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Winnebago System Sturgeon Spearing

Fishing Wisconsin

The 2021 Winnebago System sturgeon spearing season begins in

 
Will you be ready?
Stockbridge Sturgeon 2020

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 not a 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 that is rich in tradition. Most spearers fish in groups comprised of family and friends. Each spearing group has their own traditions that they celebrate with each passing year and the season for most 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. It’s the social and traditional aspects of the sport that keep most people coming back year after year.   
 

The spearing season and how you can participate

There are two separate spear fishing opportunities for lake sturgeon on the Winnebago System, both of which 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) and is restricted to 500 license holders per season due to a much 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 prior to an Aug. 1 deadline. Permits are then issued through a drawing where priority is granted to applicants with the most preference points. All applicants that were not awarded a permit accumulate a preference point for use in future drawings. 

Spearers must purchase a spearing license for Lake Winnebago prior to an Oct. 31 deadline, but there is not a deadline for purchasing licenses on the Upriver Lakes since the number of spearers is already restricted through the drawing.

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 are eligible to purchase a spearing license after the deadline. Military personnel home on leave can also purchase 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. 
 

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The 2021 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 2021 sturgeon spearing season will open on Feb. 13 at 7 a.m.

Spearers can fish from 7 a.m.-1 p.m. each day the fishery is open and are 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.

Changes for the 2021 season

Registrations Stations. - All DNR registration stations will be drive-thru only for the 2021 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.

Registration stations will be relocated to boat landings, city parks and government building for the 2021 spearing season. The DNR remains committed to returning registration stations to businesses for future seasons once the pandemic is over.

Spear Head. - The maximum width of a spear head is restricted to 18 inches or less and tines can only be arranged in a single straight line.
Harvest Photos. -  Photos are a great way to capture special moments. This year, the DNR is looking for spearers to submit their photos through a photo submission form. Photos could be of spearers with their catch, cutting in, shanty life, scenic views observed during the season or anything else that captures the spearing tradition. Please be sure to include a brief description of each image. Be aware by submitting photos, you are granting the DNR a non-exclusive license to use and reproduce the submitted photos for any purposes the DNR may deem appropriate, including in future outreach efforts

2021 preseason news

Check back for updates as the season opener gets closer.

Know the regulations

Please review the current Guide to Winnebago System Sturgeon Spearing Regulations 2021 [PDF] before you venture onto the ice.

Lake conditions

Check back for current lake conditions as the season approaches. 

Winnebago harvest

Daily sturgeon tally sheet [PDF]

Lake Winnebago - as of February 13

  Daily Harvest Season Harvest Harvest Cap
Juvenile females 0 0 344
Adult females 0 0 855
Males 0 0 960
Totals 0 0 -

Upriver Lakes harvest

Upriver Lakes - as of February 13

  Daily Harvest Season Harvest Harvest Cap
Juvenile females 0 0 86
Adult females 0 0 95
Males 0 0 240
Totals 0 0 -

 

 


Frequently asked questions about the spearing season

There are a number of questions that are routinely asked by sturgeon spearers. The questions below are some of the more frequently asked.  

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 the 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. These are normally larger or smaller fish in the harvest. 

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 2021 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 fairly specialized. A darkened shack or enclosure is needed 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 that are 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 decoy including copper jello molds, CDs, and white coffee cups. The spears that are 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 spear heads. The equipment needed to get started with sturgeon spearing may seem intimidating, but there are guide services available that range in service 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 a shanty with a spear after hours. This includes those shanties where the hole is temporarily covered. If the spear head is removed it must be placed outside the shanty when occupied.

Winnebago system sturgeon spearing final harvest reports 2016-2020

Sturgeon spearing vignettes

Learn more about the sturgeon spearing season with these short stories on miscellaneous spearing topics.

Contact Information

For Winnebago System sturgeon information or local conditions and season updates during the sturgeon season, contact Ryan Koenigs, fisheries biologist, Oshkosh