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Winnebago System Sturgeon Spearing

Fishing Wisconsin

Sturgeon shack at sunrise

The 2023 spearing season

The spearing season begins on the second Saturday in February and lasts for 16 days or until any of the sex-specific harvest caps for that fishery have been reached. The 2023 sturgeon spearing season will open on Feb. 11 at 7 a.m.

Spearers can fish from 7 a.m.-1 p.m. each day the fishery is open and is required to register their fish at a DNR-operated registration station by 2 p.m. of the same day the fish is harvested. Length, weight, sex, and tagging information are collected from each registered fish and that information is used to determine season length.

2023 Winnebago System Sturgeon Spearing Regulations 

Review the Winnebago System Sturgeon Spearing Regulations, 2023 for the upcoming season. 

Important information for the 2023 season

Sturgeon Registration Stations in 2023

Registration Stations – Registration stations have returned to pre-pandemic locations, and some will have drive-thru options. To help with the registration process, the DNR asks that all harvested sturgeon be placed on the tailgate or in an easily accessible location. Please follow the signs and cones at each registration station to ensure a smooth registration. Locations with drive-thru options are marked in red.

Winn System Registration Stations
Sturgeon Season Photos

Season Photos – Sturgeon spearing in Wisconsin is a sport rich in tradition. The DNR would love to see your highlights of the season. Photos of spearers with their catch, cutting in, shanty life, scenic views observed during the season or any other captivating spearing traditions are encouraged. Please include a brief description for use in future outreach efforts. Send us your photos using this photo submission form.

The Sturgeon Spearing Tradition

The Winnebago system is home to one of the largest lake sturgeon populations in North America and hosts a unique winter spear fishery. Further, the system is one of only two locations where lake sturgeon can be harvested with a spear (Black Lake, Michigan being the other). The first modern sturgeon fishery took place in 1932 and, although regulations have changed through time, the premise of using a spear to harvest a sturgeon through the ice has remained constant.

There is no residency requirement for participating in the sturgeon spearing season, but license holders are predominantly Wisconsin residents residing within 60 miles of the Winnebago system. Over the years, the season has grown into a unique cultural event rich in tradition. Most spearers fish in groups comprised of family and friends. Each spearing group has its traditions that they celebrate with each passing year. For many, the season is defined by the time spent with loved ones, not the harvesting of a fish. Harvesting a fish is a bonus for spearers with good fortune, and each fish comes with a unique story that will be shared countless times over the hours and years that follow. The social and traditional aspects of the sport keep most people coming back year after year.   
 

The spearing season and how you can participate

There are two spearfishing opportunities for lake sturgeon on the Winnebago System. Both require a spearing license to participate. One fishery occurs on Lake Winnebago, where the number of licenses sold for that fishery is not restricted, and an individual spearer can only purchase one license per season. 

The other fishery takes place on the Upriver Lakes (Butte des Morts, Winneconne, and Poygan). It is restricted to 500 license holders per season due to the higher success rate of licensed spearers (62% vs. 9% on Lake Winnebago). Spearers interested in fishing the Upriver Lakes must apply for a permit or purchase a preference point before an Aug. 1 deadline. Licenses are issued through a drawing where priority is granted to applicants with the most preference points. All applicants that are not awarded a permit accumulate a preference point for use in future drawings. Following the drawing, there is no deadline for those who are successful to purchase a license on the Upriver Lakes.

Spearers who wish to participate in Lake Winnebago must purchase a license for Lake Winnebago before the Oct. 31 deadline.

The minimum spearing age is 12 years old. Youth who turn 12 years of age between Nov. 1 and the last day of the spearing season can purchase a spearing license after the deadline. Military personnel home on leave can also buy a license after Oct. 31. Licenses for both fisheries are $20 for Wisconsin residents and $65 for nonresidents and can be purchased through the GoWild system or at any license sales location. 

