Man with Lake Sturgeon fish. (Credit: By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain])
Sturgeon spearing season just took place in Wisconsin. This year it spanned 15 days; the season can last up to 16 days, but will sometimes end the first weekend, depending upon how many avid fishers get lucky—and on how clear the water in Lake Winnebago is at the time.
As the season was poised to begin on February 10, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) sturgeon biologist Ryan Koenigs told local media that the average visibility was only about 6-to-7 feet, “well below the threshold” for anyone but the exceptionally skilled—or exceptionally fortunate—to spear a sturgeon. For this reason, DNR team members predicted the season might well stretch on.
Koenigs corresponded with EM about the preparations for Sturgeon spearing season.
“As the sturgeon biologist, I manage all of the assessment work that we do of our sturgeon population, particularly during the spring spawning migration and annual spear fishery in February,” explains Koenigs. “We handle between 1,500-2,000 spawning adult fish each year during the spring spawning run, and collect biological data from all harvested fish.”
This is part of the state’s conservation program, guarding the sturgeon, the lake, and the watershed against overuse. Sturgeon spearing is a tradition dating back to the Native American tribes who first inhabited the region, and it is culturally important to the state and its people. There is only one other place to spear sturgeon in the US (at least in season): Michigan’s Black Lake. And while the shallower upriver lakes near Lake Winnebago might present with better clarity, there is reportedly nothing quite like chainsawing a hole in several feet of ice on Lake Winnebago.
Koenigs stays busy in between seasons, too.
“Habitat management is part of the job as well, we are constantly looking for spawning sites that need some maintenance work and new sites where we can create spawning opportunities for the species,” Koenigs details. “The DNR has a water quality program that researches and tracks most of the trends, so fisheries focuses on the population assessments, regulations, and habitat. Of course with habitat everything is interwoven together. Water clarity is the biggest predictor of spearing success, for pretty clear reasons, so it’s important for us to know clarity to project how the season will go.”
Koenigs and his team are able to predict how the spearing season is likely to go based on weather, water clarity, and experience.
“[T]his year under ice cover the mild weather stretches have adversely impacted water clarity in two main ways: first with direct runoff—we had 0.5” of rain about a month ago, coupled with snow melt runoff that brought turbidity into the lake,” Koenig describes. “Second, a lack of snow cover on the lake—snow blocks sunlight, so not having snow cover allows light to penetrate the ice and algal blooms to occur.”
In the end, when it comes to the actual spearing season, lack of clarity isn’t a signal of poor water quality—just bad luck for hopeful fishers.“I just want to clarify though that the water clarity doesn’t hurt the sturgeon themselves,” Koenigs clarifies. “Rather, the poor water clarity results in reduced visibility for the spearers themselves to see the fish and harvest the fish. This is not a new phenomenon, water clarity has been variable through time.”
Spearing the ancient-looking sturgeon is certainly one of the things that makes Lake Winnebago unique, and resource management in the region reflects the varied demands that you’d expect from a one-of-a-kind watershed.
Andrew Hudak is a Water Resources Management Specialist with the Bureau of Water Quality. He spoke to EM about the day-to-day challenges in the area.
“Lake Winnebago is the State’s largest inland waterway and a focal point for recreational opportunities,” explains Hudak. “It is a unique shallow water lake that aside from the sturgeon population, has an excellent walleye, perch, and white bass fishery, and a perch fishery along with many other recreational opportunities.”
The Department is responsible for protecting the State’s water resources and does so by implementing the Water Quality Bureau’s Strategic Plan. The strategy has a specific approach for surface water monitoring and assessment with multiple goals and objectives. Lakes, rivers, and streams are assessed using representative data collected with standardized biological, chemical, and physical metrics. This data is assessed against water quality standards and used by water quality managers to protect and restore the quality of Wisconsin’s surface waters.
With data in hand, water quality managers can utilize the information to develop water quality management plans. The plans are the beginning stage for working with partners to address water quality concerns in a watershed. One of the ways the DNR team balances the needs of the many users of these recreational waterways with the scientific goals and clean water regulations they work with is by dividing the work among local biologists. Hudak is one of five of the local biologists in the Lake Winnebago drainage, and his focus area is rivers and streams.Local biologists benefit from a wealth of knowledge about their focus regions and specialty areas; for example, the lakes biologists work closely with Lake Districts and Associations regarding lake specific issues. As a streams and rivers biologist, Hudak typically faces different issues, such as working with Counties or local partners addressing non-point sources of pollution in the watershed.
“Lake Winnebago is at the confluence of two major drainage basins, the Upper Fox and Wolf River. I cover a six county area from Lake Winnebago up to the north side of where Green Bay begins,” Hudak remarks. “There is a diverse mix of land-use in this area. The Northern portion of Wolf is largely undeveloped forest land while the Upper Fox is highly dominated by agricultural land use.”
Everyone on the team shares the common mission to protect and enhance the aquatic ecosystem, and to ensure clean, safe water by adhering to state and federal requirements for water quality and environmental protection.
“Restoring degraded waters and protecting high quality waters is a fine line,” Hudak muses. “We’ll probably never get anything back to pre-settlement conditions, but we strive to meet our goals and attain standards to have all waters meet their designated uses.”
“If we don’t have the information or data, we won’t understand the condition of the resource then we can’t make scientifically informed decisions to manage this unique resource,” concludes Hudak.