Vehicle tire tracks crisscross the ice behind an ice-fishing shanty Sunday on the southwest shore of Lake Winnebago near Wendt's on the Lake. The lake will become a virtual city this weekend with 4,000 shanties expected when the sturgeon spearing season opens at 7 a.m. on Saturday. / Patrick Flood/For Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com
Sara Sippel, left, of Fond du Lac, and Jackie Stephany of Malone hold up the sturgeon they speared in 2011 on the East shore of Lake Winnebago. / File photo
Best spots to see a big fish
Sturgeon enthusiasts can check out registration stations around Lake Winnebago for an up-close look at the prehistoric fish.
Spearing occurs from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and fish must be registered by 2 p.m. each day. Following are the eight registration stations on Lake Winnebago:
• Wendt’s Bar & Harbor, Highway 45, eight miles north of Fond du Lac
• Jim and Linda’s Supper Club, Highway 151 north of Fond du Lac in Pipe
• Stockbridge Harbor Bar & Grill, 1919 W. Lake St. in Stockbridge
• Jerry’s Tavern, 1210 Ceape St., Oshkosh
• Quinney Quencher, W5626 Quinney Road, Chilton
• Payne’s Point Bar & Grill, 1557 Paynes Point Road, Neenah
• Waverly Beach Resort, junction Highways 10 and 114, Menasha
• Harrison Town Hall, junction Highway 114 and State Park Road, Menasha
There are three registration stations on the Upriver Lakes:
• Critters Wolf River Sports, 700 W. Main St., Winneconne
• Indian Point Tavern, east of Tustin at Lake Poygan
• Boom Bay Boat Landing at Lake Winneconne.
Kevin Wondrash, of Fond du Lac, looks into the hole cut in the ice below his shanty in 2011. / File photo
FOND DU LAC — The countdown is on.
Shanties and gear are being readied for the 2014 sturgeon spearing season that kicks off at 7 a.m. Saturday on the ice of Lake Winnebago and Upriver Lakes.
With about 4,000 shanties creating a virtual city on the ice, Lake Winnebago sturgeon spearing is as much about fun with family and friends and the rituals of the sport as it is about harvesting a huge fish.
Still, spearers are excited about the prospect of pulling a giant sturgeon from the lake.
“I think it could potentially be a historic year for big fish,” said Ryan Koenigs, Winnebago System sturgeon biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “Given the harvest caps we have now, we’ll probably never harvest the numbers of fish that were taken in 1995 when about 3,000 were harvested. But we know there are record-breaking fish (in terms of size).”
Browse, share sturgeon season photos
The largest fish speared in 2013 was an 80-inch, 179-pound sturgeon registered on opening day at Quinney. It was the sixth-largest ever taken from the Winnebago system.
In April 2012, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources tagged a lake sturgeon that was 87.5 inches long and 240 pounds. Estimated to be 125 years old, it was the largest fish ever tagged and that was after it had released about 30 pounds of eggs.
Koenigs said he recalls the fish extending beyond an 84-inch measuring board. It was tagged during spawning season on the Wolf River below the Shawano Dam.
“One of the guys netted it; we were pretty speechless,” he said, adding that his guess is that the monster fish currently is in Lake Winnebago.
An abundance of gizzard shad hatches and large shad die-offs in winter allow sturgeon to feed on the forage fish that are a fatty food source.
Koenigs said he is seeing sturgeon that are heavier, but shorter. One-hundred-pound fish that were measured at 70 to 72 inches are now coming in at 67 to 68 inches.
“We don’t know how big these things can get,” he said. “In the record books, there was a 300-pound sturgeon recorded from the time of the settlers.”
More on sturgeon season: More headlines and video | Browse photos from the 2014 season | Browse photos from the 2013 season | Browse photos from the 2012 season | Share your sturgeon photos | Watch cameras on the Wolf River | Watch cameras positioned in Stockbridge
According to information provided by the DNR, 11,823 licenses have been sold for this year’s spearing season. There were 11,355 licenses sold for Lake Winnebago spearing and 468 for Upriver Lakes.
Sales are down 6.1 percent from 2013, but the 2014 season still ranks fourth-highest of all time.
Koenigs said the popularity of Upriver Lakes lottery fishery continues to grow as a record 5,863 people applied for an Upriver Lakes license. Just 500 licenses were available.
“Interest in this fishery has more than doubled since the current lottery system was implemented in 2007,” he said.
Koenigs said this year’s season could be a short one if harvest caps are reached on opening weekend. System-wide harvest caps that trigger season closure are the same as last year (400 juvenile females, 828 adult females and 1,200 males).
“The real story, I think, is these could be some of the better conditions we’ve had in the last 5 to 10 years,” Koenigs said. “We could hit the harvest caps the first weekend — something that hasn’t happened the last three years.”
A Sturgeon Hotline at 1-920-303-5444 will provide the latest information on fish harvested and the status of harvest caps.
Shawn Wendt, whose family owns Wendt’s on the Lake on the west shore of Lake Winnebago, said he and others with the West Shore Fishing Club have opened roads on the lake.
He said three bridges are in place and roads are plowed from Subway Road and connected to roads at Otter Street Fishing Club and across the lake to Pipe and Fisherman’s Road. Spearers can begin cutting holes Thursday, Thursday, Feb. 6.
“Everything is looking really good,” Wendt said.
Water clarity is good, he said, noting that he could see the bottom of the lake through 11 to 12 feet of water. Ice is 24 to 28 inches thick in most spots, he said.
Sturgeon will be registered at Wendt’s by the marina and many will be hung on a sturgeon display pole on the property.
“Everybody’s been talking for a couple months now,” Wendt said about the annual spearing event. “The conditions are really nice and we haven’t had that in a bunch of years.”
Wendt is predicting the season will continue through the first week. He thinks the cold weather could keep sturgeon from moving around and clarity is good, but may not be ideal.
Another week of spearing would be good for area businesses. Wendt said he’ll be busy with ice shanty rentals during opening weekend and bartending at Wendt’s.
He hopes to go spearing during the week.
“I just like being out on the ice,” he said. “I love it out here.”
Scott Engel, owner of Jerry’s Tavern in Oshkosh and president of the Otter Street Fishing Club, said excitement is building as the sturgeon season draws near.
“People look forward to it a lot like deer hunting,” he said. “We have a little tavern here and we’re always really busy. We can’t usually fit another person in. It’s a heck of a great time.”
Engel said registered fish are hung from a large pole for public viewing. The bar has been a top spot for large fish and overall registration numbers.
During opening weekend there will be stories swapped and pictures snapped. Just like at Wendt’s in Fond du Lac, “Spear Beer” will be sold at Jerry’s as a house beer during the spearing season.
The camaraderie between sturgeon enthusiasts is “incredible,” Engel said.
“It’s a great, fun weekend and I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
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Laurie Ritger may be reached at email@example.com or (920) 907-7925.