Smith: Ice fishing has already been hurt by conditions; now sturgeon spearing is threatened

Poor ice conditions on Wisconsin waters continue to adversely affect winter fishing opportunities, including the cancellation of ice fishing tournaments.

Paul A. Smith
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The Wisconsin winter of 2023-24 isn't over. But as the calendar flips to February it's clear the season will be remembered for at least one thing: poor ice conditions.

That was evident Jan. 1 when the Great Lakes had just 0.4% ice cover, down from an average of 9% and the lowest documented for the date in the 50 years it's been tracked, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. 

And it's continued through this week. As of Wednesday, NOAA estimated the Great Lakes ice cover at 6.9%, down from a long-term average for late January of 29%.

More:Outdoors calendar

Most scientists attribute this winter's ice conditions to a combination of El Niño, a weather cycle that typically results in warmer winters in Wisconsin, and the larger, long-term issue of climate change.

For ice fishers, the conditions are especially challenging.

In late January fishing guide Eric Haataja of West Allis would normally be targeting brown trout and steelhead through ice on the Milwaukee lakefront.

On Wednesday he was fishing for those species but from his boat in open water.

But most anglers have less flexibility. Unable to drive with ATVs or UTVs on the weak ice of Green Bay or fish from open water, fishing guide Bret Alexander of Ice Fish Green Bay decided to buy an air boat. For the last five days he's been taking groups to offshore areas in a vessel that can travel over ice, slush or open water and is becoming increasingly common in the Badger State.

Alexander has been finding spots with about 10 inches of ice in southeastern Green Bay.

A section of jagged ice was photographed Jan. 28 near Dyckesville on Green Bay.

But thousands of others don't have that option, either.

The conditions caused organizers Tuesday to cancel Battle on Bago, billed as the state's largest ice fishing tourney. The event was scheduled for Feb. 16 and 17 on the Winnebago System.

"We will be proactively cancelling the ice fishing portion of our event due to the continued deterioration of ice conditions and safety for our anglers accessing the Lake Winnebago System," organizers said in a Facebook post. "Unfortunately, Mother Nature did not cooperate with a lot of winter activities for this season which can negatively impact outdoor events like ours."

More:Wisconsin's unseasonably warm temperatures likely mean trouble for local ice conditions, DNR warns

While the fishing portion is off, other planned events including live music, food and raffles will still take place at Menominee Park in Oshkosh.

People who purchased a $40 ticket have options, including a refund or converting it to raffle tickets.

The Smoke Eaters Slam ice fishing tourney scheduled for Saturday at Geano's Beach near Oconto was cancelled, too. It will still hold the non-fishing activities.

"I'm at my wits end with the last two winters, depression is running strong," said the owner of North Shore Bait Company in Oconto in a Facebook post Wednesday. He plans to hold a sale on inventory to help generate some business. "More to come, but in reality I'm taking what I can get to survive."

And the prospects are looking especially challenging for the more than 10,000 licensed spearers hoping to take part in the 2024 sturgeon spearing season on the Winnebago System.

At least one sturgeon spearer wondered in a Facebook post on the Lake Winnebago Sturgeon Spearing page if he could get his money back, too.

The answer is no.

But as with all fishing and hunting seasons, the sturgeon spearing season will go on. Participants need to be smart and careful and proceed at their own risk.

"The key word this year will be 'improvise,'" said Paul Muche, 53, of Van Dyne. "I expect we'll get out but it will obviously be different than most years."

The 2024 sturgeon spearing season is scheduled to start Feb. 10 on the Winnebago System. As of Wednesday, Lake Winnebago had some open water and at least one local club was advising against any snowmobile or ATV travel on the lake.

Given a warmer than average forecast over the next week, the conditions will likely not improve much before the opener.

Muche said he's been able to get on Lake Winnebago every season of his 40-plus-year sturgeon spearing career.

Last year also featured less than ideal ice conditions. He and his brother Stuart Muche of Van Dyne and their sons shifted to using spearing shanties on runners rather than the usual, heavier units on wheels.

They used ATVs to tow the lighter shacks onto the lakes.

This year even ATVs might be out of the question. Muche is preparing for a human-powered option: pulling a sled with supplies, including a pop-up tent and a hand saw.

It would be the first time he'd ever cut in with a hand saw or speared from a portable tent. Standard spearing equipment includes a gas-powered sled saw with a long bar and insulated shanties pulled out by pick-up trucks.

But this winter calls for an audible.

Demonstrating the resourcefulness of the sturgeon spearing community, many of whom make their own equipment, Muche was undeterred by the conditions.

He knows he has some things to work out – like where does he hang a spear in a tent? – but he expects to be on the ice for the season.

"Everyone should be careful, know the conditions and do everything they can to stay safe," Muche said. "But even if we have to walk out, we'll be spearing again this year."

Last year the Department of Natural Resources reported 3,100 shacks on Lake Winnebago for opening day of spearing season, down from 6,000 in 2022.

The even poorer ice of 2024 will no doubt result in even fewer structures – tents or otherwise – in place this year.