Aelred Schumacher (center) has been fishing sturgeon each winter for 80 seasons. Forty-four members of his clan joined him on the ice last winter.
A small window for a big opportunity
The ice-fishing season for lake sturgeon is more about getting together and fishing together than harvesting a lunker.
Newlywed Dana Buckoski and friend Janell Wills poke their heads from the ice shanty Dana's new husband built for his bride. "Matt knew he had a keeper when he knew she'd come out here and do this," Wills says.
Twenty-two-year-old Rachel Mathwig spears a fish and calls for her dad's help to pull it onto the ice just when her mother yells for help from another shanty where she's speared a monster.
And 92-year-old Aelred Schumacher lands his second fish in consecutive years. Four generations of Schumachers spill out of their shanties to congratulate the patriarch, take photographs and swap stories of the day's haul so far.
These scenes from opening day of the 2010 sturgeon spearing season on the Lake Winnebago chain crystallize why more than 10,000 Wisconsinites spend part of their February staring through a hole in the ice at a green glow for hours, waiting for a prehistoric fish to cruise into view.
In a season when the Lake Winnebago system gave up a record 212-pound sturgeon, big fish and the adrenaline rush that comes with spearing them may lure people out onto the ice, but it's family, friends, traditions and their rituals that keep them coming back – year after year, generation after generation.
"What really draws people is the camaraderie: all the preparation, the time they spend with their friends talking about where they're going to go, making their spears and getting their decoys ready. And the time in the tavern talking about these things over a beer, or families getting together and having fish fries," says Ron Bruch, the DNR fish biologist who has led the Winnebago management program for the past 20 years.
"If [the whole experience] just depended on going out there and spearing a fish every year, people wouldn't go at all," Bruch said. "The success rate on Lake Winnebago is only 13 percent. What keeps people coming back is the chance to spear as a group and having success as a group or family."
Aelred Schumacher is not sure how many sturgeon he's speared over nearly 80 seasons. He started when he was 12 with a neighbor. The Wisconsin Legislature had recently reopened the spearing season as an economic stimulus measure for communities mired in the Great Depression.
"We used to push those shanties out by hand," he recalls. "The sturgeon tags were five for a quarter."
The tags didn't always get filled. Sturgeon were relatively scarce, a casualty of dams, pollution and overfishing of the late-maturing, slow-growing fish. The first length limit was set in 1903 to protect sturgeon in Wisconsin and the harvest season closed statewide in 1915.
Working with citizens and groups such as Sturgeon for Tomorrow, DNR fish managers have since protected the sturgeon population that has grown into the world's largest, with an estimated 15,847 adult females and 31,748 adult males.
As Aelred and Madeline Schumacher's clan grew to an even dozen, he brought the children out on the ice with him, and they in turn brought their own young families. Aelred handmade sturgeon spears for all the children and grandchildren. A treasured family tradition the day before the season opener is to cut holes in the ice, check their spears, ropes and other equipment one more time, and enjoy a fish fry at the homestead.
On this gray February day, 44 family members, including eight of his children occupy 17 different shanties on Lake Winnebago. They are tied together by cell phones and sweatshirts proclaiming: Sturgeon Tag: $20; Sturgeon Spear: $150; Fishing with Aldie Schumacher: Priceless.
Dana Rhodes, 37, had already speared the first of six sturgeon her family would harvest that day when she made the trip over to her grandfather's shanty shortly after 7:30 a.m.
"I had to brag that I got my first fish," said Rhodes, now holed up in the shanty she's sharing with her cousins Kelly and Amy Schumacher. "It was exciting."
"Besides the fact that she was jumping up and down and crying!" chipped in Kelly. "I kept saying for a year that this is the year, this is the year – and now it is," said Rhodes.
A few dozen yards away, Betty Schumacher was staring intently into the eerie green light through the hole cut into the floor of her shanty. "I hope you don't mind if I'm not going to look at you," she told the reporter and photographer.
Betty grew up spearfishing with her family. She has her own shanty – a key to both marital harmony and a higher spearing success rate. "That way she can fish in hers and we don't have a 'discussion' on who's going to throw the spear," her husband Dick Schumacher said earlier, before settling into his spot.
Already that morning, Betty had speared a 60-inch fish. She pulled up the decoy that helped her bring in the big fish: it's one that Aldie Schumacher made.
"The last sturgeon I got was six years ago," she said. "The last five years I let fish go. They're so beautiful… and once you get one, you want everybody to have that thrill."
