WI: Record number of spearers seek sturgeon

Oshkosh, Wis. – Increased harvest caps and a state record fish
helped lure a record number of sturgeon spearers to buy licenses
for the 2011 Lake Winnebago system season, which begins
Saturday.

Ron Grishaber, of Appleton, speared a 212-pounder last year, and
DNR sturgeon biologist Ron Bruch said fisheries crews have handled
even larger fish during the Wolf River spawning run.

“That was not a black-egg fish (meaning it wouldn’t have spawned
that year),” said Bruch of the 7-foot-long state record. “Had it
been, it likely would have been 240 to 250 pounds.”

Bruch, a 25-year DNR employee who is also filling in as acting
regional fisheries supervisor at the Green Bay office, said there
are more 100-pound-plus sturgeon in the system than at any time
during the past 75 years.

“There’s a lot of excitement,” Bruch said.

A record 12,423 licenses were sold for this season, including
490 for the upriver lakes.

“The size structure that we have in the population and the sheer
numbers of fish,” Bruch said when asked what the big attraction was
for an increase in license sales. “Most every county is
represented, and I think most years we have people from more than
50 counties that are successful.”

While only about one in seven spearers might score in a good
year, Bruch said spearing is a group activity in which all members
share in the success of individual spearers.

Regulation changes that were developed in conjunction with a
citizen advisory committee the past two decades have led to an
increase in both trophy fish and the overall population.

In 2010, the DNR estimated there were 15,800 females and 31,700
males in the adult spawning stock. As a result of the robust
numbers, the harvest caps have been increased. The new caps will be
395 juvenile females (up from 350 in 2010), 790 adult females (up
from 740), and 1,200 males (up from 1,000).

Historically, less than 1 percent of the annual harvest
consisted of 100-pound-plus sturgeon. Bruch said in the past
decade, that number has gradually increased, topping out at more
than 5 percent last year.

Gearing up

Opening weekend is when the largest number of fish are brought
to the 11 registration stations, giving thousands of onlookers a
chance to catch a glimpse of one of the state’s most unique fish
species.

“It’s one of two ‘Christmases’ every year – when they’re
harvested and when we’re tagging them in spring during the spawning
run,” Bruch said. “It’s exciting. Each one we get to handle fish,
and each one provides critical pieces of the puzzle that allow us
to manage this fishery effectively.”

In a little more than a week that most seasons are open before
harvest caps are hit, spearers and other enthusiasts are estimated
to produce an economic impact to Lake Winnebago region businesses
of more than $3.5 million.

Ice thickness was 18 to 20 inches or more over most of the lakes
last week, although people traveling on the frozen surface must
always exercise caution and know where expansion cracks and current
areas are.

Fishing and spearing clubs around the lake system mark and
maintain a network of roads, as well as bridges over expansion
cracks. Roads are marked every one-tenth of a mile with an upright
Christmas tree.

“Most spearers are experts at reading the ice,” Bruch said. “But
if you’re not familiar with it out there, stick to the marked roads
and don’t go off exploring.”

Lake Winnebago water clarity was about 12 feet heading into the
final week, with evidence of an earlier algae bloom. As that
settled out, Bruch expected clarity to be even better. Twelve feet
is enough to see bottom in much of the southern half of the lake,
but it can be 18 feet or more in much of the northern half.

“If sturgeon are feeding on the bottom, you might not even see
them (if in deeper water that isn’t clear all the way down),” Bruch
said. “But they often swim up to check out a decoy, and sometimes
come gliding in right under the ice. You’ve been staring down the
hole for hours, and they come in and scare the hell out of you.
It’s a real adrenaline rush.”

Bruch said the young gizzard shad targeted by sturgeon for food
are all over the lakes, which should help spread out the spearing
pressure. Last year’s hatch was the largest in two decades, he
said.

There is also a good supply of lakefly larvae (red worms),
though, and Bruch said it will be interesting to see the sturgeon
movement patterns during the spearing season.

Thousands of people peering down spearing holes provide a great
opportunity to study the seasonal movements of all sorts of fish.
The past two years, spearers who participated in fish observation
research reported seeing gizzard shad, minnows, and sturgeon most
often, along with perch, sheepshead, walleyes, catfish, white bass,
gar, and bluegill.

Sonic tag studies

Since 2004, the DNR – with cash donations from numerous area
fishing clubs used to buy two dozen sonic receivers – has been
tracking the movement of adult and juvenile sturgeon in the
Winnebago-Fox-Wolf system from Shawano to Winneconne on the Wolf,
and from Montello to Appleton on the Fox. The receivers listen 24/7
for a sturgeon swimming by with a sonic tag in its abdominal
cavity.

Bruch said even though about 50 of the more than 300 tags will
be transmitting data until 2018, the DNR already has learned a lot
in the first six years, including that most spawning adults migrate
out of Lake Winnebago in fall. Many spend the winter in the rivers;
some winter in the upriver lakes.

A computer chip in the receiver records date, time, and
identification number when a fish swims by; all information is then
downloaded twice a year.

Additionally, financial help from the Otter Street Fishing Club,
the “Battle on ‘Bago” fishing tournament, and other sponsors will
launch a $30,000 DNR walleye research project this spring.

“We’ll tag 100 walleyes with the $300 sonic tags, and take
advantage of this receiver system that we have deployed for the
sturgeon,” Bruch said.

The DNR hopes to learn more about where walleyes live in the
system seasonally as adults.

“In fall, there’s a run all the way to New London,” Bruch said.
“Are those just river fish, or Lake Winnebago (walleyes)? And for
the spring spawning run, when do fish leave Winnebago? What range
of habitats do they utilize? This will be some real insight for
anglers and also tell us what’s important to these fish.”

Anyone can get daily, in-season sturgeon-spearing news direct
from Bruch by requesting e-mail updates from
ronald.bruch@wisconsin.gov. The recorded sturgeon hotline is (920)
303-5444.

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