Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Winnebago sturgeon spearers hoping to make history in 2009

Large numbers of really big fish on tap

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Downloadable audio files featuring DNR Sturgeon Biologist Ron Bruch discussing the 2009 Winnebago System season are available online Lake Winnebago sturgeon pages of the DNR Web site.]

OSHKOSH – Spearers taking to the ice for the Feb. 14 opening day of the Winnebago System sturgeon spearing seasons can expect nearly ideal spearing conditions and lots of really big fish, according to the state’s lead sturgeon biologist.

“Ice and water conditions coming into the 2009 season look very good and the prospects of seeing some really big fish are excellent,” says Ron Bruch, Department of Natural Resources sturgeon biologist and fisheries supervisor stationed in Oshkosh. “In fact, based on last year’s harvest and recent fish survey results, there’s a strong chance that some lucky spearer will make history by spearing the biggest fish ever.”

The largest sturgeon ever registered in the Winnebago winter spear fishery, 188 pounds, was taken by Dave Piechowski of Redgranite, Wis., in 2004. The lake sturgeon population in the Winnebago System is the largest in the world and the number of very large fish has increased over the last 15 to 20 years due to careful management of the harvest and strong year classes of sturgeon hatched 70 to 80 years ago, Bruch says.

Last year, spearers registered 42 sturgeon that weighed between 100 and 172 pounds, the highest percentage of trophy-size fish ever recorded in the history of the fishery. Last fall, DNR fisheries crews netting sturgeon on Lake Butte des Morts captured and tagged several sturgeon over 200 pounds, including one that was more than 80 inches long and nearly 230 pounds.

The DNR has been intensively managing the lake sturgeon population and fishery for more than 60 years, conducting annual surveys and working closely with the public to maintain safe harvest levels, Bruch says. The current lake sturgeon population in the Winnebago System is estimated at about 60,000 fish aged 1 to 80, including 25,000 males and 13,000 females in the adult spawning stock.

Water clarity good, caution advised whenever on ice

Water clarity, the key to sturgeon spearing success, as of Jan. 24, was very good with 12 to 18 feet of visibility being reported over most of Lake Winnebago, although reports from the southern end of the lake are indicating only 6 to 8 feet of visibility there, Bruch says. Reports from the Upriver Lakes indicate clear water throughout.

Ice thickness is reported to run between 20 and 24 inches over most of the lake system, although thinner and dangerous ice is always found near channels and river currents, he says. Spearers and others going on the ice are advised to always know how much ice is covering the areas they want to travel on. Bridges have been placed over expansion cracks, and ice roads have been established and maintained around the lakes by local fishing clubs and marked every quarter-mile with standing Christmas trees. Ice travelers seeing downed Christmas trees should avoid these areas as they mark unsafe ice conditions.

More details about the two separate seasons

Sturgeon spearing regulations for the 2009 season are nearly identical to 2008. The rules are the same on Lake Winnebago as they are on the Upriver Lakes, with the exception of different harvest cap triggers and participation rules. Spearing hours for both seasons run from 6:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. daily.

The Lake Winnebago season runs from Feb. 14, 2009, through March 1, 2009, or until the pre-set harvest cap for Lake Winnebago is reached, OR the pre-set harvest cap for the entire Winnebago System is reached, whichever comes first.

The Upriver Lakes season runs from Feb. 14, 2009, through March 1, 2009 on Lakes Butte des Morts, Winneconne and Poygan, or until the pre-set harvest cap for the Upriver Lakes is reached, or the pre-set harvest cap for the entire Winnebago System is reached, whichever comes first. Participation in this season was determined by a lottery for the required sturgeon tag, with 500 people selected from among the more than 4,000 who submitted an application by Aug. 1, 2008.

Successful lottery winners had until Oct. 31, 2008, to purchase a spearing license for the Upriver Lakes. Sturgeon spearing licenses for the Lake Winnebago season were not limited and were available to those spearers who purchased them by Oct. 31, 2008.

Spearers can only participate in the season for which they have a spearing license. A full listing of regulations for the Winnebago System sturgeon spearing season can be found on the [Lake Winnebago sturgeon] page of the DNR Web site or at DNR service centers.

2009 season a rare one in other ways

This season, Wisconsin's 77th consecutive lake sturgeon spearing season, will be notable for more than just its potential for record-setting fish. The Feb. 14 opening date is the latest the season can begin under state law -- and it’s also Valentine’s Day. State law establishes opening day as the second Saturday in February, and the fact that 2008 was a leap year, giving February 2008 29 days instead of 28, conspired to push this year’s opening date as far back as legally possible, Bruch says.

Both can work in spearers’ favor: the late opening date means more daylight and better light for spearers, potentially improving their success. The opener’s convergence with Valentine’s Day works well too: spearing hours end by 12:30 p.m. so spearers should be home in plenty of time to celebrate the occasion with their sweetheart -- and they’ll have something a little more memorable than a box of chocolates or bouquet of roses. “It’s a good year to get your sturgeon spearing sweetheart a new decoy or spear for opening day,” says Bruch.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Ron Bruch (920) 424-3059

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