For most of the year, the sturgeon of Lake Winnebago swim along in relative peace, much as they have for the last 150 million years or so.
Lake sturgeon are one of the longest-living freshwater fish, with lifespans over 100 years. Most adults grow to 4 to 5 feet in length, though the real old-timers can pass 6 feet. These prehistoric beasts move slow, their shark-like crescent tails propelling them as they feed along the murky bottom of the lake. Their whiskery barbels probe the sediment for anything edible – worms, larvae, leeches, snails, crustaceans – and their toothless mouths extend to suck it all up like a vacuum, inedible silt and gravel expelled through their gills. Rows of bony plates called scutes line their backs and act as armor.
But then, for about two weeks in February, there is a great disturbance on the ice above them – spearfishing season has begun.
There are 10 fishing clubs spread around Lake Winnebago, according to Don Herman, vice president of one of them – Oshkosh’s Otter Street Fishing Club. Herman, a tavern owner and avid sportsman, has been with the club for almost 50 years. There’s also the Quinney Fishing
Club west of Chilton and Paynes Point Hook & Spear Fishing Club near Neenah, to name a couple.
Members meet up at these clubhouses to drink and tell fish stories, but they also provide a valuable resource to the local fishing community. Before February’s spearfishing season, the clubs use their snowplows to clear paths across the lake for everyone to use. The plows cross the lake from all directions, then circle the wagons at a spot in the middle of the ice to celebrate the completion of the task, Herman says.
Last year, there was big news to discuss at the party. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources had been conducting a years-long investigation into illegal sturgeon egg bartering, and right before the February sturgeon spearfishing was about to begin, criminal complaints had been filed against four people, including one of the DNR’s own.
“Everyone out there agreed that what they had done was wrong,” says Herman. But by they he means the DNR investigators, not the people charged.
A FROZEN VILLAGE
Spearfishing begins at sunrise on the second Saturday of February. Thousands of fishers (around 12,000-13,000 licenses are sold each season), armed with medieval-looking spears, drive out onto the frozen surface of Lake Winnebago. There’s loud buzzing as square and rectangular holes are cut into the ice and shanties are set up – some are plain corrugated metal, others brightly painted with cartoon characters or the Green Bay Packers logo, some are more like mini-RVs than tin shacks. The majority of these spearfishers are local to the region, though every year some sturgeon hopefuls travel from far and wide to try to land this bucket-list fish.
Lures to pique the bottom-dwelling sturgeon’s curiosity and bring them up to the surface are dropped through the holes. They range from intricate sturgeon-shaped sculptures hand-carved from wood (sturgeon don’t eat fish – perhaps they just want to say hi to a friend?) to pieces of junk on a string: old compact discs, aluminum foil, empty beer cans – anything shiny will do.
“It’s like a village out there – lots of traffic, all sorts of vehicles, four-wheelers, snowmobiles,” says Ann Wendt-Cross, gazing out the picture window of her restaurant, Wendt’s on the Lake, toward the water. Her staff is busy setting up for lunch. Wendt-Cross has a Wisconsin-friendly big smile and wavy blonde hair. “Definitely one of our best and busiest times of year. That’s why we pray for good, cold winters so we get good ice.”
Her grandparents, who were avid spearfishing enthusiasts, built Wendt’s on the Lake back in 1962 in unincorporated Van Dyne, between Fond du Lac and Oshkosh. “Then my parents took it over. This is my mom, Linda,” Wendt-Cross says, pointing at a family portrait on the back of a menu. You can tell right away the family business means a lot to her. “Her and my brother Shawn and I ran it together for a long time, and my husband and I recently purchased it from my mom. Our three kids and my two nephews all work here, too.”
Sturgeon spearing is also a family tradition – Wendt-Cross speared her first sturgeon as a teen, and her brother takes people out every February to show them how it’s done. Hanging on the wall in the Wendt’s dining room is a taxidermy sturgeon, mounted above a bulletin board that has entries to an annual design contest for a sturgeon season sweatshirt. The restaurant is the sturgeon headquarters of Winnebago’s western shore (other family restaurants, like Jim and Linda’s Lakeview Supper Club on the east shore, serve a similar role around the lake).
