OSHKOSH, Wis. - When the 2016 sturgeon spearing season opens on the Lake Winnebago system Feb. 13, spearers won't have an easy time pursuing their quarry.
Last year's cold temperatures but clear waters have been replaced this year by a later-than-usual freeze and the most challenging water clarity conditions since 2006, said Ryan Koenigs, senior fisheries biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. However, spearers who persevere ultimately will have more opportunities for big fish thanks to a healthy sturgeon population and increased harvest caps for adult females.
"With just under two weeks to go until the season kicks off, water clarity may still improve a bit, but it's very unlikely that we will be in the range of the 12 to 15 feet of visibility we had for the 2014 and 2015 seasons," Koenigs said. "It will be more difficult for spearers to see fish, but we still anticipate that many spearers will take to the ice and renew the traditions of sturgeon spearing while in search of a trophy lake sturgeon."
During a recent check, water clarity conditions ranged from 1.5 to 4 feet on Lake Butte des Morts; 3 to 6 feet on Lake Poygan; and 4 to 7 feet on Lake Winnebago. Following the opening on Saturday, Feb. 13, the season runs either 16 days or until one of the preset harvest caps are reached.
For the 2016 season, the harvest caps for adult females (which normally trigger the season closure) have increased to 950 from 878 a year ago. Harvest caps for juvenile females remain unchanged at 430 while harvest caps for males have decreased to 1,220 from 1,250.
Following a late freeze, ice conditions are now improving and local conservation clubs are starting their annual ritual of marking ice roads with old Christmas trees. Ice anglers have been reporting approximately 10 to 15 inches of ice in many locations, although the DNR consistently recommends caution and encourages all winter sports enthusiasts to assess local conditions before heading out. Fluctuating temperatures and windy conditions can create ice heaves and areas of variable thickness.
This year, spectators can anticipate seeing a large number of shanties dotting the Winnebago system as participants purchased a record number of spearing licenses. A total of 13,674 licenses were sold including 13,190 for Lake Winnebago and 484 for the lottery fishery on the Upriver Lakes.
Koenigs said DNR fishery surveys indicate a strong population of sturgeon this year thanks to decades of careful management. Last year, the 1,870 fish speared from Lake Winnebago represented the sixth highest harvest on record dating back to the 1941 season.
To reach the legal harvest size of 36 inches, the fish that are taken will be at least 10 years old, while fish at the 100 pound mark are at least 45 years of age. In 2014, a record 106 fish weighing 100 pounds or more were taken.
Koenigs said an adequate forage base continues to support a large number of fish in the system that weigh at or above 100 pounds. Koenigs added that although harvested sturgeon were on average "thinner" in 2015, the fish are anticipated to be a bit heavier in 2016 due to a moderate gizzard shad hatch in 2015. Gizzard shad are an important forage item and lake sturgeon will opportunistically feed on dead or dying shad as the shad experience large die offs during the winter months.
"We're excited for the many families who have participated in the sport for years, yet will still have the opportunity to bring home the fish of a lifetime," Koenigs said. "One of the goals of our management program is to ensure a successful, naturally reproducing population of fish so that this tradition can continue."
To learn more about the upcoming sturgeon spearing season, DNR will offer an online chat from noon to 1 p.m. on Feb. 9. To participate, visit the DNR home page and search the phrase "ask the experts." You can also join the conversation via our Facebook page at facebook.com/WIDNR and clicking the "Ask the Experts Chat" tab at the top of the page.