Spearing Sturgeon in Wisconsin

What would possess a man (or woman) to stand in a dark shanty staring down into a bookshelf-sized hole in the ice, with a pitchfork-like spear at the ready, watching a decoy that might well be anything from an artificial baitfish to an old boot? Photo: Stephanie Wisnet
Either insanity, or the prospects of a 100-pound sturgeon. Or maybe a little bit of both. Photo: Stephanie Wisnet
Sturgeon spearing is a sport in which anglers set up shanties on the frozen lake, the same way you would an ice-fishing shanty. The season begins in early to mid-February on Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin and lasts about a week or until state-set limits are met. Winnebago has the largest population of lake sturgeon in North America, and therefore the largest population of sturgeon spearers. Photo: Stephanie Wisnet
The history and tradition of sturgeon spearing dates back centuries, to when Native Americans relied on the sturgeon for sustenance. John Lawe, writing to Louis Grignon in January of 1820 observed the fact that ice had not yet formed on Green Bay and it was forcing the Menominee tribe to wait before they could begin their winter spearing. "The winter had been so open and mild this year that the lake is not yet to this day so that there has not been a single speared sturgeon brought to the bay this year, the Indians is (sic) all starving and it is quite a famine for them." That quote excerpted from A Brief History of Ice Spear Fishing on the Fox River and Its Tributaries in East Central Wisconsin. Modern spearing in Wisconsin dates back to 1901, the first spearing season. There was a ban on spearing from 1915 through 1931. Depending on the number of fish caught, the current season can last as long as 16 days.
Native Americans used simply carved wooden decoys with copper fins and lead weights, which are not all that different from decoys still used today. Photo: Stephanie Wisnet
Sturgeon spearers cut large holes in the ice, large enough to allow a 200-pound sturgeon through. Size restrictions dictate that the hole must be no greater than 48 square feet. Photo: Stephanie Wisnet
A decoy is then lowered beneath the ice. The decoy can be something traditional, such as a lure-like baitfish representation, or it can be something less conventional. One angler uses an old boot that has been passed down through generations of sturgeon spearers. Curiosity typically brings in the sturgeon to investigate the decoy. Photo: Stephanie Wisnet
Because sturgeon are bottom feeders, most fish decoys are used close to the lake bottom. Decoys are typically carved or made to look like sturgeon, catfish, northern pike or suckers.
Spears must be strong and sharp enough to penetrate the bony, tough skin of a sturgeon in water as deep as 20 feet. Spearheads have numerous tipped tines with small barbs that hold the sturgeon on once it's speared. The spears typically weigh between 25 and 45 pounds, and are between 5 and 10 feet long. Heads are between 9 and 12 inches wide. Photo: Stephanie Wisnet
Then comes the part that takes up almost all the time of a serious sturgeon spearer. Waiting. You wait and hope that your decoy brings in an interested sturgeon. This photo captures the defining moment of the sturgeon spearing experience. Success! Photo: Stephanie Wisnet
On Winnebago, more than a few anglers were rewarded for the wait last season. In 2010 alone, 1,820 fish were harvested, and a record sturgeon, a 212.2-pound, 84.2-inch fish was speared by Ron Grishaber of Appleton on the opening day of the season.
Eighty-two of the fish were larger than 100 pounds.
On Winnebago, the adult stock of lake sturgeon has increased over the past decade, allowing the state to raise the harvest caps for the 2011 season. Officials are on hand throughout the season to document the harvest to better manage the stock. Photo: Stephanie Wisnet
Officials and biologists are typically on hand throughout the season to examine and document the health of the lake's stock of sturgeon.
Water clarity is the single most important factor for a spearer, according to Ron Bruch, Winnebago Sturgeon Biologist. The sturgeon need to see your decoy to investigate it. Factors like runoff and snowmelt are the biggest considerations for sturgeon spearers.
Anglers must tag their sturgeon and report them to designated sturgeon registration stations on the lake before a certain time.
A sturgeon can be aged by cutting off and examining the pectoral fin ray. Photo: Stephanie Wisnet
Underwater lights of any kind are illegal to use when Sturgeon spearing on Winnebago. The spearing hours are from 6:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and anglers must be at least 14 years old to get a license or a tag. Amy Van Beek caught this 80-inch sturgeon that weighed 168 pounds in 2009.s
A tagging system has revealed the movements of sturgeon around Lake Winnebago and surrounding rivers. Most spawning adults migrate out of the lake in the fall and some spend the winters in the rivers or upriver lakes. Here, sturgeon fry are being released as part of a successful sturgeon restoration program.
