Oddly, sturgeon is never mentioned by Shakespeare, so the Richard Armitage connection is pretty contrived on this one

Since Saturday morning at about 5 a.m., the Servetus family has been occupied by one of its periodic rituals, an activity native to the Upper Great Lakes region, and one whose appeal may only be clear to locals: the annual harvest of acipenser fulvescens, or the lake sturgeon. Our area is one of the few places in the U.S. where game fishermen can still spear this fish, as its population is listed as threatened or endangered almost everywhere else due to overfishing in the early twentieth century. For whatever biological reason, sturgeon don’t respond well to attempts to help them breed.

Know your prehistoric fish: the sturgeon has four "whiskers" or barbels, where its tastebuds are located.

Know your prehistoric fish: the lake sturgeon has four “whiskers” or barbels, where its tastebuds are located. It also has bony plates, as it never evolved to develop scales; you can see the ridges from these plates on the back and sides of the fish above. This one lives in the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and thus is not present at risk of harvest.

Because the fish is rare, the restrictions for harvesting one are correspondingly rigid. The only way to take a sturgeon is by means of an implement called a sturgeon spear, which is cast through a hole cut in the ice with a maximum 48 square foot area. Most people fish through a hole about 6 feet long by 2 or 3 feet wide. The fisherman must be in a shanty that covers the entire hole (sometimes you still hear them called a darkhouse because they only have tiny windows inside, to prevent light from getting in), and can only fish from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The fish must be at least 36 inches (3 feet) long — so it will be about nine years old by the time it is caught. (Sturgeon can live up to 50 years or more). Most of those taken are quite a bit bigger than that; this year’s biggest fish so far is actually longer than Richard Armitage is tall. So typically the spear is not enough to secure the fish — once you spear, you have to follow up with a hook or gaff to pull the fish onto the ice. And it’s not uncommon for people fall into the holes themselves while doing this. Once you catch a fish, you are done for the season and must take it immediately to a station for registration. Each year has an individual harvest cap and the season runs sixteen days or until the harvest cap is filled, whichever comes first. Don’t worry too much about the fish population, though — the harvest cap is set at less than 10 percent of the total fish population of the lakes, and the total numbers appear to be growing.

A sturgeon in process of being caught. You can see how the fisherman has built up the inside of his shanty, and also

A lake sturgeon in process of being caught. You can see how the fisherman has built up the inside of his shanty, and also the way that the shaft of the spear detaches from the head to make the attached fishing line more maneuverable.

Even very experienced fishermen struggle with these conditions. The sturgeon are elusive — though these lakes are not very deep, these fish are bottom feeders, so the clarity of the water can facilitate or retard the harvest, as does the food that the fish have access to in the regions of the lake they prefer. (A satisfied fish is less likely to be attracted by bait or decoys.) Most of northeastern Wisconsin is on pins and needles throughout the fall hoping for a fast, hard freeze that sticks; if winter dallies on its way or it never gets very cold, the water is murkier due to algae growth and the fish are harder to glimpse. It’s rare for a season to be canceled because of open water, but we also hope there’s enough ice on the lakes to park a truck on it. Otherwise setting up for the season is much more laborious. And yes, every year some imprudent person manages to drive his truck through the ice and/or sink his shanty.

The sturgeon season deforms our lives for about two weeks in February while many pause to prepare: testing the ice, locating the right spot, sawing the hole, covering it with the shanty, making sure the equipment is order, including the propane heater one puts in the shanty, locating all the clothing layers we wear while outdoors. And then we fish for all we’re worth. All this fuss is a bit hard to explain if you’re an outsider or not interested in fishing — especially because apart from the caviar, a sturgeon is not, well — the tastiest fish ever — and the fish harvested are so huge. The sociability plays a big role in the appeal — and expands now to women as well as men. So does the challenge. And, I think, there’s a bit of pride in belonging to the people who go out in all weather to encounter the natural environment. We certainly cultivate a machismo about our capacity to deal with the weather around here.

And, one must say, when it’s cold and clear, the winter mornings are beautiful. Beautiful with bite, as it bit this Saturday morning, when the windchill at 5:30 a.m. was -25F.

Trucks and shanties on Lake Winnebago last year. Source: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Trucks and shanties on Lake Winnebago last year. Source: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

For my father, so much about family memory is bound up in this particular fish harvest. He grew up a stone’s throw from the lake he fishes on, and he remembers spearing with his own father and grandfather. But demand for permits (over 16,000 were issued this year) means that lottery spits one out only every seven years or so these days, and, as he has told me repeatedly for the last two weeks, since he has a permit this year, the next time it’s statistically his turn, he may be dead.

