Fish Fry Day: It’s Lake Sturgeon Season on Lake WInnebago!

Happy Fish Fry Day! Not only is it today the day restaurants put delectably fried fish on their menus, it’s also the eve of the Lake Winnebago Sturgeon Spearing season!

Lake Sturgeon Photo: Wisconsin DNR
Lake Sturgeon Photo: Wisconsin DNR

Luckily, we happen to know the woman who wrote the book (literally) on Wisconsin’s lake sturgeon and we asked her for a Q & A. Here’s our conversation with Kathy Schmitt Kline, author of “People of the Sturgeon: Wisconsin’s Love Affair with an Ancient Fish,” and education outreach specialist at the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute.
CFL: Why do you think people find the lake sturgeon so interesting and captivating?
Kathy: Sturgeon are true survivors, and I think that’s earned them a lot of respect. Dinosaurs died off, glaciers melted, and volcanoes blew their tops, but sturgeon have continued to swim and spawn in our oceans, lakes, and rivers for at least 150 million years. I do think their size–lake sturgeon can grow to be over 300 lbs and 9 feet long–and their age–they can live to be over 150 years old–add to their mystique, too. And maybe it’s because they live so long and see so much in their lives that they seem to have distinct personalities as well. Dan Folz, who was the WDNR sturgeon biologist before Ron Bruch, once told me that of all of the fish he had worked with over his career, the lake sturgeon was the only fish he became really emotionally attached to.
CFL: Do you have any favorite sturgeon “fun facts?”
Kathy: I always find it really interesting that sturgeon don’t have scales like modern fish do. Instead, they a tough, leathery skin with five rows of pinched cartilage called scutes that encircle their bodies. The scutes on young lake sturgeon are fairly sharp to protect them from predators. But as they grow to be large adults, the scutes stretch out and soften. I like to think it’s because adult lake sturgeon don’t need protection from predators (other than us) because they’re the biggest fish swimming around in their environment. However, sturgeon that live in the oceans keep their pronounced scutes into adulthood.

CFL: So, should the Winnebago system spearing season be on my Wisconsin bucket list?
Kathy: Yes, at some point you need to witness the sturgeon spearing season in Wisconsin, because there’s nothing else like it in the world. Every February a temporary village pops up on Lake Winnebago–over 11,000 people head out every year. Family and friends get together, and there’s huge excitement in the air. Most sturgeon spearers are avid outdoorspeople and do lots of other hunting and fishing, but they’ll always tell you there’s nothing to compare to sturgeon spearing. These are people who spend six hours every day in a dark shanty staring into a hole. Some spearers never see anything, and some throw their spear and miss, never to see a sturgeon for another decade or so. The best description of sturgeon spearing I’ve heard is that it’s like trying to shoot a duck while lying down on your back and looking up a chimney. Sturgeon are such special fish that I think it’s fitting that the only way you can capture one in the Lake Winnebago system is to patiently wait and watch, successfully throw an 8-foot-long spear, and then wrestle a 150 lb. fish up onto the ice.
CFL: In your opinion, what’s the prognosis for lake sturgeon? Are conservation efforts paying off? Are you hopeful they’ll be around another 150 million years?
Kathy: I think things are looking up for the lake sturgeon. Here in Wisconsin, we’re extremely lucky that the state started creating laws in 1903 to protect them, and then spearers themselves stepped up in the 1970s to help as well. A group called Sturgeon For Tomorrow has raised about a million dollars for sturgeon research in Wisconsin, and they also help support a volunteer guard program in the spring when the sturgeon run upriver to spawn (which is another thing to add to your Wisconsin Bucket List, by the way). Because we have the largest population of lake sturgeon in the world in Lake Winnebago (Ron Bruch believes the lake is probably close to carrying capacity for sturgeon), our scientists have had unparalleled research opportunities with this fish. Many of the things they’ve learned about sturgeon are now helping to restore sturgeon populations throughout the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins. And Sturgeon For Tomorrow chapters are forming in other states as well. But it’s definitely a long-term commitment working with these fish since the females don’t begin spawning until their mid-twenties. It’s always amazing to me to think about how the sturgeon that hatch this spring, with a little luck and help, could easily outlive us all.

Video produced by John Karl, UW Sea Grant Institute