2020 sturgeon spearing: Wet year, mild winter create safety concerns and potential for low harvest

NOW: 2020 sturgeon spearing: Wet year, mild winter create safety concerns and potential for low harvest

LAKE WINNEBAGO, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Opening weekend of sturgeon spearing on Lake Winnebago is in the books. However, a wet year and mild winter have created safety concerns and the potential for a low harvest. 

Sturgeon spearing on Lake Winnebago and Upriver lakes is a winter tradition that dates back more than eight decades. It’s a family affair for the Mantheys.

"We're here at the Sunset Shores in Taycheedah," said Matt Manthey. It's a great past time passed on to father and son, families go on for generations." 

With the world’s largest population of this ancient fish right here in Lake Winnebago, one of two places in the United States where spearing is allowed, this is a special sport for anglers from Wisconsin and across the country.   

"I’ve been doing this for close to 50 years and never once that we didn’t go out, but this year might be the first time that we ain’t going out," said John Manthey.

Blame it on the weather. Back to back years of record precipitation has muddied water clarity -- a key factor in the success of the harvest. More importantly, the mild winter has created dangerous ice conditions for the more than 12,000 anglers who’ve bought licenses. 

"The ice conditions and the weather conditions aren’t that safe to go out. Right now we have roughly between 4-11 inches depending on where you are on the south shore. Typically you need roughly 12 inches of solid ice consistently from shore to drive a truck on the ice," said Matt.

While this is the first year folks may sit this one out, it could be an issue that appears more in the future.

"In the last five to ten years, there’s been other years where it’s nip and tuck where maybe that climate change is for real," said John.

But for those determined to head out, what can you do to stay safe?

"Talk to their local sportsman clubs and know where you’re going on the lake," said Matt. 

Along with tips from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), local fishing groups help people navigate the lake.

"When it’s safe they have a series of roads out here and they mark those roads with a line of Christmas trees and then in unsafe spots, such as cracks, they typically put a line of fallen trees on the ground so you know not to go there," said Matt."The season is 16 days so we’re hoping that we might make it out the two." 

The DNR reports four vehicles went through the ice opening weekend.  No injuries but people are urged to use caution in the days ahead.

The forecast calls for a big cooldown by the end of the week. But will it be enough to build safe ice in time to salvage the season and harvest Only time will tell.

The opening day tally includes just 44 sturgeon speared on Lake Winnebago, the lowest harvest numbers since 2013 with almost 50 percent less shanties on the lake than normal. The DNR says at this rate it’s likely the spearing season will run for the full 16 days before harvest caps are met.

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