Sunday, February 5th, 2023
Sunday, February 5th, 2023

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Sportsmen Since 1967

Winnebago producing despite VHS concerns

By Dean
Bortz

Editor

Oshkosh, Wis. – Anglers who are fighting shy of Lake Winnebago
because of the presence of the fish-killing disease called viral
hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) might just be missing the walleye
boat.

Dick Sickinger, owner of Fox River Bait and Tackle in Oshkosh,
and DNR Lake Winnebago fisheries biologist Ron Bruch, of Oshkosh,
said Lake Winnebago is experiencing one of the best walleye bites
in recent history.

‘The last 10 days the walleye fishing has just been
outstanding,’ Sickinger said during an interview on June 7. ‘It’s
too bad there aren’t more people here taking advantage of it.’

Bruch and Sickinger acknowledge that VHS had been found in some
dead fish found in the Winnebago system, but both added that
anglers should be aware that VHS does not transfer to humans, and
VHS does not appear to be widespread within the Winnebago
system.

‘Most anglers don’t understand yet that VHS is not a threat to
humans,’ he said.

Still, Sickinger said he can understand why some anglers might
be a little nervous. If anglers educate themselves on VHS and get
past that fear, he said they will find some good walleye fishing on
Lake Winnebago this summer.

However, Sickinger is not attributing the drop in angling
pressure strictly to VHS.

‘There are three things: One is certainly the disease scare, but
we also have high gasoline prices and an exceptionally high amount
of wind. It’s been nothing but wind, wind, wind,’ he said.

Bruch said he has not seen fish die-offs on Lake Winnebago that
are abnormal.

‘We know we have VHS, but it’s not having a devastating impact
on the Lake Winnebago fish community, at least not to this point,’
Bruch said. ‘People should still go fishing here – there’s no
reason not to. We have no idea how long we’ve had this
(disease).’

Bruch said one big part of discovering VHS in the Winnebago
system is trying to quantify just what that means – not only to the
fish, but to the fishermen.

‘There are a lot of places that have had experiences with VHS
for some time, so it will be helpful to talk to those people so we
know what to expect,’ he said.

One big question mark is what the disease could mean to the
Winnebago sturgeon population.

‘We have talked to people around the world who have experience
with VHS and sturgeon, but there is no information on the
vulnerability of sturgeon to VHS. We’re hoping to try to answer
that question with some further work,’ Bruch said. ‘There is a lab
in Washington state operated by the U.S. Geological Survey. That
lab could run challenge tests and expose sturgeon to the virus to
see if they become infected, die, become a carrier, develop
antibodies, or a combination of the above. Then we can watch wild
stocks to see if they have signs of disease. We did test 30
sturgeon that were harvested during the February 2007 spearing
season, and they all came back negative.’

Bruch said the big lake experienced a huge gizzard shad kill in
December when the air temperatures dropped drastically. All of the
gizzard shad that were tested came back negative for VHS.

On Winnebago, Bruch is tracking calls about dead fish, and crews
have sampled sheepshead and walleyes. The agency is waiting for the
results of those tests.

‘We do see dead fish every year on Winnebago, so not all dead
fish are going to have VHS,’ he said. ‘Anglers are wondering if we
want dead fish, so no, we simply can’t respond to all of the fish
that might be found. We do want sturgeon, though,’ he said.

Bruch agreed with Sickinger that the walleye fishing right now
is ‘absolutely fantastic.’

‘We just cannot emphasize enough that these fish are safe to eat
and handle,’ Bruch said.

To characterize the fishing, Sickinger said anglers can look at
fishing tournament results.

‘A lot of the walleyes that are coming down through the system
are of real decent size,’ Sickinger said. ‘The winning weights last
weekend were more than 20 pounds for the Van Dyne tournament, and
the Max Lure 100 was 191/2 pounds. Earlier this year, a lot of the
tournament-winning weights were running 10 to 15 pounds, so there
are some bigger fish out there now. They were picking up some real
dandies on the east shore already last week, so the walleyes are
spreading out.’

Sickinger said anglers can catch walleyes ‘just about any way
you want – slip bobber, pitching jigs, trolling harnesses, you name
it.’

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