Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Actively Waiting for the Big One

I spent the entire month of January begging Lake Superior not to freeze over.  As you know, it did (or as I was corrected, it is over 90% completely frozen).  My worry was this: a frozen Big Lake would have no moisture for snow-making capabilities, and keep us in arctic temperatures.  I was right.  But there is one thing I didn't realize until I lived through it.

The sun shines every day.

Perhaps we have had a couple partial snowy/cloudy days in February.  Otherwise we get sun-to-the-shizine daily.  I had to find my sunglasses and actually wear them so I can see!  That lake.  She never ceases to amaze me.

This weekend I got to spend some time on Wisconsin's largest lake: Lake Winnebago near Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.  I was invited by the fine folks from the area's Convention and Visitor's Bureau to attend the festivities for opening day of their big Sturgeon Spearing event with other Women of Wilderness (WOW).  Wow, is right.  That was a new experience for this girl.

Lake Winnebago was, in essence, the "fairgrounds" for all the events that were happening.  This lake is 131,939 acres with a maximum depth of 21 feet.  That's 190 Lake Medoras in surface area!  Lake Winnebago was covered in miles and miles of plowed roads for vehicles to access different parts of the lake to get to their shanty.  It was a slow-moving highway on 32 inches of ice.

On Friday I got to watch the ice kiters.  I put a little video together for you.

The next morning, dark and early, we drove out with the convoy of other hopeful fish-spearers across the ice.  Getting out before dawn meant we got to watch the sunrise.

A shanty sunrise on Lake Winnebago

The next 6 hours were spent, by anyone with a spearing license, looking into the glowing rectangle in a dark shanty.  Something like this.

Kristine watches for the big one

When I say "big one," I mean big.  The largest recorded Sturgeon caught last year was 176 pounds.  I got to witness one of our shanty neighbors flop out one of these monsters.  He was beaming.  Here's a link to more news on this year's event.

The shanty neighbor and his prize

I hear they are good eating, but I didn't get to try.  From the females, the caviar is often exported and sold at ridiculously high prices.  

I've heard people call these fish "dinosaurs" because they are an ancient species without teeth or a spine.  I was shocked when I heard that, but watching it flop around in shanty neighbor's grasp, I believed it.

Back to the glowing hole.  Let me tell you what's going on there.  I dubbed it "active waiting" because every person in our group (and probably every other person in the 4,000-something shanties) actively waited for a fish to swim under their hole.  They couldn't read a book.  They couldn't play games on their iphone.  Some people wouldn't even step out to pee.  No.  Instead, like Kristine, they sat there, staring into the abyss and uttered, "Come to Mama."

In Kristine's picture, she was lucky to have an arm and chin rest.  More than just a relaxation bar, it made us both feel a bit safer while sitting in front of a 3-foot wide by 6-foot long hole.

That long pole you see extending from the bottom center of the shot into the water is the spear: 6 feet long and at least 10 pounds of a sharp, 5-pronged, barb-ended death device.  When the sea monster meanders through, the spear is quickly lifted off its hook and thrusted into the fish.  Not shown here, is the gaff, a stick with a large hook to jab into the gills after the Sturgeon has been speared.

In the top right of this picture, you'll see what looks like a fish on a string.  That's the decoy, used to cause curiosity in the larger species.  The Sturgeon sways over to see what is going on, then WHAM! they are hit with a spear.

The white X in the bottom of the picture provides a reference point, marking the depth, which was about 15 feet here.  It also proves for contrast when a dark object swims over it.  Hopefully the Sturgeon.

To my surprise, I actively waited for the big one to saunter through Kristine's hole for hours.  But we saw nothing with life of its own.  

While visiting a couple shanties, I was delighted to see how long people can sit in silence and wait.  It was inspiring.  And I actually learned to like it myself.  Maybe I'll become an ice fisherwoman after all....


  1. Great to have you join our WOW media group Amanda! Mark your calendar to secure your WI sturgeon spearing license before Oct. 31 and join us to slay the prehistoric fish next year!

  2. That's a great video Amanda!.. and the perfect music. Thanks

  3. Nice story. I have chin-rest envy. Our shanty did not have one of those.