The Use of Technology during the Sturgeon Spearing Season 

In 2013, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was asked about using cameras in the sturgeon hole during the sturgeon spearing season.  Two surveys were conducted in 2013 and 2018 to evaluate spearers opinions on technology.  In 2019, the Wisconsin Conservation Congress (WCC) and Sturgeon Advisory Committee both voted to move forward with banning technology, and the DNR began work on a scope statement.  Part of the scope statement included sending one final survey in 2021 to determine the growing interest in technology during the spearing season.  The survey not only asked about on-camera opinions but also about the use of the sturgeon hole and other technologies during sturgeon spearing and other recreational fishing activities.  The survey also asked about spearers' involvement in sturgeon management with the WCC or other committees, as well as general knowledge of lake sturgeon life history.  The results of the latest survey and comparisons to the last two surveys are included in the report below. 

Explaining the Increasing Trend in Support for Underwater Cameras for Sturgeon Spearing on the Lake Winnebago System [PDF]


Frequently asked questions about the spearing season

The questions below are some of the more frequently asked by spearers.  

Do I need to tag my sturgeon?

Carcass tags must be validated immediately upon harvest by removing the validation stub. The validated tag must stay with the sturgeon until presented at a DNR-operated registration station. The tag does not need to be attached to the sturgeon unless the license holder leaves the fish.

What you need to know about tagging your sturgeon [PDF]

Can my friend sit with me in the shanty and not have a license?

Yes, the person with a valid license is the only person who can spear a fish. An unlicensed person or person, who has already filled their tag, cannot be inside a shanty alone with a spear. Note: As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the DNR urges spearers and spectators to practice social distancing and to wear a mask when social distancing is not possible.

What do spearers do with the fish after they are harvested? 

Most fish are consumed by the spearer, with smoking and frying being the two most common preparation techniques. Some fish are mounted as well. 

How do I register my sturgeon? 

A person who spears a sturgeon must accompany the fish to a DNR-operated sturgeon registration station by 2 p.m. on the day it was speared. Any fish harvested from Lake Winnebago must be registered at one of the registration stations on Lake Winnebago. Any fish harvested from Lakes Butte des Morts, Winneconne or Poygan (the Upriver Lakes) must be registered at one of the registration stations on the Upriver Lakes.

All DNR registration stations will be drive-thru only for the 2022 season. Spearers must remain in their vehicles throughout the registration process. To help with this new registration process, the DNR asks that all harvested sturgeon be placed on the tailgate or in an easily accessible location. Please follow the signs and cones at each registration station to ensure a smooth registration.
What kind of equipment will I need to spear a sturgeon?

The equipment needed to participate in sturgeon spearing is relatively specialized. A darkened shack or enclosure is required for better visibility. A saw is needed to open a hole in the ice, although this service can typically be obtained at a cost. Once the hole is cut, the equipment used to attract and harvest a fish is often hand-crafted heirlooms passed down through generations.

For example, spearers typically use decoys as attractants. Most decoys are carved into the shape of a fish, but spearers are also superstitious by nature and have been known to deploy just about anything as a decoy, including copper jello molds, CDs, and white coffee cups. The spears used are also hand-made by local vendors and come in all shapes and sizes. Generally, the spears are constructed with long handles, 6-8’ in length, and have detachable spearheads. The equipment needed to get started with sturgeon spearing may seem intimidating. Still, there are guide services available that range from cutting a hole to providing a fully furnished shack.

What can I put on the bottom or use for a decoy?

Whatever is placed in the water must be removed or retrieved when requested. In most cases, items are attached to a string or can be “hooked” for removal. Decoy types are unlimited if they don’t involve any artificial lights (glow sticks are illegal) or hooks. Minnows can be used provided they are in a sealed container. Regulations related to minnow use and transportation (VHS rules) on the Winnebago system apply.

Can I be in a shanty after hours with a dismantled spear (head removed)?

Spearers can be in a shanty after hours, but they cannot be in one with a spear after hours. This includes those shanties where the hole is temporarily covered. If the spearhead is removed, it must be placed outside the shanty when occupied.

Winnebago system sturgeon spearing final harvest reports 2016-2022

Winnebago system reports