Sturgeon spearing on Lake Winnebago

February 13, 2012

In anticipation of surviving my first winter back in Wisconsin, I had invested in a pair of brand new Sorrel boots, tall with fur on top… And now it was finally time for my new boots to meet their challenge on my assignment to photograph opening day of sturgeon spear fishing on the frozen Lake Winnebago in central Wisconsin. For me, the anticipation of the day ahead was palpable, I could see how the day might unfold as I drove north from Milwaukee. I could visualize the shots I was going to get — images of huge fish being dragged onto shore, then weighed and registered at the DNR stations. Perhaps I would even see a fish being speared inside a fish shanty.

My only concern for the day was whether my camera and flash batteries would stay charged and my laptop battery wouldn’t croak as it sat in the car all day. The forecast was for highs around 12 degrees Fahrenheit with wind chills around -5 below. But I was as prepared as I could be, and I came to this assignment armed with enough layers to beat Ralphie from A Christmas Story in a bundle-off, along with a “Cold Weather Survival Readiness Kit” pack of hand and feet warmers. I turned north onto Highway 151 and was shocked when I caught my first glimpse of the lake. It was huge! Of course… Lake Winnebago is Wisconsin’s largest inland lake.

I met the writer in the tiny town of Pipe, Wisconsin. I grabbed a breakfast sandwich at the local Citco, where I overheard the cashier say they were running out of beer and she was nervous, considering it was not even 9am. Then the writer and I stopped at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Registration Station right in Pipe. The station had already registered two fish by the time we arrived at 9:30, a good sign. But then we were informed that the fishing day officially ends at 12:30pm, with a 1:30 cut off time to register a fish. That we did NOT KNOW! Time was at a premium, and this was a BIG LAKE to cover.

But little did we know, we were in for just as much of a challenge to get our fish (metaphorically speaking) as the fishermen/women out on the lake were, as conditions this season were far from optimal. The mild winter had made for poor ice conditions on the lake. DNR officials were urging people not to drive vehicles onto Lake Winnebago. Veteran fishermen/women couldn’t use trucks and trailers to haul out their usual sized “dark houses” (I was scolded for calling them ice shacks) so smaller ice shanties were being used — the kind you’d typically see for regular old ice fishing. We found out later that about 2000 shanties were set up by opening day, in contrast to the average 4000+ shanties in normal seasons.

On top of poor ice conditions, the water conditions were poor as well. The mild winter had allowed a certain type of algae to grow, which causes the water to be quite murky. Spear fishing is all about being able to see your fish, because if you can’t see the fish in the murky water, you can’t spear it.

Fast forward to noon, where the writer and I settled in at the Stockbridge DNR Registration Station, just outside the Harbor View Bar. By this point we had been out to an ice shanty and visited with the all male crew inside. We got an education on the spear, the decoys, and their thoughts on why they spend hours in a dark room staring at a hole in the ice. The guys described their sturgeon fishing time as their “man time away from the wives,” and a time to take a break from work and the pressures and stress of the everyday grind. They can drink beer and whiskey, and eat lots of meat. Freshly fried bacon was piled in a large cast iron pan outside the front door when we arrived.

Fast forward to 1:20pm at Stockbridge: T-minus ten minutes before cut-off time to register sturgeon. We had not seen A SINGLE FISH yet! We heard story after story at the Stockbridge weigh station, like “Last year at this time, the line was 20-30 deep of people bringing fish in to be weighed and tagged.” Fish tales they were. And it was getting down to the wire for us to get ours.

Just then, a rush of activity was occurring out of the corner of my eye — a giant fish being towed by two people who were approaching the weigh station. THIS FISH WAS HUGE!!!!

I scrambled to shoot the action, and pointed my lens at the flurry of fish action. Lighting conditions were less than optimal, as the monster fish was hung by a meat hook and weighed. I had no choice but to shoot directly into the low afternoon winter sun. My fingers were encased in gloves, and clumsy, so it was not easy to review what I was shooting and difficult to adjust the buttons on my camera as quickly as I would have liked. But I got the shots, just plain happy to have a fish to photograph! Two minutes later, another sturgeon was brought into the station, this one only half the size of the first, but no less a sight. After weighing the fish, they inspected the guts (to determine sex) and tagged him. A DNR guy placed the sturgeon on a snowy patch of the grass next to the weigh station, slit the fish’s lower abdomen. Organs were rifled through and placed into ziplock bags. A curious thing was the amount of mud inside the fish. Yes, mud. Literally. The mud poured out of the fish onto the white snow. Sturgeon are bottom feeders, and this fish in particular had an unusually large amount of mud in its guts. One DNR official surmised this was the reason that the male was stunted, just over the 36 inch minimum.

After this brief, but welcomed, high intensity activity, we got word that only a dozen or so sturgeon had been registered for the day on the entire Lake Winnebago, but that numbers well over 80+ had been registered in the Upriver Lakes Chain. So the writer and I quickly loaded our gear and bundled selves into my car and headed another hour north.

Timing is everything in the journalism business, and we pulled into the parking lot of the Critters Sport’s/Woodeye’s Bar just as a 155 pound sturgeon had been hoisted onto the back of a family pick up truck. Mom, dad, and kids were packing up and getting ready to drive off when I jumped out of the car with my camera and was able to snap some pics of the beast. This sturgeon was a female, and eggs were still oozing from her underbelly. Her large side gills were still pulsating faintly as she took her last breaths — this queen of the lake was still holding onto the last bits of life. Turns out this queen fish of the lake was caught by the mom of the family. It was her first sturgeon.

The parking lot of the bar was overflowing with vehicles (mostly pick-up trucks) and we drove all this way because we heard this bar was THE place to check out on opening day. The smell of fish immediately hit the nostrils upon entering the corrugated metal structure (a sporting goods store and indoor archery range share the building). The bar was packed with people wearing their deer hunting camo and Carhardt outfits. Twenty feet from the entrance, a pool table wrapped in blue tarps stood as a throne for three giant sturgeons officially lying in state. Blood, fat, and guts were spattered everywhere atop the throne and underfoot on the tarps. Half empty beer bottles were clustered among the carcasses, illuminated by a chandelier made of antlers and taxidermy fish. I actually grabbed the writer by the arm and squealed with excitement, “We found it!!! This is it! We struck gold! This is amazing!!” It was amazing. This was the story.

It was the story of a lake community and all that goes with it: the socializing, the fish stories, the catches of the day laid out for all to see on display in the local bar with the smell of freshly caught fish, the buzz of Wisconsin culture as thick as the butter that is made here. More taxidermy trophies of animals and last year’s award winning, record setting stuffed sturgeon held court above us all and had been freshly hung on the wall that morning. The largest fish on the table, 98 pounds, was caught by a local woman my age…. turns out the largest catch on opening day, of 179 lbs, was also caught by a woman. This struck a cord with me. I was given an opportunity to photograph opening day of sturgeon spear fishing, which I knew nothing about. I was introduced to the sport and the culture of spear fishing for sturgeon on the Lakes of Winnebago and now I was hooked. Next year, I will rent a shack on the frozen lake with friends, grill out, drink a few beers, and photograph my inaugural sturgeon fishing season opening day.

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