“The DNR sets up a station right over there,” Wendt-Cross says, pointing to a dock extending into the lake. A big overhead board with hooks allows fishers to hang up their fish so they can take pictures. Here you can also spot someone engaging in a spearfishing tradition – after you catch a sturgeon, you’re supposed to pucker up and give the grotesque fish a kiss. If that isn’t intimate enough, some fishers drink a beer by pouring it through the sturgeon’s gills.
There are a couple of reasons people arrive before sunrise on opening day and shiver out on the ice as the winter winds howl over the frozen lake. Neither reason is the meat. Native Americans speared and ate sturgeon, but as the authors of People of the Sturgeon: Wisconsin’s Love Affair with an Ancient Fish note, “early European settlers were not eager to cook up what they viewed as a gnarly, mud-sucking fish.” Most still can’t get into the chewy texture and funky bottom-feeder flavor.
“Each spearing group has their own traditions that they celebrate with each passing year, and the season for most is defined by the time spent with loved ones, not the harvesting of a fish.”
– Sarah Hoye, Wisconsin DNR
The most important draw is that spearfishing has become a family tradition passed down through generations, and it’s a challenge. Herman compares stabbing a fish through the ice hole to trying to shoot a flying duck through a chimney. You do hear of people with beginner’s luck landing a fish, but there are plenty of stories of fishers waiting years or even decades before they spear one.
“Each spearing group has their own traditions that they celebrate with each passing year, and the season for most is defined by the time spent with loved ones, not the harvesting of a fish,” explains Sarah Hoye, spokesperson for the DNR. “It’s the social and traditional aspects of the sport that keep most people coming back year after year.”
There’s another reason some people spear – because they’re hoping to land a female sturgeon so they can get the fish’s eggs, or roe, to be processed into caviar.
The law says that a spearfisher can pay to have caviar processed, however it’s illegal to purchase, sell or barter sturgeon, their eggs or caviar. You can give it away for free, which means that with an average sturgeon bringing in 30 pounds of eggs to be processed and hundreds of fish speared each season, large amounts of caviar used to flow freely around Lake Winnebago. Jars of it were set out at bars and DNR volunteer meetings, and handed off as gifts. But since the criminal investigation came to light just before last February’s sturgeon season, fewer are interested in parsing the fine lines around “gifting” and “bartering,” and those jars have mostly disappeared. The case cast a shadow over the usually festive season and has damaged the relationship between the fishing community and the DNR.
SAVING THE STURGEON
There is a reason the strict laws exist – sturgeon survived the dinosaurs and the Ice Age, but they almost didn’t make it past the 19th century. At first, sturgeon were thought of as a nuisance. Their sharp scutes would tear through fishing nets, so when they were caught, they were fed to hogs or dried out to burn as fuel on steamships. Dams blocking spawning grounds and pollution also damaged sturgeon populations, but the ancient fish began to disappear at a much quicker pace when Russian caviar became popular. The European populations of sturgeon soon began to run dry, and suddenly the mud-sucking fish were worth boatloads of money and were overfished, their roe often marketed as “Russian caviar,” even though they came from American waters.
That’s why Lake Winnebago’s sturgeon population is a conservation success story. While 23 out of 27 species of sturgeon are now listed with critically endangered status, Lake Winnebago has a healthy population. Conservation of Wisconsin’s sturgeon began as early as the 1870s, when a
Fisheries Commission explored creating fish hatcheries to boost sturgeon and other fish populations.
Concerns of extinction led to sturgeon fishing being completely banned in 1915, but lobbying by sportsmen’s organizations led to the limited February spearing season opening in 1931 on Lake Winnebago. Regulations have changed slightly over the years since but have always kept careful monitoring of the sturgeon population front and center.
