Spear sturgeon are opening with poor ice conditions in the Winnebago system
WINNECON — Participants in Lake Winnebago’s annual sturgeon fishing season can spend seasons waiting to see a fish under the ice.
But the biggest challenge in 2024 was something completely different, even if foreign.
This year archers were hard-pressed to find ice safe enough to pursue the unique winter activity.
“I think the word is unprecedented,” said Gary Haines, 66, of Fond du Lac, who has fished for sturgeon every year since 1976. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
The winter of 2023-2024 is making headlines and breaking records. But not because it’s winter.
December was the warmest on record in Milwaukee, according to the National Weather Service.
On Jan. 1, the extent of ice cover in the Great Lakes was 0.4%, down from an average of 9%, the lowest level documented so far in the 50 years tracked, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environment Research Laboratory. . .
On Friday, the Wolf River in New London broke off ice, the oldest date on record.
The conditions caused organizers to cancel the Battle on Bago, billed as the state’s largest ice fishing tournament. The event was scheduled to take place on February 16 and 17 on the Winnebago system.
On January 30, the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Office issued the following statement via Facebook: “If ever there was a year to say ‘no ice is 100% safe,’ this is it.”
When the 2024 pike hunting season opened Saturday morning, archers, law enforcement and fishing clubs agreed that icy conditions were the worst they have ever been at the start of the season.
Open water is found in many places on Lake Winnebago and Upriver Lakes. Ice blocks up to 10 feet high line parts of the Winnebago’s western shore and a layer of open water blocks most access from Stockbridge south to Queenie.
However, at 7 a.m. Saturday, a group of determined shooters made their way to parts of Lake Winnebago and Upriver Lakes.
“It’s not great, but where we are, there’s good enough ice,” Van Dyne’s Paul Moshe said. “We are monitoring things closely and staying safe.”
Moche was part of a group of about 30 spearmen set up on the west side of Lake Winnebago. They reached the ice on foot and with two four-wheelers and set up portable tents and hard-sided huts on the runners.
The set was cut short Saturday morning, ending just minutes before the 7 a.m. opening. The ice was about 10 inches thick in the area.
And there were fish too.
At 8 a.m., John Sawyer and his son Drew, both of Brandon, were looking through a hole in their shack when a shadowy shape swam over a white disk they had lowered down to help spot a fish.
John Sawyer threw the spear and a few minutes later, with the help of his son and Moshe, pulled a 76-inch sturgeon onto the ice.
Fifteen minutes later, another member of the group, Craig Kelleher of Hartford, landed a 70-inch sturgeon.
At about 11 a.m., Drew Sawyer, sitting in the same shack where his father had had success hours earlier, caught another fish more than 70 inches long.
The set was set up in an area 7 feet deep. The lower part was clearly visible, assisting the spears.
However, poor ice conditions meant most of the 13,000 licensed archers would miss this year’s opener.
The Department of Natural Resources on Saturday reported about 450 cabins on Lake Winnebago, down from 3,000 in 2023 and 6,000 in 2022. The agency is conducting the count via aircraft.
The Hinz of Fond du Lac was typical of many sturgeon shooters. This was the first year of his javelin career that he was not on the ice, breaking a 48-year streak.
He had planned to throw the javelin with his son, Jeff Haines, also of Fond du Lac.
“But with this, it’s not going to happen,” Haines said Friday as he looked out at the mixed ice and open layers of water at Calumet County Park. “I’ll be fine. I live to be able to spear another day.”
Larry Bond of Kiel, also a veteran, said his group made the same decision.
“After the lake blew up a little bit (Thursday) we were out for the year,” Bond said. “There are a lot of issues trying to get into our sweet spot.”
Low spear effort resulted in a few sturgeon being recorded Saturday morning.
When the DNR held a news conference at 11 a.m. in Winnecon, no sturgeon had been recorded at Critter’s Wolf River Sports, a traditionally popular recording station.
Regulations require spearmen to register all sturgeon by 2 p.m. on the day of harvest.
Margaret Stage, a sturgeon biologist with the DNR, said she expects the season to be “slow” and last a full 16 days.
“We won’t see nearly the amount of fish we normally see,” Stadig said. “Icy conditions keep a lot of people from being on the lakes.”
The sturgeon fishing season in the Winnebago System is unparalleled in its size, long-term science-based management, and cultural and economic impact.
The annual sturgeon fishing season is responsible for an estimated $3.5 million economic impact in the Winnebago System, and sturgeon conservation is part of the more than $200 million annual impact fishing brings to the Winnebago System, according to studies conducted in the region.
The system features one of the largest lake sturgeon populations in the world. In its 2023 population assessment, the DNR estimated the system contained 23,625 adult male and 18,061 adult female sturgeon.
The five-year estimates are 24,851 for adult males and 16,099 for adult females, indicating a “good, sustainable population,” according to the DNR.
The annual pike season lasts 16 days or until maximum harvest is reached.
To help protect sturgeon, the DNR has established harvest limits designed to allow no more than 5% of any population segment to be taken in one season.
This year’s limit is 350 juvenile females, 805 adult females and 1,242 males, according to DNR regulations.
Ice conditions were less than ideal last year, and shooters recorded 1,405 sturgeon across the Winnebago system, including 285 in Upriver Lakes. The 2023 sturgeon season lasted 16 days in Lake Winnebago and 8 days in Upriver Lakes.
On Friday, the DNR was involved in the rescue of two people on Poygan Lake, according to Chris Shea, DNR director. But no rescues had been made as of late Saturday morning, suggesting that those taking to the ice to start the pike season are doing so safely, at least so far.
The DNR has airboats and other equipment around the Winnebago system to answer calls, Shea said.
Saturday dawned overcast with a high of 28 degrees in the Lake Winnebago area, rising to 34 under partly sunny skies by noon.
When records were tallied in mid-afternoon, the DNR reported 58 sturgeon had been recorded on opening day, including 45 in Lake Winnebago and 13 in Upriver Lakes.
John Sawyer’s 77-inch fish was the heaviest on record for the day. He weighed 113.6 pounds. Another triple-figure fish was captured, a 104.3-pound sturgeon caught by Jason Reinke in Butte des Morts Lake.
With the extended forecast calling for nighttime temperatures in the 20s and lows, Moshe was optimistic the ice would hold in the coming days.
“We live for this,” Moshe said. “I expect us to be out every day throughout the season, keeping things safe and enjoying this valuable tradition.”
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