Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Lake Winnebago system seasons open Feb. 13

Higher harvest caps, bigger fish on tap for 2010

OSHKOSH - Spearers will have a better chance of harvesting a sturgeon -- and a really big sturgeon at that -- when the 78th consecutive spearing seasons get underway Feb.13 on the Lake Winnebago system.

The system-wide harvest cap for adult females for the 2010 season has been increased to 740 from last year’s 630, and is nearly double the limit set in 1997 when the state Department of Natural Resources started capping harvest.

At the same time, the number of trophy size fish in the population has been increasing significantly, resulting last year in spearers harvesting 42 sturgeon between 100 and 168 pounds, the highest percentage of trophy-size fish ever recorded in the history of the fishery.

“The resurgence of 150-plus pound fish in the population over the last 10 years adds a potential super-trophy element to the fishery that spearers haven’t seen since the 1950s,” says Ron Bruch, DNR fisheries supervisor in Oshkosh and the lead sturgeon biologist since 1990.

“It appears to be only a matter of time before the 188 pound record set by Dave Piechowski in 2004 is broken,” he said.

DNR crews frequently handle fish over 200 pounds in their population assessments.

The current sturgeon population in the Winnebago System is the largest in the world. It is estimated to be at more than 58,000 fish including 47,100 fish over the 36-inch minimum size limit in the spear fishery. Of those legal sized-fish, 5,900 are estimated to be juvenile females, 14,800 adult females, and 26,400 adult males.

Harvest of lake sturgeon is tightly controlled because the species is especially vulnerable to overharvest due to their slow growth and late maturation. Females don’t spawn for the first time until they are 21 to 33 years old, and then they spawn only once every three to five years.

Ice and other spearing conditions

As of Jan. 25, 2010, there were 16 to 18 inches over most of the lakes, although there are areas of the lake with thinner ice. Three people have recently drowned on Lake Winnebago after the vehicles they were travelling on went through the ice. Anyone traveling on the lakes should check the ice first to make sure the area they are in is safe, Bruch says. Fishing clubs around the lakes have scouted and marked roads with upright Christmas trees placed every quarter-mile along the road. Downed Christmas trees indicate a crack or unsafe ice – stay away from these areas.

Reports also indicated that the water in the Winnebago lakes was “gin clear,” although clarity can change rapidly due to run-off events and winter algae blooms.

More details about the two separate seasons

The Lake Winnebago system now holds two separate, concurrent seasons: on Lake Winnebago and on the Upriver Lakes of Butte des Morts, Winneconne and Poygan. Spearers can only participate in the season for which they have a spearing license.

The rules are the same on Lake Winnebago as they are on the Upriver Lakes, with the exception of different harvest caps and triggers. The total harvest caps for Lake Winnebago are 280 juvenile females, 666 adult females and 800 males; for Upriver Lakes, 70 juvenile females, 74 adult females and 200 males. Total harvest from all the lakes is tracked each day to ensure that system harvest caps are not exceeded.

Spearing hours for both seasons run from 6:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. daily, with a bag limit of one lake sturgeon per license and a minimum length limit of 36 inches.

The Lake Winnebago season runs from Feb. 13, 2010, through Feb. 28, 2010, 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. 13, 2010, through Feb. 28, 2010 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 the Upriver Lakes 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, 2009.

Successful lottery winners had until Oct. 31, 2009, 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, 2009.

Spearers can only participate in the season for which they have a spearing license. Any fish harvested from Lake Winnebago must be registered at one of the sturgeon registration stations on Lake Winnebago. Any fish harvested from Lakes Butte des Mort, Winneconne or Poygan (the Upriver Lakes) must be registered at one of the sturgeon registration stations on the Upriver Lakes.

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. Daily harvest updates will be posted to the page.

Get Your Copy of People of the Sturgeon autographed

Spearers and lake sturgeon enthusiasts will have an opportunity on opening day to buy a copy of People of the Sturgeon; Wisconsin’s Love Affair with an Ancient Fish and have it autographed on opening days by Bruch and his fellow co-authors.

Kathy Schmitt-Klein, a writer with Wisconsin Sea Grant, and Fred Binkowski, senior fisheries scientist with the UW-Milwaukee Great Lakes WATER Institute, are co-authors of the glossy, 292-page book, which also features the photographs of the late Bob Rashid.

The three authors will be signing books between 11-noon Feb. 13 at Wendt’s on the Lake Restaurant, on the west shore of Lake Winnebago in Van Dyne. The book publisher, the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, will be at Wendt’s as well that day, selling copies of the $29.99 book.

People of the Sturgeon culls the photo albums, newspaper clippings and personal recollections of Wisconsin families to show how the huge, homely lake sturgeon found in the Lake Winnebago system captured their hearts, and with their help, returned from the edge of extinction. The system’s sturgeon population is now the world’s largest self-sustaining population of lake sturgeon, a fish that can live longer and grow bigger than a man.

“The traditions in some families go back to great-grandfathers and great-uncles spearing with the Stockbridge Indians along the east shore of Lake Winnebago in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” Bruch says. “We attempted to capture these traditions and the essence of our Winnebago lake sturgeon culture in People of the Sturgeon.”

The book was the culmination of the efforts of many individuals over the last four years, including a $25,000 donation from Sturgeon for Tomorrow. Proceeds from sale of the book will help support the DNR’s Lake Winnebago sturgeon management program.

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