The 2015 Wisconsin sturgeon spearing season ranks as the 6th highest on record in the state.
A total of 2,158 of the iconic freshwater beasts were taken during the eight-day season, with 1,870 sturgeon registered from Lake Winnebago while 288 came from upriver lakes Butte des Morts, Poygan and Winneconne. Wisconsin DNR Winnebago System Sturgeon Biologist Ryan Koenigs confirmed that this year’s harvest is the sixth largest dating back to 1940. Koenigs also reported that initial review of the data indicates that 46 of the fish taken this year exceeded 100 pounds, with 37 of those coming out of Lake Winnebago and the remaining nine from the Upriver Lakes.
The largest fish of the season was taken by Wisconsin resident Chad Cherney, who harvested an 81.3-inch, 137.5-pound female from Lake Winnebago on the morning of the fourth day of the season.
“It was one of those dream shots,” Cherney told reporters, “It was right in the middle of the hole. Couldn’t miss it even if you wanted to.”
Koenigs indicated via email that nine of the top eleven largest fish on record, dating back to 1940, have been taken in the last seven years (since 2008). Each of those nine monsters weighed in at greater than 170 pounds. The largest fish on record was taken in 2010, tipping the scale at 212.2 pounds and measuring 84.2 inches. He also added that ten of the eleven heaviest fish on record have been harvested since 2004.
The overall average weight of sturgeon caught this year is reportedly lower than in recent years, which is thought to be at least partially the result of lower gizzard shad populations. Shad are a significant prey fish for sturgeon. Koenigs believes that last year’s less-than-ideal environmental conditions during the shad spawning season adversely affected their population.
“We are at the northern edge of shad distribution and shad thrive in more temperate climates,” he explained, “We experience strong shad hatches here when we have longer summers with above average temperatures, which was not the case in 2014.”
While the average weight of fish was down, more fish were harvested this year than any year since 1998 when 2,051 fish were registered. The largest harvest on record occurred in 1995 when 3,173 fish were taken.
Koenigs also noted that this year was very successful for anglers in spite of unusually harsh weather during the season. He cited very cold conditions; “With at least four days with -20° below wind chills or colder. Opening day was cold and very windy (25-35 mph) creating conditions of very poor visibility, white out conditions in some areas.”
In contrast to the brutal weather conditions anglers had to endure, the ice was clearer than normal and water conditions increased visibility and contributed to both the large harvest and the record time it took to get there. 2015’s eight-day season is less than half the number days of all but one of the top five largest harvest seasons.
When asked about the current condition and long-term viability of the Wisconsin sturgeon fishery, Koenigs replied;
The sturgeon population is stable to slowly growing. The fish are more protected now than they ever have been through the implementation of the sturgeon guard program protecting fish in spring and also with the current regulations during the spear fishery. The harvest cap system allows for a large harvest of fish, but yet keeping that harvest sustainable for future generations to enjoy.
The 2015 season was also one for the record books in that more regular sturgeon spearing licenses were sold than any year on record (12,650 licenses). Koenigs concluded, “I think the season will be remembered as a safe, successful season by most. The social aspects – camaraderie with family and friends and renewing traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation – are what make the sport so special. Despite the cold conditions, this season offered spearers the opportunity to renew those traditions and build on the “lore” of sturgeon spearing. It truly is something that has to be experienced to fully appreciate.”