For people who revel in snowy and icy winter pursuits, Wisconsin boasts a unique fishing season. Generations of family and friends gather on Lake Winnebago to try their luck at spearing huge, prehistoric-looking sturgeon. But what’s considered a conservation success story has become overcast.
The state’s top sturgeon biologist is being charged for involvement in an illegal sturgeon caviar scheme.
Just over a week before its Feb. 13 kick off, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources sturgeon biologist Ryan Koenigs predicted a good spearing season.
“Water clarity is actually the biggest predictor of sturgeon spearing success, with the water clarity this year being favorable, probably the best clarity we’ve had at least in the last years, we’re anticipating there’s going to be a relatively high harvest,” said Koenigs.
Then, just before spearing fans began hauling shanties onto Lake Winnebago’s frozen vastness, news broke of accusations that Koenigs had been part of a caviar racket.
In Wisconsin, spearers who harvest a female sturgeon with eggs may process and share the eggs, but may not barter or sell them.
Koenigs is accused of handing over sturgeon eggs set aside for research to a processer. And in return, he allegedly received thousands of dollars’ worth of processed caviar.
Fisherman Jim Patt has known and collaborated with Koenigs over the years. Patt grew up along Lake Winnebago and first went spearfishing as a child with his dad.
In a collection of shanties off the lake’s western shore, generations of his family and friends have shared the spearing tradition.
“Yeah, nephews and my children too. My daughter and my son both spear. We’ve all gotten fish, sometimes you go a number of years without getting any. I have a cousin the hasn’t gotten one since the ‘90s. He’s out here all the time – he's just not, one just doesn’t swim through,” says Patt.
Inside his latest homemade shanty, three spearers can comfortably peer through large holes carved through the 20-inch-thick ice.
But Patt doesn’t take the fish’s abundance for granted. When he was a kid, sturgeon numbers were low, due to years of overfishing and poaching, in many cases for the caviar.
Sturgeon supporters around the lake stepped up to assist the DNR — forming the group Sturgeon for Tomorrow. More than four decades later, Patt is one of its 2,000-plus members.
And the sturgeon population has bounced back to more than 40,000 adult fish.
“We do a lot for the fish, a lot of spawning habitat, a lot of research we’ve sponsored. It’s come a long ways in what would it be 42, 43 years. It’s over a million dollars that we’ve donated,” he says.
Patt says he is baffled by Koenig’s alleged actions, having worked with the DNR scientist as an ally in conservation. He sees the potential of having to start over with a new state biologist as a setback.
“We’re in a good place right now, and if Ryan is not there anymore, it’s going to take years to bring something back. Hopefully it won’t affect the sturgeon, but we don’t know that either,” he says.
Fishermen Joseph Beck and Jackson Schroeder aren’t worrying about the future. They’re about to celebrate the sturgeon they’ve just speared, after they’re measured and weighed.
“I’ve gone out for the last eight years and this is my first year with a tag and this is my first fish ever, so I’m very excited,” says Schroeder.
“This is my first year, second day out, first fish,” says Beck.
Schroeder’s fish was the biggest speared on Winnebago that day — a whopping 121.7 pounds.