The urgency he expresses so often this year didn’t, in my recollection, color previous seasons. Something that he can’t articulate very precisely is bugging him. To cope with the cold around here, rather than buying heavy single outdoor garments, we layer — t-shirt under sweater under insulated flannel shirt, under overalls under outdoor jacket. This year dad purchased a chargeable vest that gives off heat, but the added bulk and his own growing inflexibility means he struggles to fasten and position everything. I closed his velcro hood for him the other day, and remembered when my mother used to tie my hood on, with a firm jerk at the end, when I was very small. He’s much tireder now when he comes in — the cold takes more out of the old, I suppose. The drinking bouts afterward are shorter.

It hasn’t been a great year. Other people on their lake have gotten big fish but we haven’t yet; my brother speared one that was too small and had to put it back in; my sister-in-law had elective surgery scheduled for Monday and my younger niece has some kind of random 103° fever. There’s some weird spat among outsiders going on on the lake. I admit that I’m not sure what we’d do with so much fish, a fish I don’t even especially enjoy eating. It’s good smoked, I suppose.

But the water is strangely clear and the DNR believes that tomorrow will be the last day, as the harvest cap is reached. I don’t believe it’s dad’s last season, not quite yet. And I hope he gets his sturgeon.

~ by Servetus on February 17, 2016.

24 Responses to “Oddly, sturgeon is never mentioned by Shakespeare, so the Richard Armitage connection is pretty contrived on this one”

  1. Hope he catches one too. Kind of looks like catfish. Does it taste similar?


    • It’s a bottom feeder, so it definitely can have that muddy taste. It has super firm flesh — it’s a dense fish than the other fresh water fish I usually eat.


  2. Good luck and a good catch!


  3. Really interesting description of something I will never get to do. I am sharing your story with the fisherman I live with. I don’t think he has ever done this kind of fishing. Does your dad have superstitions regarding ice fishing? Bananas are forbidden on any boats going after tuna. Bad luck.


    • I did not know about the bananas. No, as far as I know dad has no fishing-related superstitions. But he might not have told me about them.


  4. Interesting and cool to have such a tradition! Here when lakes freeze everyone wants to skate. 🙂
    Fingers crossed for your dad, hope he makes his catch!


    • We want to skate, too, but the skating is frankly more pleasant at an ice rink. Lake or pond ice can be really rough. When I was a kid we had a sort of “pond” in the winter in the cornfield across the road and we skated there a lot.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Fascinating! I have relatives from Wisconsin, but I don’t remember hearing any of this. Lots of stories about epic battles with Northern Pike, but nothing about the sturgeon. I’ll need to ask Papa about that, now.


    • This happens in a very geographically delimited part of Wisconsin. Pike are more widespread. And yes — they are epic opponents.


  6. My only knowledge of sturgeon comes from the TV show River Monsters, so thanks for sharing. Pity the animal is not great eating, seems like such a waste 😦 But I appreciate the cultural importance this even seems to have for your community.


    • *this event


    • It is commonly fished for the caviar, but I will admit that I’ve only ever had sturgeon caviar from a jar. I remember eating sturgeon periodically as a child, but only ever smoked or in steaks. However, I did have an intense sturgeon experience in Russia in 1991. Russians apparently love it.

      And smoked — it’s good. It’s just hard to imagine eating (e.g.) 30 lbs of smoked fish.


  7. Thanks for an interesting read Serv’ and I hope your dad bags his fish xx.


    • I hope so too — there is one more fish to be caught on his lake, so he will go out tomorrow in hopes.

      Thanks to everyone for all the good wishes!


  8. It sounds like a unique experience.
    I hope I am not too late with the good wishes!? Or maybe your Dad was already lucky?


  9. I loved hearing about this tradition. I hope it was your brother that speared it and for your sake that it’s a small one 😉


    • It was bro. Dad is really happy, though. And it was only 40 pounds! They were saying the fish have been leaner lately, something to do with one of their traditional favorite insects not being as available as in the past.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Really enjoyed this story; the tradition of it. The reoccurring event that obviously has a lot a value in your family. Happy to hear you got one in the end.


  11. […] Dad was sturgeon spearing as he always is this time of year (no fish yet, in case you are curious) and the political news hadn’t left me in the mood for a celebration anyway. […]


  12. […] is just a rump as my plan for the evening was derailed entirely when dad decided he was going to go sturgeon spearing tomorrow morning after all. I’ve been so absent I just needed to post something. This week […]


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