Hunting the Dinosaurs of Lake Winnebago

Conservation, community, and a hole in the ice

S. Nicole Lane March 18, 2023

From my hotel room in Fond du Lac, Wis., I see silver and black boxes glistening on 14-inch-thick ice. These are ice spearing shanties, nestled together like little towns across Lake Winnebago’s frozen surface, where yesterday thousands of hopefuls sawed into the ice to make their spearing holes.

Today, February 11, is the first day of the season that spears are allowed. From 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., spearers will stare into those depths waiting for a 100-year-old monster to pass by: the lake sturgeon.

With a surface area of 212 square miles, Lake Winnebago is Wisconsin’s largest freshwater inland lake, and has a vibrant spear-fishing season.

Beginning at a boat landing, an ice road on Lake Winnebago takes spearfishing enthusiasts to their shanties. (Royal Broil/Flickr)

Sturgeons are a remarkable freshwater behemoth that lived together with dinosaurs and survived whatever killed them. Growing up to 8 feet and weighing up to 300 pounds, they are essential to the ecosystem of the Great Lakes region. Because sturgeon require clean water to thrive and spawn, they are considered a barometer of health for the Great Lake waters. They also feed on Round Goby, an invasive fish, and gobble up decaying organisms as well. While a typical male lifespan is 55 years, some females live to 150.

By regulating spearing, sturgeon can thrive

Potawatomi and Ojibwe legends say that the rivers were once so full of sturgeon, you could cross waterways by walking on the backs of the fish. Native tribes would follow the sturgeon—who migrate back to where they were hatched to spawn—and hunt them with spears. 

But post-colonization impacts almost eradicated the entire sturgeon population. Dams, dredging and deforestation destroyed spawning areas, and the commercial fishing and caviar industries further decimated the population in the late 1800s. The number of sturgeon declined in Lake Winnebago and the surrounding area of Wisconsin, from an estimated 40,000 in the 1800s down to 10,000 by the 1930s.

In response, conservation efforts led by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) sought to implement a regulated spearing season, which began in 1931. Sturgeon spearing on Lake Winnebago is a 16-day season with a short time frame of six hours every day. Add on the difficulties of being on the ice, seeing a sturgeon, and spearing one, and not many people actually catch the fish they’re looking for. The sturgeon population slowly rose, while the season kept local spearers happy. Now, the Lake Winnebago system is at 36,000 sturgeon—close to what it was in the 1800s.

“It looked like a canoe, it was so huge. We were only in five feet of water, so it was pretty cool,” says 14-year-old Drake Nitz, left, who speared a 119-pound, 74-inch sturgeon. James Gishkowsky, right, holds a 177-pound, 80-inch sturgeon, the seventh-largest taken from Lake Winnebago in the past 80 years. (Meta)

Before the institution of the spearing season, “sturgeon were initially viewed as a nuisance by commercial fishers because they would tear up their gear,” says Bradley Ray, the Lake Superior Region Team Supervisor for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). When sturgeon were caught as bycatch by commercial fishers, they would simply discard them. Once conservationists and public awareness honed in on the dwindling numbers, Ray says discarding fish became less common. “Anglers and commercial fishers are now more likely to carefully release them back into the water and allow them to survive unintended capture,” he says. 

Sturgeon have also benefited from regulations on the caviar industry, and a Sturgeon Guard program meant to protect spawning sites—which recently ended due to lack of illegal harvesting.

Sturgeon grow slowly, typically reaching maturity at 20 years old, and spawn infrequently—every three to five years—which makes them susceptible to overharvest, says Ray. “In areas that have not been fully restored, such as the St. Louis River [which forms part of Wisconsin’s western state line], no harvest is allowed, to protect sturgeon and allow the population to continue increasing.”

Today, Lake Winnebago has one the largest lake sturgeon populations in North America. It allows us to have a very robust spearing season compared to anywhere else in the United States,” says Margaret Stadig, a lake sturgeon biologist at the WDNR in Oshkosh. Last year, 1,500 fish were speared on Lady Bago.

Only one other lake—Black Lake in Michigan— allows harvesting sturgeon with a spear, but not on the same scale. This year’s season on Black Lake lasted a grand total of 65 minutes before the quota of six sturgeon was met.

Winnebago sturgeon also benefit from the 100 miles of Fox River, Embarrass River, and Little Wolf River in the Winnebago river system that feeds the lake, unimpeded by dams or other barriers, which they use to reach their spawning sites.

What happens on the lake

This time of year, supper clubs—independently owned Midwestern restaurants that typically serve surf-and-turf fare—like Jim and Linda’s Lakeview Supper Club in Pipe, Wis., bustle with fish spearers. Folks take their time eating, and occasionally a snowmobile will head up from the frozen lake with a speared sturgeon in tow.

Darren Horness cuts a hole in the ice with a chainsaw. (Miles MacClure)

For many, even the dedicated hunters, this is the closest they’ll come to seeing a sturgeon. That’s because seeing a sturgeon pass through your hole is rare—spearing one even more so. The lake is huge, around 132,000 acres, and a spearer’s regulated hole can be no larger than 49 square feet.

Emily Horness and her dad Darren Horness have both been spearing their entire lives—Emily first walked on Lake Winnebago’s ice as a little girl. Over the years, they have a total of 14 sturgeon between them: Darren 11, and Emily three. The 21-year-old now lives in Jacksonville, Fla., where she’s in school to be an esthetician (a technician performing cosmetic skin treatments), but she traveled back to her old stomping grounds for a weekend with family, and the possibility of spearing a dinosaur. 

