A Bad Day to Be A Sturgeon

This is an essay I wrote in 2005 for American Nerd, a now-defunct web magazine I used to run.

1.

Some fish are beautiful works of natural engineering. Northern pike, for instance, are streamlined and powerful-looking and possess the same sort of deadly grace as a fighter jet. Or look at trout; for a hiker, there are few treats greater than hiking next to a clear, swiftly-moving stream and spotting a school of trout hovering in formation. You can almost convince yourself that the piscine evolutionary process includes an aesthetic clause, some hidden set of criteria that weights grace and beauty as highly as survival and reproduction.

The lake sturgeon is proof that this is a hollow conceit. There are uglier things in the world than the sturgeon, but not too many. Long, thin, and rubbery, an individual sturgeon looks like a beefed-up seagoing vacuum hose with a few perfunctory fins, an impression furthered by the limp sucker mouth hanging down from the bottom of the fish’s head. The bottom of the fish is your standard fishbelly white; the top is a dark brownish-green that wouldn’t be at all out of place in a diaper. A set of whiskers (barbels if you want to be scientific about it) represents the sturgeon’s only attempt to snazz it up, and, well, barbels as an accessory don’t even look that great on catfish.

Lake sturgeon, to put it bluntly, don’t look like something you’d want to eat, much less go to any effort to catch. If anything, they look like they’d be useful for scaring children or maybe leaving in someone’s bed if you wanted to send a particularly emphatic message.

It’s hard to believe, then, that the sturgeon is capable of inducing mass hysteria (well, maybe if a giant one rose out of Lake Michigan and started menacing the city of Green Bay). But that’s the case. Every five years, Eastern Wisconsin’s brief sturgeon-spearing season drums up enough excitement to cover the lakes with flash towns of ice-fishing shanties, each one full of normally-rational adults willing to stare for hours into dark water with a spear in hand, hoping for the chance to impale a butt-ugly fish.

2.

To find a balance between the need to preserve the species and the enormous numbers of people desiring to poke sturgeons in the back with spears, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources limits the spearfishing season to a six-hour period on the second Saturday in February in years divisible by five (if the sturgeon harvest quotas aren’t met, another six hours on Sunday are tacked onto the season, but given how many people are out there spearing, nobody counts on getting a second day). The ephemeral spearing season (which starts at 6 A.M. and runs until noon; people in this part of Wisconsin get up early) exists only on three lakes: Butte Des Morts, Winnebago, and Poygan, all of which are connected by rivers and more or less make up one big sturgeon ecosystem.

I stumbled across the 2005 sturgeon-spearing season by accident. My wife’s parents happen to live on Lake Poygan, and we had driven to Eastern Wisconsin on a Friday evening for my mother-in-law’s birthday. Standing in my in-laws’ living room, which offers a fantastic panoramic view of the lake, I saw the setting sun reflect off of the sides of thousands of aluminum ice shanties; the overall effect was of a new, unusually low-slung Frank Gehry building going up on the ice.

I asked my mother-in-law, Jan, what was going on out there, and she said that it was people massing for the spearfishing season. For the full scoop, she said, I should check with my father-in-law, Dick. Dick is an avid fisherman who has been through many spearfishing seasons on Poygan, and knows the whole thing in and out (he was sitting out the one the next morning, mainly because of Jan’s birthday party, but it became steadily more and more clear that he plans on being out there with a spear in February of 2010). When asked, he explained the periodic nature of the sturgeon season and built up a head of excitement as he described the absolute circus that would be taking place on the ice the next morning. “They’ll pull a thousand sturgeon out of that lake,” he predicted. “At least.”

A few hours later, the local news from Green Bay ran the Poygan sturgeon fishery as one of their lead stories, reporting that there were over six thousand ice shanties out on Poygan; for comparison, the nearest town, Winneconne, has a population of about 2400. My brother-in-law Tim, always eager to absorb local color, suggested that we should drive out the next morning and take a look. Dick readily agreed to show us around, as long as we didn’t take his car (you learn a thing or two in a lifetime of plying the Wisconsin outdoor scene).
3.

Mustering at about 9:30, Dick, Tim, and I piled into Tim’s smallish SUV. The idea was to drive straight out through Dick’s yard onto the lake and spend a few hours checking out the sturgeon-spearing scene. It was an unseasonably bright and warm day; not even ten o’clock yet and already 35 degrees. Bundled up in the standard Upper-Midwest-in-February layers, I was already sweating like a bastard. Upon getting into the car, Tim buckled his seatbelt as a matter of reflex. Dick mildly suggested that seatbelts were a bad idea in the unlikely-but-not-impossible event that the truck should go through the ice.

Tim swallowed and unbuckled his seatbelt. So that’s why we didn’t take Dick’s car.

