When we dip our toes into Lake Winnebago on lazy summer days, we prefer not to think about the giant, prehistoric bottom feeders tooling around its depths.
And, except for a couple of days in February, we can splash about happily, intentionally unaware of the snout-nosed, scaly dinosaurs staring up at us.
Then, along comes sturgeon spearing season, and the illusion of friendly waters shatters like thick squares of ice. A surreal festival atmosphere keeps lakeside bars and restaurants hopping as everyone from bundled up grandmas to crusty fishermen stakes a claim on the frozen lake. Boy Scouts charge $15 to carve out the spearing areas and whole families spread out across the ice.
Then, grinning, they haul giant fish weighing 100 pounds or more and stretching six or seven feet long, into the weigh station
The spearing day begins at 7 a.m. and ends promptly at 1 p.m., leaving anglers plenty of time to celebrate the day’s catch.
We wandered down to take a peek on a frigid Sunday morning and arrived at the weigh-in station just as a gentleman brought his sturgeon in to be measured.
He seemed a little sheepish as he hauled his little trophy out of the back of his truck, waving off any assistance.
“I can carry her myself,” he said. “I shouldn’t be able to, but I can.”
Turns out a violent collision with a boat had critically injured the fish, and the poor thing had been aimlessly swimming through the water, unable to eat. She weighed in at just over 28 pounds, utterly emaciated for a sturgeon.
That particular spearing turned out to be a mercy killing for the fish with half a face.
Wisconsin has been regulating the sturgeon harvest on Lake Winnebago since 1903 and, thanks to strict spearing limits (just 5% of the adult population) and pristine ice conditions, the 2014 sturgeon spearing season lasted just six days.
We enjoyed the historic celebration of sturgeon spearing season and we admire a species of that has been around for more than 100 million years.
Still, we’ll choose not to think about them frolicking underneath our feet when we head out to the lake this summer.