Tuesday, February 24, 2009

2009 Lake Winnebago sturgeon spear season one for the record books

OSHKOSHThe lunker’s still out there.

The 230-pound behemoth lake sturgeon netted by state fish crews in the fall eluded the record 10,239 licensed spearers who took to the ice for the 77th consecutive 2009 Lake Winnebago system sturgeon spearing season.

But the separate seasons on the big lake and the Upriver Lakes were still fit for the record books. Sturgeon history was made on day 2 of the season when Amy Van Beek of Menasha threw an 80.8 inch, 168.8 pound female sturgeon out of her shack on Lake Poygan. It was the largest fish ever harvested by a woman spearer, the largest fish ever registered from the Upriver Lakes, the fourth largest fish by weight on record and the sixth longest fish on record.

Van Beek’s fish was one of 32 sturgeon harvested that weighed more than 100 pounds; in all, spearers took 1,512 fish during the 2009 sturgeon spearing season on the combined lakes of the Winnebago pool which includes Lake Winnebago and the Upriver Lakes -- Poygan, Winneconne, and Butte des Morts.

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. A 100-pound sturgeon can be anywhere from 65 to 80 years old; heavier sturgeon are proportionally older.

“The number of these trophy-size fish has been increasing significantly over the last decade,” said Ron Bruch, DNR senior sturgeon biologist. “This is due to the distribution of age classes currently present in the population and due to the impact of harvest regulation implemented over the last 17 years designed to increase survival of these large fish.”

The 2009 season opened on a partly sunny day with light wind that didn’t chill the excitement in the record 6,853 shanties on the lakes for the first day of the spearing season. “The season ended with a snowstorm and strong winds that created white-out conditions on Lake Winnebago, but that didn’t stop large numbers of dedicated sturgeon spearers from driving out on the ice to their shacks in an attempt to get their sturgeon on the 8th and last day of the 2009 season,” Bruch said.

The Upriver Lakes season, which is limited to 500 licenses and is controlled by a lottery, was open five days, closing Wednesday, Feb. 18. The focus then shifted attention to the big lake, where the season ran another three days. “The average season length on Lake Winnebago since we've gone to the 6-hour spearing days in 2002 is 11 days,” said Bruch.

“We are always glad to see the season go longer than be very short -- at least into or through two weekends -- to give the spearers ample opportunity to get out on the ice, and to give the local establishments an opportunity to take advantage of the extra patrons that sturgeon spearing produces while the season is going on,” he said.

Of the 1,512 fish speared, 301 were juveniles (86% of quota), 615 adult females (97.6% of quota), and 596 males (59.6% of quota). Harvest caps for the 2009 season were set at 350 juvenile females, 630 adult females, or 1,000 males.

“At this point, it does not appear that we exceeded our 5 percent exploitation limit for any of the three harvest categories (juvenile females, adult females, or males) but we won't know for sure until all the data are entered,” Bruch said.

Wisconsin has the world’s largest lake sturgeon population. 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 ages 1 to 80, including 25,000 males and 13,000 females in the adult spawning stock.

This season, 4,031 people applied for the Upriver lottery; 500 licenses were authorized and 490 Upriver licenses were sold. The DNR also sold 9,749 licenses for Lake Winnebago. In all, 10,239 licenses for spearing on both Winnebago and Upriver lakes.

“We have seen a 20 percent increase in sturgeon spearing license sales in the last two years,” said Bruch. “I believe the success of our management program in producing and sustaining this high quality fishery with a high success rate has caused interest to grow around the region, state and Midwest.”

The average success rate on the Upriver Lakes is 56 percent. The success rate on Lake Winnebago averages about 13 percent, which means that if regular sturgeon spearers apply every year, they may be able to experience spearing success six to eight times in their lifetime.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Ron Bruch, (920) 424-3059; Tom Turner, DNR Public Affairs Manager, (920) 662-5122

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