Spearers bring home monster sturgeon

Photo by Ross Bielema Lance Kohl, of Hortonville, speared this 73.9-pound, 69.2-inch lake sturgeon Feb. 10 near Payne’s Point in Neenah on Lake Winnebago as one of the few successful spearers during a tough season. This was his second fish in 10 years. Kohl was spearing in 15 feet of water and had his decoy at 6 feet, where the sturgeon floated when Kohl jabbed.

Sturgeon spearers on Lake Winnebago will have a full 16-day season, but the anglers on the upriver lakes were done in four days.

It didn’t take long on the clear, shallow waters of Lakes Poygan, Winneconne and Butte des Morts for anglers to spear 297 lake sturgeon. One of the harvest caps was reached, thus ending the action there.

Sturgeon biologist Ryan Koenigs noted that this year’s upriver lakes success rate was 61.4 percent, just 0.2 percent over the average success rate for the past dozen years.

The upriver lakes are known for big fish, and opening day saw angler Benjamin Berger with a 155.6- pound, 75.6-inch behemoth that he weighed at Critter’s in Winneconne. It was the largest fish of the day and season through Thursday. An aerial shanty count totaled 5,003, including 4,448 on Winnebago and 555 on the upriver lakes.

The water of Lake Winnebago remained murky, so the harvest there has been lagging significantly from previous years. Through Thursday, the Winnebago harvest stood at 286 fish, hundreds of fish away from the various harvest caps for juvenile and adult females and males.

Some anglers actually used electric trolling motors to keep the silt moving away from their spearing holes. Weigh stations on the big lake saw fewer fish, and that meant less excitement for the anxious spectators crammed into bars along the shores.

Poor water conditions didn’t stop some spearers from jabbing fish, however. On Tuesday, the same day the upriver lakes season closed, Kyle Jenkins drew brief attention with his 143.7-pound, 84.5-inch fish registered at Jerry’s Bar in Oshkosh. The weight wasn’t close to any record, but Koenigs said the fish was the longest measured since the early 1970s.

The fish was 0.3 inch longer than the state’s record 212.2-pound fish speared in 2010. An abundant amount of gizzard shad and redworms in 2009-2012 provided for fatter, heavier fish than this season, Koenigs explained. There have been no 170-pound fish in the past five years, but many were long enough to have “made weight” if the forage fish and worms had been more plentiful, he said.

The next day, reports emerged of a longer fish speared decades earlier. Koenigs unearthed a 1957 newspaper story of an 85-inch fish speared Feb. 12 that year by Bill Mortimer of Chilton. It weighed 168 pounds, according to the clipping. The most interesting part of the story was that it hung in a local bar on display for so long that it spoiled and had to be thrown away!

I emailed Koenigs to ask him about how the fish are measured now and whether there was as much attention to accuracy back in the good old days. He wasn’t sure about how Mortimer’s fish was measured (I noticed there were no fractions of a pound or inch), but sturgeon are measured to the 10th of an inch on an 84-inch board that the sturgeon is laid on at each weigh station.

“We measure each fish from the tip of the snout to the longest point on the body, which is actually attained by folding the top lobe of the tail down,” Koenigs said. “Also, we currently measure to the nearest 0.1 inch, whereas up until the mid-2000s fish were measured to the nearest 0.5 inch. We have 84-inch measuring boards at every station and then also in the spring.

“I have seen two fish in my career that have been longer than the board and we then take a piece of paper and measure the length back on the board (not a perfect science but better than making 96-inch boards). If these 84-plus-inch fish become more common we may have to make longer boards. As for weight, we went to digital scales a number of years ago to avoid any sort of interpretation. Most of the fish in the top 10 were weighed on one of these digital scales to the nearest 0.1 pound.”

Weight, not length, ultimately determines the state record for sturgeon and all other species, so Appleton spearer Ron Grishaber’s 2010 record still stands.

The most interesting story of the season, provided in Koenigs’ daily email reports, was about Nicholas Ludvigsen. He speared the biggest fish on Thursday, a 131.4-pounder idthat was 77 inches long and registered at Wendt’s south of Oshkosh on the west side of Winnebago.

Nicholas’s grandfather, Jody Ludvigsen, died in September and was a passionate sturgeon spearer. The family had him cremated and incorporated his ashes into sturgeon decoys for Nicholas and other family members to have and celebrate Jody’s memory.

“Nicholas’s fish was the largest fish ever speared by a family member, and I’m sure that his grandfather is proudly smiling down today,” Koenigs noated.

Ross Bielema is a freelance writer from New London and owner of Wolf River Concealed Carry LLC. Contact him at Ross@wolfriverccw.com.