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Winter ritual of sturgeon fishing continues amid pandemic

Posted at 1:19 PM, Feb 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-23 23:31:44-05

LAKE WINNEBAGO — Lake Winnebago in February is a place so frozen time seems to stand still.

That's especially true if you're Tim Soda, watching the same patch of ice-cold water for hours at a stretch.

"Who would stare down a hole for six hours a day for 16 days straight," Soda said without taking his eyes off a hole in the ice the size of a car's door.

Soda is focused and waiting to throw a spear at a sturgeon, a winter ritual in Wisconsin for the heartiest of the hearty.

"I don't miss a minute staring down the hole," Soda said. "Not until I get one, anyhow."

For as many as 16 days each February, this waiting game plays out in tiny shacks scattered across the ice of Lake Winnebago.

Like bar dice or sheepshead, sturgeon spearing belongs to us.

DNR Warden Lt. Chris Shea watches over a winter ritual without peer.

"This is pretty much it when it comes to sturgeon and these fish are huge prehistoric basically monsters that are still here in the system," Shea said.

Hunting these fish is a passion Wisconsin treats like an heirloom.

"Grandpa's passed down to his son to his son and how the grandkids are out here as well," Shea said.

Sturgeon spearing was part of life in the Great Lakes long before the first European settlers. The Menominee Tribe was especially good at catching fish on the end of a spike.

French explorers caught on and the practice exploded.

By 1915, sturgeon were over-fished, so the state stopped all harvesting. The sturgeon roared back and so did the spearers.

This year, thousands of people will brave the elements and spend hours in small, dark shacks for the chance to chuck a spear at a fish 16 feet deep.

If all that doesn't make this hard enough, this year has another complication. Even tradition is not immune to the pandemic.

That means drive-thru registration stations where nobody gets too close to the latest catch, though the feeling of scoring a sturgeon remains the same.

Rick Zwiers of Freedom landed a fish that weighed in at 69.9 pounds.

"I turned the spear and threw it. Thought I missed until he started pulling back and then he was on there," said Zwiers.

Tim Soda is ready to make a weekend of it.

"If we don't see one today, we'll move again tomorrow morning," he said. "Sometimes, you only gotta move 50 feet, ya know? Ya just don't know."

A lesson learned from years of experience.

No matter how long you stare at the water, the best lure is a whole lot of luck.

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