By Brendan O'Brien
WINNECONNE, Wis (Reuters) - Dan Loftus, on a mission to spear a sturgeon from the ice-choked waters of Wisconsin's Lake Winnebago, dropped a rubber chicken into the frigid emerald abyss and waited.
The 48-year-old chiropractor from Germantown sat on a lawn chair in the dark and leaned over, staring into the murky water through a hole carved into 10-inch-thick ice as his two buddies gregariously told stories and drank beer behind him.
"It's the most boring thing ever. It's really boring, just watching a hole," Loftus said of his quest. "But it's relaxing."
The trio, huddled in their shanty, were some of the thousands of fishermen to take part in the opening day on Saturday of Wisconsin's brief sturgeon spear season for a hunt that is part outdoor sport and part tradition.
When and if a sturgeon swam into their hole, one of the men was to drop a five-tined spear onto the prehistoric-looking fish. Once the sturgeon is speared, fishermen pull the fish - which could weigh 200 pounds - out of the hole in the ice.
In addition to a 50-pound, 10-foot spear and rubber chicken decoy that attracts the sturgeon, the group was equipped with beer, plates of bacon and eggs for sustenance, and a fair amount of patience.
Carrie Seelow, 30, a first-timer who speared a 155-pound sturgeon that was laid in the back of her pick-up truck, described the adrenaline-fueled moment she speared the fish as one of "pure excitement".
"Don't miss. Don't miss," she said of what was running through her mind as the fish swam below her and her husband Nathan. "My heart's racing. I'm shaking and he's yelling at me and we got it. We got it."
Fishermen cherish the sport not just for the catch but for the camaraderie of sitting in a shanty on the lake with friends and family. If a catch is made, the sturgeon is paraded around to taverns where locals pay tribute by toasting and kissing it.
"It's so special and means so much more than what is seen here," said Matt Woods, 36, a chapter president of Sturgeon for Tomorrow, which helps propagate and conserve the sturgeon population through education.
According to fishermen, it is also a way to pass the time during the dreary winter after the Packer's season has ended.
"There ain't any drug or alcohol that can make you that high when you spear a fish," said Randy Driedl, 31, as the sturgeon he speared earlier in the day lay on a tarp-covered pool table at the crowded Woodeye's Bar and Grill in Winneconne.
SLOW START TO SEASON
According to Department of Natural Resources officials, the year's opening day was weak in terms of the number of fishermen spearing fish and the number of sturgeon caught on Lake Winnebago.
Officials said just 2,197 shanties - less than half of the normal number - were set up on Lake Winnebago, and only 39 fish were speared on Saturday, the lowest opening-day amount since 2007.
One of the reasons for a poor showing on Lake Winnebago was a lack of fishermen. Many regulars decided to stay away because of dangerous ice conditions with temperatures reaching above 40 degrees a week ago in the area.
"Normally you would have twice or three times as many shanties out there," said Kendall Kamke, a Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist based in Oshkosh. "They say it's too dicey."
Another reason for the low catch count was the murky water, making it tough for fishermen to see sturgeon in their holes.
"They are only seeing 8 to 10 feet at best," said Kamke, adding that blooming algae had cut down on clarity. "We didn't have hardly any snow. So sunlight could get through the ice."
Fishermen had much more success on Upriver Lakes, where they set out 418 shanties on Saturday - about 80 percent of the normal amount - and speared 171 sturgeons, the most since 2007.
A record 12,680 sturgeon spear licenses were sold, slightly more than last year and nearly 50 percent more than in 2007. The brief season lasts until February 26 or when a pre-set harvest cap is reached.
One main reason for the growth in popularity of the sport is the Department of Natural Resources' sturgeon harvest management system, which has led to higher harvest caps in recent years and a robust spawning stock in the Lake Winnebago system.
"It's an important part of the cultural fabric around the lake," said Ron Bruch, Department of Natural Resources fisheries supervisor in Oshkosh, who noted a 13 percent success rate for catching a sturgeon on Lake Winnebago.
"It's about going out together as a group and getting beers together and celebrating if someone gets a fish," Bruch said. "It's just a great time."
(Editing By Cynthia Johnston)