Only one sturgeon speared on the Lake Winnebago system has weighed in at over 200 pounds, but the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says that record could soon be shattered.
The winter spearing season has been active since 1932 on Lake Winnebago and 1952 on the Upriver Lakes, with regulations adjusting over the years, according to reports from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Overharvesting was a main problem that affected the Lake Winnebago system sturgeon population in the past, which is why each spearing season since 1999 has had pre-set harvest caps based on estimated population on top of the 16-day season limit. The Upriver Lakes added their fishery lottery in 2007 for the same reason.
These limitations and careful guarding against poachers allow for the long-lived tradition of sturgeon spearing to continue without fear of depleting their numbers. The effort pays off for individual spearers as well: existing sturgeon now have a better opportunity to grow older and older — and bigger and bigger.
Biggest fish was way above average
The heaviest sturgeon speared on record in the Lake Winnebago system weighed 212.2 pounds, caught by Ronald Grishaber in 2010. The second heaviest was only 188 pounds, snagged in 2004.
By comparison, the average weight and length from the 2020 harvest in Lake Winnebago was 51.1 pounds and 58.5 inches. Sturgeon in the Upriver Lakes average even smaller, at 36.5 pounds and 53.6 inches.
Longest-held record was 51 years
The longest-held record was Elroy Schroeder's 1953 catch, measuring 180 pounds and 79 inches. Now, Schroeder's sturgeon ranks fourth in the top 11 largest speared in the system.
In 1953, sturgeon enthusiasts were quick to find previous catches that had already broken Schroeder's record, citing Arthur Haferman and Michael Goyke's 187.5-pound catch on a set-line in Oshkosh from 1913 and Glen Marsh's 211-pound sturgeon from 1911 in Northwest Wisconsin, caught by a pike pole spear. As neither of these fish were speared through the ice, however, Schroeder kept his record until 2004.
What else is out there, and how big is it getting?
These catches do show, along with DNR observations, that even larger sturgeon are lurking in the depths, evading capture.
In the spring, as sturgeon migrate through rivers to their spawning grounds, the DNR collects data on their health and population through stock assessments, as well as tagging and tracking.
The staff managed to recapture one sturgeon from 2004 in 2012, and though the fish aren't weighed in the spring, its pre-spawn weight was estimated to grow to 240 pounds. By the time it was speared by Jonathan Eiden in 2019, its weight had reached only 171 pounds, though this still-impressive catch demonstrated the potential for the lake system's fish.
At 85.5 inches, Eiden's sturgeon could have surpassed a different record, if records were determined by length as well as weight.
All it would take is a multi-year abundance of gizzard shad fish, the sturgeon's fattiest food source, to "shake up" the record books, Ryan Koenigs wrote in the 2019 season summary from the DNR.
Most of the fish on the top 11 "Heavy Hitters Club" chart, including the current record, were speared between 2010 and 2013, coinciding with strong hatches of the gizzard shad.
What other records have been sunk over the years?
In Lake Winnebago, 1995 saw the largest sturgeon harvest between 1941 and 2020, reporting 3,173 sturgeon speared during the season, before the harvest caps were implemented, according to the DNR.
1969 and 1973 are tied for smallest harvest years, yielding eight sturgeon each. Both years reported very low water clarity, with visual depths recorded at six and eight feet into the water, respectively. Fair to good water clarity is considered to be 12 to 15 feet deep, though several years have reported up to 18 feet. The lake, at its deepest, is only 21 feet, with an average depth of about 15 feet.
The highest opening-day shanty count was 5,958 scattered across the lake in 2009, and the lowest recorded was 700 in 1979. However, the most licenses sold was 13,190 in 2016, a year that only saw 3,831 shanties on opening day.
The season on Lake Winnebago has lasted the full 16 days since 2016, but the years 2000, 2001 and 2004 are tied for the shortest season at two days. 2004 also nearly held the record for largest harvest within the caps, at 1,854 sturgeon, but 2015 beat it out with 1,870.
Lake Winnebago's largest catch of 2020 was a 142-pound, 80-inch sturgeon speared by William Thern of Fond du Lac. If records were based on length rather than weight, Thern's fish would have beaten over half of the top 11 "Heavy Hitters" of the season.
In the Upriver Lakes, the largest harvest was in 2000, and saw 2,169 sturgeon speared. This year also yielded the highest-known opening day shanty count, with 2,079. It was a trial run for the new harvest cap system, during a time when spearing in the Upriver Lakes was limited to every two to five years.
The next season was held in 2005, which was the shortest for the area — only one day — and was strategically set out of concern for overharvesting.
The current annual season tradition began in 2007 and added the lottery fishery to preservation efforts, and since then, the shortest season was reported in 2012 at only two days. Only two years lasted the full sixteen days — 2017 and 2020 — both due to ice conditions and water clarity.
This year's season came to an end for the Upriver Lakes on Saturday, yielding the largest harvest since 2007 with 364 sturgeon.
In 2020, the biggest fish snagged from the Upriver Lakes was 140 pounds and 75 inches, speared by Vincent Catania of North Fond du Lac, but 2021 beat that catch by over 10 pounds with Steven Lenz's 154.5-pound, 78.2-inch sturgeon from Lake Poygan.
Contact Daphne Lemke at 920-907-7968 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @daphlemke.
This article originally appeared on Fond du Lac Reporter: Sturgeon spearing: Here's what records have been set and broken