New rules govern 2006 sturgeon spearing season
Written by WI Rapids Daily Tribune   
Sunday, 16 October 2005 16:47
"Fast start" and "slow finish" regulations await Lake Winnebago spearers as they prepare to purchase a license for the 2006 sturgeon season. Though the season opens Feb. 11, spearers are required to obtain a license ($20 for residents, $65 for nonresidents) by Oct. 31. Three major changes in the spearing season recently were approved by the Natural Resources Board, with only the fast start, slow finish rules slated to go into effect in 2006.

"This is exactly what I wanted," said Dick Koerner of Neenah, a member of the Winnebago Citizens Sturgeon Advisory Committee which endorsed the proposals.

"We are expanding recreational opportunities while reducing the risk of overharvesting the sturgeon resource," said Ron Bruch, DNR sturgeon specialist at Oshkosh.

The 2006 season is limited to Lake Winnebago.
Under the fast start provision, spearing will be closed before the next spearing day if the spearing harvest exceeds the cap set for juvenile females, adult females or males. All speared sturgeon must be registered the day they are taken.
The slow finish rule allows the DNR to extend the spearing season when conditions are unfavorable and the risk of excessive harvest is low. Under the current rule, the season would be closed when any of the three harvest levels reach 80 percent of goal. The new rule allows closure to be delayed until harvest levels reach 90 percent.

"It's going to give us better control when we have exceptional conditions," such as prevailed in both the 2004 and 2005 seasons, Bruch said.

"If conditions are ideal, we will be looking at a shorter season. But conditions can change rapidly, which is what happened in 2005. Spearers lost their visibility overnight, just before the season opened."
Spearing seasons will continue to have a potential maximum length of 16 days.

Perhaps the most significant rule change won't take effect until the 2007 season, when the so-called "upriver lakes" of Poygan, Winneconne and Buttes des Morts will be allowed an annual spearing season.

Currently, only Lake Winnebago is open every winter to sturgeon spearing. The upriver lakes were allowed a spearing season every five years.

However, unlike Lake Winnebago - where spearing permits are unlimited - permits to spear the upriver lakes will be limited by a random drawing.

The DNR will allocate 10 percent of the harvest cap for female sturgeon to the upriver lakes, along with 20 percent of the juvenile and male sturgeon caps.

Sturgeon spearing success depends heavily on weather and water conditions.

In years when ice thickness is conducive to automobile travel and water clarity is good, spearing harvest levels have been reached quickly. In 2004, spearers registered 1,854 sturgeon in two days. The total included 683 adult females, 61 percent above the cap of 425.

The 2004 season produced a record opening day harvest on Lake Winnebago and the realization that nearly 90 percent of the fish were speared in the southern 14 percent of the lake.

Those results prompted a re-examination of the spearing regulations, with an eye toward protecting the sturgeon base and spreading out the harvest.

In reaction to 2004, the 2005 season (which included the upriver lakes) opened with the expectation that spearing would terminate at the end of the first day.

Instead, warm weather, rain and runoff produced cloudy water with scattered concentrations of sturgeon. Spearers on the upriver lakes registered just 344 fish opening day, compared to 2,155 in 2000. The season ultimately was extended to 12 days and produced a harvest of 1,238 sturgeon.

"I think every year we expect to reach the cap on adult female sturgeon," Bruch said. "If we do, that means a total harvest somewhere between 1,300 and 1,500 sturgeon."
Spearing is closed when the harvest approaches cap levels of 500 adult female sturgeon, 500 juvenile females or 2,000 males, whichever comes first.

"Our sturgeon population is very healthy and real robust," Bruch said. "We've seen positive results from ratcheting down exploitation rates over the past 15 years. We've seen an increase in adult females, not only in numbers but in size.

"We've seen female sturgeon in excess of 200 pounds during spawning, and recent spearing harvests have produced fish in the 130-to-170-pound range. That's good news."
Winter sturgeon feed primarily on lake fly larvae, with dead gizzard shad a popular second choice.

A decline in larvae and an abundance of shad in the winter of 2004 produced a high exploitation of sturgeon at the Fond du Lac end of the lake where dead shad accumulated and sturgeon congregated, Bruch said.

However, lake fly larvae levels have rebounded while shad levels have dropped, leading Bruch to speculate that sturgeon should be more widely dispersed over the traditional spearing areas this winter.

As of Oct. 4, about 3,500 sturgeon spearing licenses had been sold.

"We typically sell about 10,000 licenses," Bruch said. "Nonresidents account for less than 2 percent of the total, and most of them are from Michigan."
The Lake Winnebago system is one of the few areas in the world where sturgeon spearing is allowed.

Michigan allows sturgeon spearing on a single lake in the Lower Peninsula, Bruch said, where the annual harvest is limited to five.

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