Lake Winnebago Has World's Largest Population of Lake Sturgeon

It's hard to imagine that sturgeon were once in danger of extinction. In the early 1900s, they had almost disappeared from the Great Lakes. Through the efforts of advocacy groups, like Sturgeon for Tomorrow, many volunteers and population management by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), these giant, prehistoric fish thrive in Lake Winnebago.

Today, it is believed there are more than 15,000 adult females and 30,000 adult males in Lake Winnebago, making it the largest, self-sustaining lake sturgeon population in the world. It is also one of only two places in the country where sturgeon can be legally speared. Here, sturgeon-spearing season lasts 16 days on Lake Winnebago, or until the pre-set cap is met, whichever comes first.

So, each year, during the second weekend in February, the sturgeon spearing season brings masses of people to Lake Winnebago. Thousands of ice spearing shanties, campers, trucks and cars pop up on the lake, creating a temporary "shanty town." Once built, spearing enthusiasts congregate in their shanties and wait for a chance to catch the elusive beast. The success rate on Lake Winnebago is about 13 percent, so it is not uncommon for people to go home empty-handed. However, it's not just about the fish. It's the experience....following traditions, creating new rituals and enjoying the camaraderie among family, friends and fellow fishermen.

Sturgeon spearing is a different experience than ice fishing and the equipment is a little different, too. A spearing shanty, or dark-house as they are also called, is a little more specialized than an ice fishing shanty. It's designed for spearing fish rather than using a tip up, line, rod and net. The spearing shanty is designed to be as dark as possible inside and is placed over relatively shallow water, allowing the light to come up through the hole in the ice. Most of the equipment is also homemade with hand-carved wooden decoys that are used to attract sturgeon, handmade spears and a gaff. Sometimes, even homemade chairs are used for comfort during those long hours sitting.

If one spearer is lucky enough to spear a fish, things can get pretty crazy. With the spear embedded in the fish, the wooden handle of the spear is detached. Typically the next thing thrown after the spear, is the chair out the door of the shanty. The lucky spearer then works with a rope that is connected to the spearhead to keep up with his or her catch. Once speared, the sturgeon will disappear under the water until it gets tired, and the fisherman is able to drag the fish to the hole. Working as a team, the designated assistant stands by with a gaff hook, which is used to take the fish out of the water. Getting the sturgeon out of the hole, away from the water's edge and out of the shanty as quickly as possible is important. These fish, which can weigh more than 200 pounds, will fight like the dickens. If given the opportunity, sturgeon will violently flap back and forth, until they are back in the water and gone forever.

Spearing Rules:

  • Spearing Dates: The lake sturgeon spearing season begins the second Saturday in February annually and runs for 16 days or until pre-set harvest caps for Lake Winnebago are reached, whichever comes first.
  • License requirements: Spearers must purchase their license by October 31 to participate in the ensuing spearing season on Lake Winnebago at any WI DNR licensed sales location, through the WI DNR's website at dnr.wi.gov by clicking on the online license center or by calling toll-free 1-877-WI LICENSE (1-877-945-4236).
  • Spearing Hours: 7:00am to 1:00pm
  • Size Limit: Sturgeon must measure 36" or longer
  • Bag Limit: One lake sturgeon per license
  • Ice Holes: May not exceed 48 square feet (8'x6') or (12'x4'); cut ins are allowed 48 hours prior to opening morning of spearing.
  • Shanty Rentals: local contacts offer rentals which typically include scouting the location, ice cut in, ice shanty, spear, gaf hook, decoy & heater plus some sturgeon 101 guidelines for first time spearers.
    Shawn Wendt 920-960-5020
    Charmaine Jenkins 920-795-4227
    Paul Muche 920-602-2038
    Lonny Ziemer 920-540-4181