Nowadays the spearfishing season lasts 16 days or until a harvest cap is met – catches are registered and the total updated daily. The cap varies; last year it was 1,200 males, 950 females and 430 juvenile females. Spearfishers need a license and fishing is only open 7 a.m.-1 p.m. during that period. The bag limit is one fish, and it must be a minimum of 36 inches. In addition to spearfishing season, there is a hook and line sturgeon season in September, but this is limited to just a few rivers and lakes and doesn’t include Lake Winnebago.
To make sure that sturgeon aren’t poached during their spring spawning season, a program of volunteers called the Sturgeon Guard works with the DNR to monitor the Wolf and Fox rivers. Wearing matching baseball hats, these volunteers, many of them retired, sit in camp chairs for as long as 12 hours a day, equipped with thermoses of coffee, sandwiches and playing cards, keeping a watchful eye open for sturgeon poachers.
“We believe that there is an international black market that trades in Lake Sturgeon roe generally,” the DNR’s Hoye says. The DNR values lake sturgeon caviar at about $100 per ounce. “We believe that this product is sold and then repackaged and resold to consumers as caviar. If any person believes that Wisconsin lake sturgeon is being bartered or sold, we ask that they contact our confidential hotline.”
Hoye adds that “typically, we issue approximately five to nine violations a year outside of licensing concerns” during spearfishing season.
Those concerns led to a mass investigation by the DNR, working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which started in 2017. A dragnet of about 20 agents, some of them working undercover, was sent to Lake Winnebago to question DNR employees, caviar processors and fishermen. What they found was less a typical gang of criminals than the cast of characters for a Coen brothers movie.
A DNR DRAGNET
Many people are hush-hush on the topic of caviar bartering, but Don Herman is the type of guy who isn’t afraid to share his opinion. He’s a burly man in a plain sweatshirt and jeans and a baseball cap that reads “We the People … ARE PISSED OFF.” People are on “pins and needles,” Herman says, because they don’t want to do the wrong thing – many spearfishers last season opted to dump their sturgeon eggs rather than get them processed because they didn’t want to find themselves in trouble. Several people contacted for this article declined to talk or didn’t reply.
We’re sitting in one of Herman’s businesses, The Fountain Tavern, a small roadside bar right off Highway 45 north of Oshkosh. It’s happy hour and about a dozen regulars, all hunters and fishers, are drinking beer and talking about the recent deer hunting season while they play video poker machines and bar dice. Everyone who exits calls out “Hey, see ya later, Donnie!” Herman also owns another bar and an auto repair shop. His most unique business, though, is SUNK?, which pulls up vehicles that have fallen through the ice every winter.
Herman points out a wall-sized collage of photos in the back room of the bar, a collection of vehicles he’s hauled out of the lake over the years by scuba diving down into the cold waters to clamp them to a winch. “We do maybe 15 to 25 jobs a year. One year I had 72 jobs. It’s always when you have good ice. You’d think it’d be the opposite, but when you got good ice, there’s more people driving everywhere.”
Since Herman is busy plowing and hauling vehicles out of the lake, he doesn’t always have time to spearfish. But he did land a sturgeon back in “’91 or ’92,” he says, and a picture of him with his catch is proudly framed and hanging above the bar. He doesn’t have a taste for caviar, but as one of the area’s better-known fishermen, he knows all about the situation and the people who were charged.
Those include Ann Wendt-Cross’s brother, Shawn, who worked at Wendt’s on the Lake as a bartender; an octogenarian couple, Mary Lou and Victor Schneider, who were lifelong sturgeon enthusiasts and caviar processors; and Ryan Koenigs, the leading Wisconsin DNR sturgeon biologist whom the local news had dubbed the “sturgeon general.” Several other DNR employees and caviar processors are mentioned in the complaints but weren’t charged.
There was no money to follow in the investigation, but they discovered what was described as a routine of bartering that had been passed down in the Lake Winnebago DNR offices. When a spearfisher discovers that they have a roe-bearing female, they can choose to keep the eggs or give them to the DNR for testing. The DNR is then supposed to return the roe to the fisher or, if they don’t want it returned, to dispose of it. But perhaps in theme with the waste-not, want-not attitude of the region, current and former members of the DNR were instead taking the roe to processors who would keep some of the caviar in lieu of payment, which is considered bartering. The rest of the caviar was returned to the DNR employees, who then shared it as a snack at office meetings, placed it out at potlucks and parties at bars, or gifted jars to employees.
