By Corey Graff
I arrived at Lake Winnebago early on opening day of the 2001
sturgeon spearing season, not knowing exactly what to expect. The
north shore of the big lake, near Waverly Beach, was bustling with
Sturgeon spearers were invading the local convenience stores and
it appeared obvious the tremendous amount of revenue being pumped
into the local economies by these sportsmen. I remember thinking to
myself, “This is going to get real interesting.” It did.
The weather could not have been more perfect, though. The dark,
drizzly and unseasonably warm overcast days that preceded the
opener cleared out just in time to reveal blue skies. A novice like
me would need the extra visibility out on the expansive lake. It
was a welcome sight.
My friend, Dave Falcus, has had some experience on Lake
Winnebago and served as my navigational captain. My truck was
locked into four-wheel high, and we were off. My advice: If you’re
uncertain about traversing the many ice cracks on the lake, pull
off to the side and watch a few vehicles do it first. You’ll see
that there are techniques used by many of the lake’s veterans that
could save you a big headache. That’s exactly what we did. When I
felt comfortable, the hammer went down.
Lake Winnebago was frozen solid, including ruts left in the
slushy ice conditions from the previous day’s warm weather. My
truck’s suspension was put to the test as a result. And, we used
every bit of four-wheel drive. We were in search of my friend
Jeremy Syring’s grandpa, Wally “The Bear” Hedtke. I called him on
the cell phone and got directions. Another word of advice.
Distances and relative positions on a big lake like Winnebago are
very deceiving. When someone tells you to go out at certain
landing, do it. Also, set your trip mile odometer to get an
accurate bearing. Needless to say, (two hours later) two confused
and disoriented novices finally found the shack.
“Come on in guys,” Hedtke said. “The Bear” was sitting on one
end of the dark, heated shanty peering down into the blueish/green
abyss. His grandson, Jason Syring, was looking down into another
hole on the opposite end. Each man had a spear suspended over the
hole, held by a nail. The heavy nylon cord attached to the spears
was draped over a bar in big, forgiving loops. Suspended down in
each hole were two sturgeon decoys. One, a bright greenish
fish-like decoy suspended about 10 feet down, and the other was a
custom PVC pipe fashioned to look like a sturgeon lying on the
bottom. It took awhile for our eyes to adjust to the dark, but when
they did, visibility down the holes was very good. Large gizzard
shad made an appearance fairly often, many of which were actually
dying before our very eyes.
Hedtke has been spearing on the lake for a long, long time. He
said sturgeon spearers are a different breed of cat, often using
strange tactics to get sturgeon. On decoy use, Hedtke said, “You’ll
see all kinds of stuff out here. Some guys use beer cans down
there. You name it, guys tie it on. Some paint up a milk jug and
put it down there.
“Sturgeon are nosy. Sometimes they come up and nudge the decoy
and back off. Curious, that’s all they are,” he said.
We stuck around for awhile talking to Hedtke and Syring. It was
obvious that the folklore and memories of past hunting and fishing
episodes would keep them plenty occupied in their patient wait for
a sturgeon. We thanked “The Bear” for having us in his shack and
were once again on our way. These old-timers with decades of
experience destined for legendary status. It’s a novel being
written out there that would make Jack London envious, and in my
book, people like Wally Hedtke have already earned a place among
We headed due south to Quinney, a small fishing community on the
east shore of Winnebago. There, at the Quinney Fishing Club, we met
up with Mike Penning, who works for DNR Lands and Facilities.
Unable to resist the urge to stay away from sturgeon, Penning helps
out with sturgeon registration, as well. His explanation of what
sturgeon spearing is all about?
“You know what it feels like to have a walleye on the other end
of the line through the ice,” he said. “Now, just imagine a
100-pounder pulling back. It’s quite a thrill. This is nothing like
buck fever. It’s much worse.”
Penning introduced another sturgeon legend, Lester Roehrig, the
last remaining charter founder of the Quinney Fishing Club, which
began in 1954. Roehrig remembers many changes.
“I’ve seen the number of spearers double and triple,” Roehrig
said. “I can remember back in the 1950s getting five sturgeon tags
for a quarter.”
Ask Roehrig what attracts people to the tradition of sturgeon
spearing and he’ll tell you this: “I’ve shot a few deer in my life,
but it is nowhere as thrilling as having a sturgeon tugging away at
the end of that rope. I think there are a lot of fishermen who
agree with me.”
After spending some time learning about the registration
process, we were invited into the shack of Penning’s brother, Steve
Penning, who was on the lake already. Steve Penning explained how
he deals with years that have stained water.
“A lot of people use siding, some use PVC pipe cut in half, but
what I do is create an X with the pipe and lower it onto the
bottom, so it’s one huge, white X down there. Then, when the fish
swims over the X it becomes visible,” he said.
We chatted with Steve for awhile and then, out of nowhere, a
huge head appeared in the hole followed by a long, greenish
“Sturgeon,” said Penning in an excited, yet whispering voice.
“Is he legal?”
A split second later, the huge fish swam directly under his red
decoy. Without any more hesitation, Penning grabbed the spear and
swoosh! it was off, with a solid thump heard from above.
Then, the fight was on, with the spear head disengaging from the
handle to prevent any leveraging out of the fish.
“Is this fun or what?” said Penning, who was visibly
overwhelmed. Fighting the massive fish, he said, “Aren’t you guys
glad you stopped?”
Then, still fighting the sturgeon with one hand, he got on the
CB radio, “I could definitely use a hand here, if someone wants to
come over.” After about five minutes of intense tugging by the
fish, our host was finally able to gaff the fish into the shanty.
Penning was so shaken and excited he could barely fill out the tag
stub for the 54-inch sturgeon and we were there to witness the
entire episode. It had been an exciting sequence of events.
Congratulations were exchanged and we thanked our host for the
unique experience. Falcus summed up the entire day, and rare chance
of stopping into a shack just before a sturgeon was speared, when
he said, “That was totally unbelievable.”