New London, Wis. — The Wolf River walleyes had to wait a little bit this spring.
Doug Peterman and Doug Schramm drove two hours from their Sheboygan County homes in mid-April to take advantage of the Wolf River’s walleye run. They found an open dock on the river a few miles west of New London and settled in for a few hours of fishing.
That didn’t last long, as several lake sturgeon – some of them more than 6 feet long – swam under the dock. Peterman and Schramm set their fishing rods down and peered into the river as the sturgeon continued upstream on their annual spawning run.
“This is nothing new to me,” said Peterman, who grew up in Shawano and recalled seeing the fish gather below the dam.
“You’d go down and there’d be 100 people standing there,” he said. “When we were kids, we’d go under the trestle in Shawano and wade in the water. We’d stand there and they’d swim between your legs. We’d grab them by the tail and they’d pull us around the river. We used to go swimming with sturgeon.”
“We came up to go walleye fishing, but this is good to watch,” Schramm said. “I imagine (the walleyes) are in here, but right now, I’m fixated. This is the first time I’ve actually stood on a bank and watched them. It’s been nonstop since we’ve been here. I fish (Lake) Winnebago a lot and see a lot of them there. We kind of figured they’d be here, but I never thought there’d be that many of them. If you don’t come and see it, you can’t explain it.”
The sturgeon started arriving in the New London area April 14 and eventually headed upstream to Shiocton and Shawano.
“I might have eaten sturgeon as a kid, but I don’t remember that,” Peterman said. “I really don’t know how good they are, but they are fun to watch.”
“The 4-footers are males and then this 7-footer comes cruising in and she brings 10 of these little guys with her,” Schramm said. “If you caught that on a rod, that’d be a monster fish.”
While Peterman and Schramm fished near New London, Glen Mattern, of Menasha, walked along the river at Bamboo Bend, a popular place to view sturgeon on Shiocton’s west side.
Mattern signed up to be a Sturgeon Guard, volunteers who are stationed along the river to watch the fish, which are vulnerable to illegal harvest.
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Another Menasha man, Don Mielke, helped revive the program, which the state Department of Natural Resources decided to eliminate last year until further notice.
“Don came to me and said, ‘What do you think about starting up the Sturgeon Guard?’” Mattern said. “I said, ‘Don, I can remember when it first started. People would violate and years ago, you never got 100-pounders. After about 25 years or so of the Sturgeon Guard, you started getting big fish. It should be here again,’” I said. “He said, ‘I’m going to start it up again.’ I got the call this morning. The fish weren’t here yesterday, but they’re here today. I had other things to do, but here I am. I was born and raised a sturgeon spearer. It’s part of my culture and it’s an awesome thing to do. I’m giving back right now.”
Mattern said the program is important to the Winnebago system’s sturgeon fishery.
“People will say, ‘What are you doing?’ and I’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m going to guard the sturgeon,’” he said. “They’ll go, ‘What are you talking about? Guarding sturgeon?’ They need our help. Some people don’t think that, but that’s why I’m here. We’re not busting anybody, we’re here to be observant and let people know that we’re here.”
Mattern credited the DNR for a successful sturgeon management program.
“They turned sturgeon fishing around,” he said. “They guard them as far as putting a quota on (spearing harvests). There are years when they get 2,500, 3,000 sturgeon on a clear (water) year. You couldn’t sustain that kind of a harvest year after year after year, but Mother Nature takes care of herself. She’ll throw in some dirty water and you won’t see anything.”
Mattern was the only Sturgeon Guard volunteer assigned to Bamboo Bend, one of the popular viewing areas, on April 14.
“There are not a lot of people here yet,” he said. “Tomorrow, you won’t be able to stand without being run over.”
There’s a good reason people are fascinated with lake sturgeon, according to Mattern.
“They were here when dinosaurs were here. The dinosaurs didn’t make it, but these fish did,” Mattern said.
“I love seeing kids come down and look at these things. There are other places in the United States that have sturgeon, but not to the extent of this. This is unbelievable.”