By the end of March, adults are staging for the spawn, which occurs when water temperatures reach the ideal range of 52- to 56 degrees.
More than 80 percent of the adults will hold in the main lake between spawning runs.
A female sturgeon will not spawn for the first time until she is between 20 and 34 years old, and a male begins spawning between 14 and 31 years of age. It takes a female sturgeon 3 to 5 years to develop each set of eggs. The slow maturation makes careful management of the stock crucial.
So far, Wisconsin has managed to support a healthy stock of lake sturgeon while encouraging a fun and exciting fishery for anglers every winter.
Stephanie Wisnet grew up in Wisconsin, and watched her father spend days on the ice in hopes of spotting a sturgeon. She was so intrigued by the sport she undertook the project of documenting it photographically and blogging about it. She wrote of last year's season: To many, the unique sport of sturgeon spearing may seem strange, a little crazy, and quite comical, but to the spearers on the Lake Winnebago system, it's something to live for. …And… Maybe most importantly though, sturgeon spearing is about respect for an ancient fish and an educational opportunity for the thousands of all ages that witness the event each year. Check out more of her blog here: winnebagosturgeon.wordpress.com Photo: Stephanie Wisnet
Examining the stomach contents of a sturgeon.
Just because a type of fishing isn't traditional doesn't mean it isn't steeped in tradition. Sturgeon spearing is proof that where there's water and outdoorsmen, a type of fishing will be born. I for one hope to sit in a sturgeon spearing shanty at some point, just to see first-hand what it's like.
To read more of Stephanie Wisnet's blog and learn more about sturgeon spearing in Wisconsin, click here: www.winnebagosturgeon.wordpress.com.
Also, Thanks to Gary Engberg of Gary Engberg Outdoors for a first-hand description of the sturgeon spearing and many of the photos in this gallery.
PIKE SPEARING Mike Holmes kick starts his propane heater in preparation for a day of pike spearing from his ice shanty on a northern Lake Michigan harbor.Richard P. Smith
Holmes spends a minute getting organized before getting "on stand" in his shanty.Richard P. Smith
A seven-tined spear is prepped for battle.Richard P. Smith
The spear's steel tines are ground to gleaming points.Richard P. Smith
Realistic-looking fish decoys are tied to a length of fishing line and dangled into the ice hole to lure predatory pike. Created to swim as if injured, decoys are typically carved from cedar and have become popular collectibles.Richard P. Smith
Holmes with a hand-carved splake decoy.Richard P. Smith
A sucker and a herring decoy.Richard P. Smith
Once a decoy is lowered into the rectangular-shaped hole, the fisherman tugs occasionally on the attached fishing line to impart action. In late-winter, pike often move toward shallow water to spawn. White beans scattered on the bottom helps improve visual confirmation.Richard P. Smith
Pike respond to different decoys at different times. If there's no action with one 'species,' it's time to switch to another.Richard P. Smith
Herring are a northern pike favorite.Richard P. Smith
From inside the darkened ice shanty, decoys seem to glow. It's strangely similar to looking into a huge fish tank.Richard P. Smith
Northerns sometimes slash and turn on decoys and at other times simply glide in for a look--a prime time to loose the spear.Richard P. Smith
Holmes watches and waits for a pike to glide into view.Richard P. Smith
Movement must be kept to a minimum once the pike appears.Richard P. Smith
Success! A northern that looked over a herring decoy for a bit too long.Richard P. Smith
Success! This northern lingered just a bit too long under Holmes' ice hole.Richard P. Smith
Holmes carefully records the measurements of all speared pike.Richard P. Smith
The one (of three) that didn't get away. Holmes missed one keeper fishing about 30 inches.Richard P. Smith
Time to give a perch decoy a try.Richard P. Smith
Pike spearing can be sheer drama--anything can happen at any time.Richard P. Smith
At the end of the day--hours of drama and one pike on ice.Richard P. Smith
Richard P. Smith
Mike Holmes calls it a day--and a season as the Michigan spearing season came to an end.
Holmes tries to plant the spear directly behind the pike's head.Mike Holmes
Holmes tries to plant the spear directly behind the pike's head.Mike Holmes

On Lake Winnebago every winter, a small town emerges on the ice. With spears, decoys and determination, anglers drill, wait and hope for their shot at a 200-pound sturgeon.