Sturgeon spearing Opening Day is a rush for spearers

LAKE WINNEBAGO (WITI) -- This winter may not be great for your mood, but it's been terrific for sturgeon spearing. The prolonged cold led to thick ice - strong enough to support thousands of ice shanties on one of the most popular destinations: Lake Winnebago.

The search for one of the most intimidating fish has times of quiet reflection -- put slicing through the ice with a chainsaw isn't one of them.

"Pretty tough cutting ice," Bob Hoch said.

Hoch remembers he was 18 when he first cut into the ice of Lake Winnebago, and he can't remember a winter since when he didn't repeat this routine.

"We're working cutting sturgeon holes," Hoch said.

Despite the sub-zero temperatures and the painful wind chill, Hoch and his friends were giddy on this day, as they set up a small village of shanties - each placed atop a hole, which will be their view for as long as it takes to earn the right to move out of the shacks they worked so hard to put up.

"You gotta be a little nuts to do this," Hoch said.

Hoch is not nuts. Excited and determined, of course -- but perfectly sane. In a space no bigger than an office cubicle, he stares, smokes and waits -- and waits some more.

"Right now, we're bored," Hoch said.

It has been 11 years since Hoch has actually taken a sturgeon back up through the windshield-sized hole in the ice -- but on this day, he's not alone. His wife, Pam, does the same thing just three feet away, with her step-dad alongside her.

The second Hoch saw the fish, the FOX6 News crew gladly got out of the way to make room to bring back the spear and see what may be on the other end of it.

"I told you about a rush. I'm huffing and puffing," Hoch said.

It took about 30 seconds from the time Hoch said there was a fish, 28 from the time the FOX6 News crew cleared out - and the fish was successfully speared.

"Unreal! You guys got it on camera too! I can't catch my breath now -- and that ain't a big one. We got him around the decoy. I just barely got it, but I got 'em. That's the main thing," Hoch said.

"On the ice" is a term used to tell other sturgeon spearers that someone got one. Hoch's wouldn't be there long. He was anxious to get it tagged and registered -- and brag a little!

Miles from the lake, in a studio not much bigger than a fish shanty, Jerry Schneider plays the polka.

"This is going out to the Vic Schneider crew. They're out there fishing," Jerry Schneider said on the air.

His wife, Karen records the haul -- taking call after call from people who have speared their sturgeon and want everyone to know.

On opening day of sturgeon spearing, Schneider is the Walter Cronkite of Lake Winnebago.

"It all works together. Good polka music and happy sturgeon spears. When they get one, give us a call and they might even get a gift certificate out of it," Schneider said.

Back at the lake, this was a better day for the spearers than the spear-ees, as sturgeon are pulled, dragged and carried to the weigh station. The fish are then registered, with the DNR taking care to mark the size and sex. For a lot of these men and women, it will take longer to register the fish than it took to spear it!

One man said it took him a 12-pack of beer to get his fish checked in!

All the more time to recount the day and plan for the meal. It's also time to thaw out and start counting down to the next opening day of sturgeon spearing.

"We were just talking that it's so much work, maybe we should just give up, but we'll go through it again next year now," Hoch said.

This season was supposed to run 16 days, but closed down after just six spearers reached their quota early.

More than 1,500 sturgeon were taken from Lake Winnebago alone - including one plucked from the water by an 80-year-old woman who was the talk of the weigh station when FOX6 News arrived there on opening day.