I meet Emily and her kin by taking the Brothertown landing onto the ice in my 2009 Kia Rio. Fishing clubs lay discarded Christmas trees on the ice to direct spearers to and from the landing and signal for cracks. Most folks do their spearfishing in groups, in custom-built shanties—some have no frills, while others are decorated with posters of half-nude women and photos of speared sturgeon from previous years. They are packed with snow around the base to keep out the light and wind.

A week before the cut-in day, groups come out for preseason sturgeon scouting, spending a few days finding a place for their shanty. A lake sturgeon’s diet—red worms and bloodworms—is found primarily on the top layer of sediment at the bottom of the lake. Finding red worms doesn’t come easy. Spearers head onto the lake with a worm dipper, a heavy two- to six-inch pipe with a flap on the bottom that, when lowered down into the mud and brought back up to the surface, tells you if it’s an active worm bed. Spearers drill a hole into the ice large enough for their worm dipper to scout areas that could be popular for sturgeon.   

Another factor that spearers look for is water clarity. Since these living fossils like to trail close to their beloved worms, they are rarely on the surface and spearers want to see as far down as possible. Luckily, Lake Winnebago isn’t deep—maximum 21 feet—but clarity can differ throughout the lake due to algae and runoff.

Melissa Solberg, 25, of Oshkosh, Wis., says the toughest part is staring into the hole for six hours. “You need to have extreme focus in order to notice the fish. Especially in not ideal circumstances like cloudy water. … Basically you have one shot to get it right.”

Sturgeon beware: A spear in the ice hole is at the ready for any passing sturgeon drawn to the shiny copper kettle Emily and Darren Horness use to lure the fish. (Miles MacClure)

Nick Hearn, 24, also from Oshkosh, has speared two sturgeon after being on the lake since he was five or six years old. A typical day on the lake looks like “a lot of laughs and drinking,” says Hearn. “It’s kind of a Wisconsin thing to drink.”

As for gear, it’s personal to each spearer. Hearn uses a spear, gaff, pipe, decoy, shack, saw and push poles for pushing the ice under the cut ice. Most spearers will have a similar laundry list of standard items. Others use electronics, Hearn says, “like a Garmin Livescope and underwater cameras,” the latter of which are controversial. Some spearers think cameras make spearing too easy—if you see a sturgeon on your camera, luring them near your hole can be seen a cheap trick. But others find camera’s useful—if the tech is there, why not use it? 

Individual spearers are allowed one sturgeon each per season and must register their fish by 2 p.m. at one of the 10 stations along the lake, where biologists measure, weigh and determine the sex. These biologists also keep track of the quota system, and download location information from caught fish who have been tagged.

When a sturgeon is speared, the fish must be registered at one of 10 stations along the lake. (Miles MacClure)

Emily, from Jacksonville, says her first sturgeon was the same age as her when she speared it. Now, she has four sturgeon under her belt. On her second day on the Lake, she nabbed a 54-inch, 28.5-pound sturgeon before flying back to Florida.

Sturgeons are naturally curious creatures and will slink around when they hear noise or see something glistening in the water. Sometimes, if a sturgeon is speared, the noise will attract more sturgeon to a hole. The Hornesses use a small copper kettle but other folks use pots, coffee mugs, CDs or beautifully carved decoys to draw the fish. Oftentimes these items are heirlooms passed down from generation to generation.

Ryan Ebert, 36, from Fort Atkinson, Wis., spent a decade in publishing as an art director for W.D. Hoard & Sons Publishing, primarily working on their agriculture publications, before becoming self-employed. Now, he focuses on art and the outdoors—mostly fish-themed. Ebert began making fish decoys in 2011 after befriending Mike Kitt, an avid spearer, decoy carver and retired WDNR warden.

Ebert says decoys are “a functional art form.” He serves on the board of directors for the National Fish Decoy Association and he travels every April to their annual show for carvers and collectors. He carves the decoy bodies from white cedar—it holds up best in extreme temperatures and waters—and hand paints and airbrushes them. “Most of my fins I cut from aluminum, while sometimes using copper if I want to leave it unpainted and flashy,” he explains.

“Every spearer has their preferred decoy and not all even resemble a fish,” says Ebert. “Most tend to run the same couple of decoys each day. I myself will switch out a decoy every hour or so.”

Ebert says winter is his favorite season. “​​There’s no bugs, no humidity, no sweating. I just love it. The silence and peacefulness that can be found on the ice can’t be matched.”

More than spearing fish

For many folks on the lake, spearing is primarily about the community. Molitor says, “Like any upper Midwest community, we grumble a little—ok, a lot—when the cold winds begin to blow. But we adapt well.”

Since 2013, local organizations have hosted Sturgeon Spectacular in Fond du Lac, featuring curling, live music and snow sculptures downtown. Its original iteration was called “WOW,” for “Women of Winnebago,” which was an all-women outdoor writers’ event where attendees would spear and blog about it afterward. After wanting to expand their reach, they decided to make it a festival. “One of the reasons we started Sturgeon Spectacular some years ago is that we wanted to remind ourselves what an awesome time of year winter is,” Molitor says.

Stadig, the sturgeon biologist, agrees with this sentiment. “The camaraderie that happens is fantastic.”

Past seasons welcomed 10,000 shanties but this year’s crowd was closer to 3,000, as ice conditions, warm weather and rain caused sinking shanties and cracking ice. Nevertheless, 1,013 sturgeon were speared at Lake Winnebago this year between February 11 and 26. The quota for this year was 280 juvenile females, 714 adult males, and 985 males. 

“This sport isn’t for everyone,” says Hearn. “We’re staring into a blank TV screen basically in hopes to see something swim through.”

S. Nicole Lane

S. Nicole Lane has been a freelancer for the past ten years and is the editor of Healthnews. She lives on Chicago's South Side.

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