We drove out onto the ice. The collected ice shanties glittered off in the distance, but there was a lot of open space between them and the shore. A frozen lake gives you a geographic flatness that you barely ever come across on dry land unless you’re on a salt flat; driving through this wasteland was a bizarre experience, sort of like crossing a featureless abstract plane. There were a couple of sort-of-theoretical “roads” (marked erratically by old Christmas trees jammed into snowdrifts) plowed out on top of the ice pack, but outside of a few drifts there wasn’t really enough snow out here to make them necessary. As a result, trucks and snowmobiles traveled around without restriction, and it’s surprising just how unsettling it was to see vehicles whizzing around you at random vectors.

As we approached the shanties, a few man-made features cropped up. Spots where an ice shanty had been placed and then removed were marked with stakes (these markers are necessary, of course, because the ice covering the holes cut for the departed shanties isn’t necessarily as thick as the 18” slab everywhere else, and it’s not unheard of for someone’s tire to go through an old shanty hole). Some of the abandoned holes also had large blocks of ice sitting next to them. I asked Dick why this was, and he explained that the smart thing to do when cutting a hole for your shanty is to wrestle the ice up out of the hole rather than push it off to the side under the icepack, so that you’re not blocking the sturgeon’s approach to your spearing grounds (the attraction of sliding the ice under is that the ice blocks are massively heavy and the basic geometry of the situation makes lifting them out of the water a sprained back just waiting to happen). He added that the canny fisherman doesn’t even need to bother cutting a hole, since you can always count on someone getting frustrated and abandoning a perfectly good one.

The circus element of the sturgeon season also became more and more apparent the closer we got. A couple of news helicopters milled around in the air above the collection of shanties, and throughout the morning small planes would buzz through periodically. At the ground level, the circus mainly took the form of a higher concentration of snowmobiles and SUVs shuttling around. Curiously, few actual people were visible outside of cars. The presumption was that everyone was still in their shanties waiting to poke a fish. This lack of people was a little disappointing at first; after all, if there aren’t people to look at, what’s to see out here? The answer, it turned out, was the shanties themselves.

A fisherman wanting to take part in the six hours of craziness faces a problem of identification. With thousands of people setting up shanties in the same area of ice, and most of the shanties being roughly identical aluminum boxes (although a few appeared to be shanties in the true sense of the word, little shacks of 2x4s, plywood, and plastic sheeting erected out on the ice; and some of those mothers were huge, almost like an ad-hoc garage), the prospect of forgetting which one actually belongs to you is a very real one; and it’s easy to imagine what sorts of bad things could happen if a lost fisherman went around bugging people trying to find his shanty. Remember, these people have spears and beer, and their time is precious.

The solution to the problem is simple: personalize your shanty. While a few people out on Poygan had taken the simple expedient of hoisting a flag (the most common being US and Green Bay Packers flags, although the Marine Corps was fairly well-represented), the most common decorative approach was to bust out the paint. Driving through the shanty cluster, we saw a fascinating impromptu folk art exhibit, a sort of spray-paint-and-aluminum master class. There were a couple shanties painted black, with huge Jolly Rogers dominating their sides. An olive-drab shanty with the Marine Corps logo (Marines like sturgeon, it seems). A Confederate shanty painted up in the Stars and Bars. Endless variations on the Packers theme, ranging from the big G logo to a portrait of Brett Favre. White shanties with silhouettes of fish painted on the side, looking sort of like those old World War II playing cards bearing silhouettes of enemy planes. A shanty with a grotesque, unnervingly creepy baby face painted on the side. For a touch of classical elegance, a sort of Grecian urn shanty painted black with a red figure spearing a sturgeon.

And with pretty much all of these, there was at least a 24-pack of cheap beer sitting just outside the door, cooling in the snow.

4.

So, then, how do you actually go about spearing a sturgeon? As we drove around and ogled the decorations, Dick ran us through the basics. As mentioned before, you start by cutting a hole in the ice with a chainsaw (or swiping an abandoned one or paying someone to cut one for you; a group called “Support Local Youth” had a billboard on the ice announcing that they’d cut your hole for only $15) and putting a shanty over it. That accomplished (and you would, of course, take care of this logistic stuff in advance, given that you’ll probably only have six hours to fish), you stand inside your shanty, leaning over the hole with your spear loosely hanging from the roof (and it’s important to keep the tip under the water at all times, so that if you see a sturgeon you won’t spook the fish by creating ripples as you set up your shot), waiting for a sturgeon to happen to pass by your hole. When one does, you thrust down as hard as you can, hoping to spear the fish through the spine, just behind the head. Placement is important: the sturgeon’s head is too bony to deal with, and if you get them in the tail, you’re just setting yourself up for a big fight.

Once speared, the sturgeon will go into a mad, thrashing death roll to try to escape whatever the hell it is that just skewered them in the back. To deal with this, the head of the spear detaches from the shaft and has line attached, so the spinning sturgeon eventually just trusses itself up as it fights. After the fish burns up all its energy, you pull it out with the line and a gaff.

Congratulations. You’ve speared a sturgeon.

