No place else in the United States boasts a sturgeon population as big - and draws as many fishermen - as Lake Winnebago and its connecting rivers and lakes.
This year's season - the 100th year that Wisconsin has regulated sturgeon spearing - begins Saturday, and during a season that could last for 16 days, more than 1,000 of the fish could be taken.
Lake Winnebago sturgeon escaped the decimation of fishing stocks in the 19th century, and the quality of the water in and around Wisconsin's largest inland lake has steadily improved - both factors in the success of the sturgeon.
But equally as important is that regulators, scientists and the people who spear the fish have collaborated for a quarter-century in the hope of keeping the fish an enduring legacy in Wisconsin.
Loyal sturgeon fishermen have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help the Department of Natural Resources pay for the sturgeon program and upgrade habitat.
Citizens also help the DNR patrol spawning grounds for potential caviar poachers each spring - a time when sturgeon are their most vulnerable and the females are laying their eggs.
Fund raising has also helped scientists learn to raise the ancient fish in captivity. A group called Sturgeon for Tomorrow was founded in 1977 and has raised more than $500,000 for research. And by tracking the fish up Wisconsin rivers and even across the Great Lakes, scientists have come to understand better the behavior of the fish that has been around since the days of Tyrannosaurus rex.
A prehistoric fish
With their long snouts and the whisker-like barbels they use as feelers, sturgeon are relics of the Cretaceous Period of 100 million years ago. They have no scales. Their tubular mouths on the underside of their bodies suck up snails, small clams, crawfish, leeches and insects.
Bottom-dwelling fish, sturgeon are also known to make porpoise-like jumps.
Commercial fishermen killed sturgeon indiscriminately in the late 1800s, stacking them on the shore like cordwood until the public developed a taste for the fish and their eggs.
But with a growing population, the DNR wants to rebuild stocks in Lake Michigan by stocking rivers that feed into the lake. Later this year, there are plans to stock sturgeon for the first time in the Milwaukee and Manitowoc rivers, said Ronald M. Bruch, a fish biologist who oversees Wisconsin's sturgeon program.
"I think that the stocking of sturgeon will explode geometrically over the next 10 to 15 years, and we are looking primarily at Lake Michigan," Bruch said.
This season's outlook for sturgeon spearing is unclear. Poor water clarity and spotty ice conditions could slow the spearing like last year, when the season ran the full 16 days, Bruch said.
The only other state with a winter spearing season is Michigan; a lottery is used so that only a handful of fish can be taken from a single lake each year.
"What you have is world renown," said Tracy Hill, a sturgeon researcher and a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alpena, Mich. "When people want to find out how to rebuild a sturgeon population, they look to Wisconsin."
Population is growing
Wisconsin's sturgeon population in the Lake Winnebago system - which includes lakes Butte des Morts, Winneconne and Poygan and the Wolf, upper Fox and Embarrass rivers - is conservatively estimated at 40,000 to 50,000.
In the late 1950s, the DNR estimated it was 11,500.
While collaboration goes on between the DNR and other sports groups, it has worked particularly well with sturgeon.
"It's a lot easier to focus on an issue when it's concentrated in one area," said Dick Koerner, a sturgeon fisherman and a member of the executive committee of the Conservation Congress, which advises the DNR on wildlife issues.
All of Wisconsin's spearing takes place on the 138,000-acre Lake Winnebago, except every fifth year, when the season expands to the connecting lakesof Butte des Morts, Winneconne and Poygan.
Koerner, 68, lives on the northwest corner of Lake Winnebago. He's been spearing sturgeon for 50 years, and his biggest is an 87-pound female that had spawned the year before.
If he had speared it the year before, when it was fat with eggs, "I would have had my dream of a 100-pound fish," Koerner said. "What I like about sturgeon is that it is a trophy fish - just like shooting a big buck."
The DNR estimates that anglers have about a 10% chance of landing a sturgeon each year. An estimated 12,000 spearers took to the ice and killed 847 sturgeon last year.
When Koerner started spearing, "I knew everyone on the north side of the lake, practically," he said. "Two years ago, we were three short of 5,000 shanties on Lake Winnebago."
The 1990s marked a dramatic growth in sturgeon spearing.
But it's come at a cost. The DNR says the number of sturgeon weighing more than 100 pounds is declining.
In 2000 and 2001, a big kill of adult females - the linchpin in the survival of the fish - forced the DNR to close the season after only two days.
Population grows slowly
Sturgeon are late to mature. Females do not spawn until they are 20to 25 years old - and then they spawn only every three to five years. Males are not sexually mature until they are 12 to 15.
Because the fish are late maturing, any decline in the population of adult fish could take decades to rebuild, said Fred P. Binkowski, a senior scientist at the Great Lakes Water Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who raises sturgeon in his lab and is beginning to stock them in rivers feeding Winnebago.
"These are living relics. They live 100 years," Binkowski said. "I will never live long enough to really see the results of some of my research."
The sturgeon population is still on the upswing, but most of that growth is coming from the smaller males. A 1997 DNR study concluded that females 50 years old and older have nearly vanished.
To keep the sturgeon population from sinking, spearing is strictly regulated.
A management practice started in the 1950s by DNR specified that no more than 5% of the harvestable stock could be speared in any one year.
"We still use that rule of thumb," the DNR's Bruch said. "It has withstood the test of time."
1903 was key
Regulation of the sturgeon began in 1903, when the state imposed an 8-pound minimum limit on the fish as as stocks dwindled. The state outlawed all sturgeon fishing in 1915, reintroducing spearing in 1931.
The DNR tweaks regulations after conducting population estimates and consulting early on with a sturgeon advisory committee. While not all changes are welcome, Bruch said collaboration keeps friction to a minimum.
Today, fishermen can spear only one sturgeon - the bag limit was five in 1931.
To address the loss of big females, the DNR in 1997 reduced the legal size of a sturgeon from 45 inches to 36 inches, so more males are now taken.
The DNR also has annual harvest limits. This year, it's a total of 2,100 sturgeon - including 400 adult females.
"The fishery is very robust," said Bruch. "The challenge is to maintain a robust population so that we can keep this up."
While most sturgeon stick to Lake Winnebago and its tributaries during their lives, others are long-distance cruisers.
One intrepid sturgeon is particularly well-known in research circles. Tagged in Lake Winnebago in 1978, he swam down the Fox River over 14 dams and locks and into Lake Michigan. Then he headed into Lake Huron, where he was caught by a commercial fisherman, before dying in Sandusky Bay in Lake Erie in 1999.
"Given the age of the fish," concluded Wisconsin and Ohio wildlife authorities, "it is likely the fish died as a result of spawning stress."
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