“They would bring them to a volunteer party, and they’d have them out,” Herman says. “There’s a lot of people who volunteer for the DNR. They lost people over this. They’d have a sheepshead fry, and they’d have caviar there. There was no money exchanged whatsoever.”
The criminal complaint lays out a story that this sort of arrangement has been taking place with Lake Winnebago DNR employees for some time and that Koenigs had inherited the arrangement from his predecessor, Ronald Bruch. One of the investigation tip-offs was finding a cooler with sturgeon roe at the Oshkosh station, labeled with the name of Arthur F. Techlow III, a former DNR fisheries biologist who was also a caviar processor. Koenigs was passing DNR roe to Techlow, who would return jars of caviar for Koenigs to distribute. Techlow stated that in 2017 he had given Koenigs 36 four- and eight-ounce jars of caviar.
But Koenigs is described by people who know him as one of the most important Wisconsinites in the field of sturgeon conservation. He worked for the DNR for 10 years and along the way contributed to scientific papers on the fish and in 2015 was awarded Fisheries Biologist of the Year award by the Wisconsin Conservation Congress.
“He did a great deal for the sturgeon population. He’s a good guy, and it’s sad how it went because who knows what the future of sturgeon spearing is going to be without him, for real,” Ann Wendt-Cross says. “It’s only hurting the sturgeon with him being gone.”
“He was dedicated. Dedicated, dedicated,” Herman emphasizes. “I mean, he would get up at 3 in the morning to drive up and see if the sturgeon were spawning. He was a dedicated employee, and they did that to him.”
The investigation also stopped by Wendt’s on the Lake. Ann Wendt-Cross shows off a scrapbook at the restaurant of her brother and his friends out on the ice and posing with their sturgeon catch, but when the topic of caviar is brought up, a look of sadness crosses her face.
“It’s not a good conversation because there were a lot of hard feelings,” she says. “It’s just sad. It never should have got to where it went, but people love negativity. It all got dropped, and thank goodness it got put to a halt because they saw the truth in it all.”
Shawn Wendt, according to a criminal complaint, would do a similar barter – he would have roe processed to caviar for people in exchange for keeping a portion (or sometimes for beer or empty jars), which he’d then set out on the bar for customers at Wendt’s, give jars of it to customers for free, or serve it at special parties. Footage of customers chowing down on caviar at a party at Wendt’s was featured in an episode of “Wisconsin Foodie” last year, and Shawn was interviewed in his spearing shanty.
As Wendt-Cross mentioned, her brother’s two misdemeanor charges of unlawfully selling or bartering eggs were dropped as long as he agreed to not process caviar for non-family members without a DNR permit.
The last two investigated were Mary Lou and Victor (“Vic”) Schneider, caviar processors who were 86 and 88 respectively when charged. Along with her husband and brother, Mary Lou helped found an organization called Sturgeon for Tomorrow in 1977 that helped develop sturgeon hatchery programs and other conservation efforts to ensure that spearfishing would be enjoyed by future generations.
Like other roe processors in the area, the Schneiders made the caviar by hand in their kitchen. The sturgeon eggs – squishy and smaller than a pea, only the black eggs are good for caviar – are strained on a piece of mesh into a bucket to separate them from a sticky reddish-pink membrane that holds them together in a massive clump. The eggs are then washed, and blood clots dabbed out using a Q-tip. Canning salt is mixed in by hand, and the eggs are left out to dry before the caviar is funneled into jars.
Mary Lou, who speared her first sturgeon with her father as a teen, had her and her brother’s lures (and shanties) displayed as part of a folk-art exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute, and her art was exhibited in a show called “Ancient Survivors” during Fond du Lac’s Sturgeon Spectacular festival in 2019.
