanty.
“The spears are locally made by craftsmen. You couldn’t go into sporting goods stores and find this stuff,” he says. “And, of course, there is the camaraderie – the family get-togethers." The head of the Schneider family is responsible for getting Roberts involved. His friend has died in recent years. Yet Roberts continues – and he’s also gotten quite active in the local Quinney Fishing Club. He’s treasurer for the club of 190 or so members.
The conversation winds down and Roberts is asked if he’s OK with a photo. “As long as I don’t have to have my eyes toward the camera.”
He might be better at this sitting stuff than he realizes.
One step out of Roberts cave-live shanty is a shock to the eyes, but it won’t last as the shanty of Kayleen Schneider is a quick walk of about one minute to the accompaniment of lakeside conversations, laughter, snowmobiles running and trucks cruising on the plowed lake cover roads that seem to get rougher as the day gets longer.
Knock for permission to enter. Granted! The door opens to yet another blanket blocking the light. One step inside and it feels like a sauna. “We’ve been expecting you,” Kayleen says to Warden Mike. She begins to rattle off first names of nearby spearfishers and Warden Mike knows exactly who she is referring as the quick welcoming conversation continues.
Kayleen is the widow of the man who got Roberts interested in spearfishing. Today, she is working a perfectly cut fishing hole with daughter, Kristy Schefdore.
“I’m her youngest,” Kristy says, with a quick point to her smiling mother. “Honor roll student… and been spearfishing since I was a kid.”
That’s the story with her mom, too. Kayleen started as a girl, going to the lake with her father. And Kristy, as she tells it, learned about the great outdoors with her father, too. It hasn’t been that long since he died – a couple of years. Spearfishing tales are hooked to him and when his name is mentioned, their voices quiet a bit. The man is missed and very much with them.
But they have stories to share with Warden Mike. They’ve both speared sturgeons over the years – but that’s not the most important thing.
“It’s family,” Kayleen says.
She recalls writing her letter to local school officials years ago to secure permission for a family member to be absent for two weeks for the fishing season. “This is a family outing,” she says, recalling her campaign to get the excused absence. Some families were granted permission to take trips for family outings. “This is ours and we’re staying here.”
The family’s fingerprints are everywhere in this shanty because... they built it. It is made of plywood, tar paper and, Kayleen notes, rubber sheathing. That may explain why it feels like just north of the Equator inside. Some small sturgeon replicas also add make it a bit festive inside.
There also is a big bell hanging on the side of the shanty near the hole. That’s to sound if they spear a sturgeon.
Now, what about that fishing hole? There’s a process, Kristy starts to explain while never letting her eyes leave the hole for too long. The two women describe a process that may take about 30 minutes – make that 30 precision minutes. There are ice measurements to be marked, chain saws, ice chisel poles and plywood at the ready to cut the perfect hole.
“What we learned is how it's important to flip that cut cover before we push it under the lake ice cover and away,” Kayleen says as Kristy nods. “It’s ice to ice, so it slides under and away much easier.”
How so? She uses her hands to explain the cover has rough snow on top, which catches on the smooth lake ice cover’s bottom when trying to push the cover under the ice cover and away. Flipping takes away the problem. “Ice to ice,” she says flipping and sliding her hands.
Before there were set spearing hours of 6:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and people spent the day at the shanties, the Schneiders would bring enough food to cook three meals a day.
“One year we cooked a whole turkey,” Kayleen says. “We’d bring grills and cook. The kids were the go-fers, running the food to all the shanties.”
Kristy was a go-fer. Today she is watching the hole for a sturgeon to float by in this cloudy water. “You never know when they will show up.”
And it wasn’t long before Warden Mike got a call that the sturgeon were showing up at the nearby registration stations. And that got him thinking about lunch himself.
A sturgeon has been brought to the Quinney Registration Station. Chase Owens of Chilton got his first sturgeon – 88 pounds, 68.8 inches long. “It all happened so fast,” Owens says as he poses at the registration table. “It was about a three-second process.”
And then came the sturgeon that became the talk of the day on the snowmobile trails, the parking lots, the Quinney Quencher and on smart phones – the 179-pound, 80-inch sturgeon speared by Pete Vanderwielen of Sherwood.
“I’ve never worked so hard in my life,” Vanderwielen says, as he stands near the back of his truck where the sturgeon – still moving its head every so often – is being photographed constantly by onlookers. Every so often a shouted “congrats” or “way to go” comes his way.
Dan Folz registered the sturgeon and declares it is just shy of being the fifth largest sturgeon ever to be speared from Lake Winnebago. Folz, a retired DNR sturgeon expert, also estimates the age of this sixth largest speared sturgeon to be somewhere between 75 and 80 years old.
Vanderwielen got this one all by himself. He spearfishes alone. Here’s his method:
“Stay in the shanty, keep your eyes on the hole. Don’t have coffee, don’t drink. I set my alarm for 12:30 p.m. (when hours end),” Vanderwielen says.
Talk about discipline.
Warden Mike makes a lunch stop at a brat fry on the lake. Lots of kids and adults are there to cook and sell on behalf of the Stockbridge Youth Athletic Association Boosters. This al fresco eatery is on ice, but the brats are hot!
Now that it's after 12:30 p.m., Warden Mike turns his attention to making sure the spearing has stopped among those relaxing in and around their shanties. He also assists the Calumet County Sheriff’s Department with a stop sign violation, gets a report of a stolen ATV off Lake Winnebago, finds a dog collar without the dog attached, checks multiple snowmobilers for registrations and offers a quick tow to a snowmobiler stuck in a ditch.
The snowmobiler can’t seem to thank Warden Mike enough for the assist. “You really saved me today,” the operator says over and over, while a couple of kids stand nearby.
Warden Mike smiles, shakes the operator's hand and plays down the rescue. “It’s what we do,” he says, with outstretched arms and a quick shrug.
He gives the man a quick wave, slides into the driver's seat of his black warden truck and gets back on the outdoor beat in Calumet County.
DNR Fish Biologist Ryan Koenigs says the total sturgeon speared on Lake Winnebago at the conclusion of the two-day opening weekend was 60 and for Upriver Lakes, the total was 214 for Saturday and Sunday. He says that is down from the 2012 first season weekend when the total for Lake Winnebago was 67 and 242 for the Upriver Lakes. He says cloudy water is a factor.