There are variations to this basic setup– people owning a certain type of long, low shanty, for instance, bring out mattresses and do their waiting lying on their bellies rather than standing– but no matter how you approach it, the essence of spearfishing is waiting with spear in hand. The waiting can stretch on and on, and isn’t necessarily the most stimulating time. At one point, Dick compared staring into the water to intently watching a TV that hadn’t been turned on. A bit later, he added that you’re spending that time in the dark, smelling the fumes from your space heater, periodically hearing people in nearby huts whoop when they catch fish.

This, more or less, explains the cases of beer outside each shanty.

5.

After all this theory talk, during which we were still cruising around digging the custom paint jobs, it was time to make contact. A bit ahead of us, we saw the door to a shanty swing open and a kid, maybe in his early- to mid- teens, step out holding a bloody 4-foot sturgeon hanging off of a gaff. An older man, presumably his father, leaned out of the door, gesturing some sort of direction to him. Tim stopped the car and we all got out, excited to talk to actual participants.

“So, you got lucky eh?” Tim asked the father. A high school teacher, Tim prides himself on his ability to start a conversation with anybody.

“The boy did,” the man grunted, and the shanty door slammed shut.

Around the corner of the building, the kid was dragging his fish along on the ice. He was having trouble. For one thing, the fish was nearly longer than he was tall and he wasn’t physically able to keep it off the ground. Making it worse, he wasn’t using the gaff correctly. He had the gaff hook inserted into the sturgeon’s mouth, which was a loose sucker affair that didn’t really offer any purchase for a hook and kept falling off entirely, ripping out and making a bloody situation bloodier.

“You’re not doing that right,” Dick said. “You need to put the gaff in through the gills.”

The kid stared down at the ground and backed away from us.

Dick spoke a little louder, in case the kid couldn’t hear him. “That’s not the right way. You gaff it in the gills.”

The kid, still looking straight down, continued to back away. We were now maybe thirty feet away from the kid’s shack and it was pretty clear that he wasn’t heading anywhere except away from us.

The three of us shrugged and headed back towards Tim’s truck. So much for talking to the participants.

6.

There was one more thing Dick wanted to show us: the weighing and registration station. Access to the lake from the adjoining roads is limited (unless you own a lakefront home and can drive out through your yard), and the DNR takes advantage of this by setting up checkpoints at the access points. People who’ve succeeded in skewering a sturgeon have to stop in and have it weighed and tagged (and the fine for getting caught off the lake with an untagged, speared sturgeon is steep, on the order of $2500).

By the time we arrived at the station, it was shortly after 11 A.M. and the season appeared to be drawing to a close (we later found out, when watching the evening news, that Saturday was a disappointing day and the sturgeon quotas weren’t met, opening Sunday for a rare second day of spearing; nevertheless, throughout that afternoon and evening, we saw a steady stream of trucks pulling shanties off of the ice). Trucks, snowmobiles, and four-wheelers were parked at odd angles, and men were lined up waiting to get their fish checked. Many of them were pulling their dead or dying sturgeons along in sleds; the fish generally didn’t fit all the way in the sleds, and hung flaccidly over the sides.

At the front of the line, fish were measured for length and weighed on a large tripod scale. To be legal, a sturgeon has to break 35 pounds, and several of these were cutting it pretty close (Dick predicted that for the next few days the abandoned shanty-holes would be full of dead 30-pound sturgeon). A volunteer from a nearby college waved some sort of scanner near the head of each fish, looking for an RFID implant that would have been inserted during a scientific fish-tagging study. We saw her find one and get very excited; that fish was dragged off to another table and various data was recorded.

After weighing and scanning the fish, they were taken over to a table, slit open, and gutted. After being hollowed out, the sturgeon looked more like rubber hoses with fins than ever. Then a DNR official attached a tag to the tail of the fish, and the owner carried the carcass off to be tossed into the back of his truck. After that, presumably, was taken home, smoked, and eaten; that or stashed under the covers of someone’s bed to persuade them to play ball. The processing moved briskly, but now that the season was waning, more and more people were coming off the ice and the line was getting fairly long.

We stood there for a while, watching the fish get weighed and oohing and aahing at the bigger ones. I happened to look over to the entry line and saw a man dragging his sturgeon through the snow by a line going through its gills; it incongruously looked like he had the fish on a leash.

Amazingly, after being speared in the back and pulled along the frozen ground, the fish was still alive. It bucked and rolled like the proverbial fish out of water, picking up a thin coat of snow with each move. The sturgeon was dying, and fast– over the course of maybe two minutes, the thrashing got slower and more sluggish and finally, now nearly white with snow, it made one listless contraction and then straightened out and went limp.

It was a sad thing to watch but, in a weird way, beautiful. Maybe because it was an emotionally fraught moment, watching a living being die. Maybe because the shoes I was wearing weren’t really designed for this and I was just looking for distraction from the fact that my feet were freezing. Maybe because there’s something a tiny bit inspiring about watching a creature that has absolutely no hope of survival go down swinging, refusing to give up.

Whatever the reason, for the first time I was ready to concede that sturgeon are not always butt-ugly.

 

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