In court, the senior couple were told that if they didn’t commit crimes for a year and did not barter any caviar that the charges against them would be dropped. Victor did not see the end of that period; he passed away in November 2021. His obituary notes he was a truck driver and avid hunter and fisher who “especially enjoyed sturgeon spearing and golf.”
You have to wonder whether investigators were expecting to find bigger fish and more money involved. Every Lake Winnebago region resident interviewed for this article said they understood why the laws exist, but also felt that these were “victimless crimes” and that those targeted were some of the people who cared more about sturgeon conservation than anyone else in the state. To say those involved were just naive of the situation isn’t accurate, though. More likely, the bartering had just become so commonplace that they thought they might get away with it as long as it didn’t turn into a cash racket. According to criminal complaints, the
Oshkosh DNR was warned in 2011 about caviar trading, and one DNR employee “recalled that one year, DNR fisheries ‘shit canned’ all the eggs because the wardens were asking so many questions.” That complaint also states that “Techlow confirmed that he and Koenigs were aware of the issues with their arrangement, and discussed it, but did not stop.”
The complaint alleges that Koenigs did a factory reset on his DNR-issued phone to delete data after being interviewed by the DNR – not a black-market cover-up, but to hide his contact with local caviar processors, locals believe.
“Why the heck would you take a guy down – this was his career; he went to school for it – for a misdemeanor? You gotta be kidding me, that’d be like losing your job for a speeding ticket.”
– Don Herman, Otter Street Fishing Club
Attempts to contact Koenigs went unanswered. Ann Wendt-Cross said her brother “won’t talk about the caviar stuff.”
“I understand it’s illegal to do what they did, but there was no money exchanged. None,” Herman says. “Why the heck would you take a guy down – this was his career, he went to school for it – and you take him down for a misdemeanor? You gotta be kidding me. That’d be like losing your job for a speeding ticket.” Herman’s theory was that after so much was put into the investigation, the DNR needed something to come out of it and that Koenigs became the “fall guy.”
At last February’s meeting of fishing club members out on the lake ice, Herman says, everyone was in agreement that Koenigs shouldn’t lose his job, but he concedes that public sentiment varies outside the sturgeon community. After he stood up for Koenigs on the local news, he got calls from people giving him an earful about supporting a “crime.” Similarly, when the Quinney Fishing Club posted an open letter of support for Koenigs, some commenters voiced opposition, saying they wouldn’t support DNR members telling them that something was illegal, then doing it themselves. One commenter posted: “If it would have been anyone who spears, you know damn well they’d get a huge ticket.”
In June, Koenigs was convicted of resisting a conservation warden in Winnebago County, and fined $50, and in July he was convicted on the same charge in Calumet County and fined $500. He resigned from his position at the DNR the same day. According to Herman, Koenigs now works at his family’s vehicle parts shop, the same job he had while he worked his way through college to become a biologist. Hoye says an interim “sturgeon general” for Lake Winnebago, Aaron O’Connell, is in place.
Herman says that the fishing clubs once had a harmonious relationship with the DNR – gladly participating in volunteer work, fundraisers, and even bought and built boats for the DNR, “but now the damage is done.”
“The fishing clubs now, we don’t want to do any of that [volunteering],” Herman says. “I don’t think anyone is going to stop ice fishing. But you know what you’re gonna lose? Data on sturgeon – they’re not going to have the volunteers to do it.” Herman is hopeful that those relationships will rebuild over time.
There might be a bigger issue in the future. After a 2018 petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, the federal government is now considering putting lake sturgeon on the endangered species list. It’s unclear what that would mean, but Hoye says there is “potential for distinct population segments to be established,” and the DNR is “providing data and documents on the status of Wisconsin’s lake sturgeon population,” so Lake Winnebago’s spearfishing season could be preserved.
But it also means that in the future, the Shangri-La village of ice shanties might disappear into the winter winds. Meanwhile, the ancient fish will continue to swim along in Lake Winnebago, oblivious to all the human drama above them.