Wisconsin's Lake Winnebago is home to what’s considered to be one of the largest, self-sustaining lake sturgeon populations in the world.
The state's largest inland lake stretches from Fond du Lac up to Menasha and its abundance of sturgeon is a wildlife management success story.
Last century, over-harvesting and poaching nearly did the species in, including in Lake Winnebago. In fact, Wisconsin banned sturgeon spearing from 1915 until 1931. Gradually the numbers stabilized and flourished.
DNR sturgeon biologist Ryan Koenings' says this year’s quota with regulated numbers of juveniles and adults would be about 2,250 sturgeon.
“You have to protect the fish and that’s what we’re doing now,” Koenigs says.
"I am really lucky to be able to not only work on this water body professionally, but it's a water body I grew up loving and fishing," he says. "So our sturgeon population is not just important to be professionally, but personally as well."
February 12, 2016 - Day Before Sturgeon Spearing Season Kick-off
On the west side of Winnebago, Koenigs is about about to meet with staff and volunteers who will fan out to 11 stations for every day of the 16-day season. The registration teams weigh, measure and check the sex and age of each sturgeon spearers haul in. Some can get breathtakingly big, given they often live longer than 100 years.
“It’s the largest recreational spear fishery for lake sturgeon, however it’s highly regulated. We know how many fish are out there, we know how many can safely be taken,” Koenigs says.
Outside it is killer cold – three degrees with a howling wind.
But, John and Judith Bloom roll their 1998 periwinkle truck out onto the ice the day as the family has always done.
John Bloom grew up spearing with his dad in the tiny “house” he built with cedar strips. John used to orchestrate the family group – now son Russ takes the lead.
More trucks begin to cluster and deliberation begins of ‘where should we set up this year?’ Bloom’s old friend Cookie, that’s Dennis Cook, rolls by.
“They found three red worms at 2 and a half and five red worms at four,” Cookie says.
Bloom says red worms are what locals call lake fly larvae and they’re a sturgeon favorite.
“They stay down there three years before they hatch as a lake fly and the sturgeon suck them up,” Bloom says.
The caravan decides to stick closer to shore. Son, Russ Bloom pulls out his chain saw.
He cuts a perfect 5.5 by 2.5 foot rectangle with a slight angle for better visibility.
Two able bodied souls grab long wooden poles with steel hooks at the end. They pierce the ice block and turn it upside down. One good push and it disappears into the lake.
John and Judith Bloom start preparing the inside of their shanty. They open folding chairs, ready decoys to lower into the water and set the propane stove on low for a comfortable start to opening day.
February 13, 2016 - Opening Day
There was no time to feel the 7 degrees on the lake. By 7: 30 am, Judith Bloom and I are comfortably positioned in the heated Bloom shanty.
She slowly lowers a homemade wooden sturgeon and a smaller “blingy” one about 7 feet down into the hole. Bloom closes the small window and the shanty is pitch black, save the glow of the somewhat murky Winnebago.
“I focus on looking around the hole, moving my eyes around the hole constantly because the sturgeon can move so so fast,” Bloom says.
Two spears are at the ready, but only Bloom will make the plunge if the time comes.
From outside, John Bloom provides us a little sturgeon spearing serenade from his portable radio.
Five and a half hours of staring hopefully into the hole, nothing this time.
In a shanty somewhere in the vicinity, Nicole Schreck’s husband just speared his first. The tradition is also woven into her family’s DNA.
“I was about five or six. My brother and I would skate from ice shanty to ice shanty and all of my uncles would have candy bars. I love the family aspect of it, the conjoining in the passing it on,” Schreck says. “We brought our kids out here and they’re ecstatic that dad got a fish."
As of Monday, February 22, conditions have warmed and gotten slushy since opening weekend. Seven days remain in the season and only 15 percent of the quota has been met.
It looks as though – this year - sturgeon might elude their winter pursuers.
It won’t be long before thousands of mature males and females begin their amazing spring spawning migration from Lake Winnebago up the Wolf River.
Voices and stories of Lake Winnebago sturgeon spearing
Julie Parsons grew up in Stockbridge on Lake Winnebago's eastern shore. Ten years ago she opened Mud Creek Coffee Cafe.
Bill Lodi opened Rippn-Lips Tackle Co. in 2014.
"I was born on a dairy farm 5 miles south of here. My dad was a fisherman. I’ve been out fishing sturgeon as long as I can remember and then I married a fisherman. Actually our granddaughters, when they graduated from high school, they got fish shanties," June Burg.
She has her own shanty.
Allen Kraemer travels every year from Spring Green, Wisconsin for spearing season. He visits with DNR fisheries team supervisor Kendall Kamke inside the Stockbridge registration station.