Lori's phone vibrated: a text message has just arrived. "Corey just got a big fish," she said. And then, a few minutes later, "Granddad just got one – some 40 inches."
All is right in Schumacherville. Ninety-two-year-old Aelred speared a fish, hard on the success of the 125- pounder he harvested the year before. Four generations of Schumachers emerged from their shanties to congratulate "Dad" while the patriarch marveled at his good fortune.
"There have been lots of years without fish, and now I got two in a row. I don't know what to say. It's still a thrill, that's for sure."
Dana Buckoski and Janell Wills are just beginning their sturgeon spearing days.
The pink athletic bag and chairs bedecked with ribbons outside their black ice shanty are the first signs that this is not your typical sturgeon spearing party. Dana's husband made the shanty for the two girlfriends, and this is its maiden voyage.
The two young women emerge from the shanty when we knock on their door to inquire how they're doing. "It's fun," says Dana Buckoski. "We just haven't seen anything."
Both are teachers at Kiel Middle School who first came out onto the ice in 2009 to learn about the process by watching Dana's fiancée at the time, Matt Buckoski.
He's been spearing since he was a child, learning the tricks and techniques passed down from generations of spearers on his mother's side. On this day, he is one of five Buckoski boys spearing, as is their father, Steve Buckoski of Darboy.
The teachers found they liked the excitement and the uniqueness of the season: It's the only opportunity to spear a sturgeon through the ice, the only one in the United States open to anyone who wants to participate, and the only one with a significant chance to harvest a huge fish. Bruch is only aware of one other very limited sturgeon spearing season on Black Lake in Michigan. That season runs for five days or until a total of five fish have been harvested.
"I'm from the U.P. but this is actually something you don't do in the Upper Peninsula," Wills says. "You cut a big hole and wait for [a chance to get] a prehistoric fish."
So now the two are waiting and watching for that first shot.
"We've got 6th and 7th graders who are crossing their fingers for us," Buckoski says.
At the Quinney sturgeon registration station off the eastern shore of Lake Winnebago, Dan Merbach, 37, was getting ready to pull out of the parking lot with a 104.7 pound fish in the back of his pickup truck.
"It's the biggest one I've ever gotten," says Merbach. "I grew up with my dad doing it, and watched him." Merbach uses his grandpa's old shanty. His grandpa just passed away in July so "I took over his shanty. I think he was looking down on us. Sometimes you sit a whole season and don't see a fish."
Merbach's father, brother and cousins all spear, and this year they had eight people in four shanties.
"I was sitting with my cousin in the shanty. I saw the fish, I got nervous, grabbed the spear, threw it, and it was all over."
He had success with his favorite spear, a stainless steel one his father made. "Everything is homemade," Merbach says, including his pike pole, spear and decoys. That is typical for a lot of the sturgeon set. They often build their own shanties and handcraft every piece of their specialized gear.
When he was only seven, Merbach started coming out on the ice with his father. Now Dan has three little ones of his own at home.
I'm not going to force them to take an interest in sturgeon, but I will certainly show them what it is like and share the experience with them, Merbach said.
But that's later. Now, he's going to go show the fish to his uncle who helped him get started spearing.
Outside Wendt's on the Lake, a registration station on the west shore of Lake Winnebago, the spearing day has been over for more than an hour but the crowds are still thick. People are milling around watching DNR staff register harvested sturgeon on the shore and watching happy family members and friends snap photographs of the lucky spearers who hang their prizes on a board.
Rachel Mathwig, 22, snaps a photograph as her mom, Linda Muche, 49, hugs the huge fish she speared. She joins in with her own fish for a mother daughter shot that could happen only in Wisconsin.
"We were fishing together and all of a sudden, I speared mine, "Mathwig says. "My brother was with me and he ran out of the shanty to get my dad to help me pull it in. All of a sudden, we hear my mom yell ‘Torpedo!' She couldn't get hers out of the hole so my dad needed to help."
Rachel's fish weighed 38 pounds; Linda's was 107 pounds, her biggest fish ever, and she caught it on her 49th birthday to boot.
"I've been spearing for 31 years," Muche says. "My husband got me started and he got me out on the lake. My first fish was 24 pounds. This is a lot different! I was screaming. I was just shouting. The whole right side of my shanty hole was all fish. I grabbed the spear and threw it.
"They put the behemoth on the electronic scale and it went 70 pounds, 80 pounds and kept going up. I thought, that's cool and then it went triple digits!
"Every time you get one it's that same excitement all over again."
Lisa Gaumnitz is the public affairs manager for DNR's Water Division.