It’s 9:30 a.m. on Saturday—a chilly, dull, February day in Wisconsin. It’s the kind of day when you could pop your head out of an ice shack and not be sure if it’s morning or late afternoon. Ron Bruch is circling Lake Winnebago in his pickup truck, making the rounds to all of the registration stations dotted around the lake, many of them in the parking lots of local bars and restaurants. He pulls into Wendt’s on the Lake, where he raps on the door of a tiny, heated trailer and heads inside to chat with the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) workers. The small space is teeming with jokes, fish stories, and five-alarm chili. Ron helps himself to all of it. It’s the second weekend of spearing season, and everyone seems to be in high spirits, especially Ron.
Back in the truck, he tunes the radio to 1530 AM, where Jerry Schneider is rolling out polka music all morning long and broadcasting news of successful spearings in between tunes. “When I was a boy, we’d spend our summers up north in Butternut, where my family is from,” Ron says as he turns down the joyful cries of a concertina. “My dad and I would go fishing for walleye on the Flambeau River, and every now and then we’d see a sturgeon jump out of the water. It really made an impression on me. But never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d be working with them like this.”
In fact, Ron’s position is one of only a handful of such jobs in the entire world—managing a self-sustaining population of sturgeon, healthy enough for an annual season of recreational fishing or, in Wisconsin’s case, spearing. Across the globe, in Russia and Iran, sturgeon are pursued for their eggs, the source of an exotic delicacy to be enjoyed by the wealthy. But here in Wisconsin, lake sturgeon belong to everyone, and they’re revered for what they are and have been for millions of years: a tough, old fish.
“A few years ago I was at one of the registration stations, and one of the guys who came in—Don Burg from Chilton—told us about how his great-uncle used to spear with the Stockbridge Indians on Lake Winnebago in the early 1900s,” Ron continues. “I went home that night thinking about what a great story that was and how there are probably a lot more memories and stories out there that might be lost if we don’t collect them.”
At another stop along the lake, a man in Cargill overalls and a Polaris jacket beams as the DNR workers hoist a four-foot frozen sturgeon up onto the scale.
“That’s my first in twelve years,” the spearer proudly declares. Implicit in his statement is twelve seasons staring into a hole in the ice, straining to see a long, dark shadow and seeing nothing. Twelve years of sitting in the dark, dangling decoys, waiting. And twelve years isn’t even a long time for some other spearers. It’s this type of devotion and perseverance that makes this population of fish, above all other creatures in the state’s boundaries, a rare gem—one that is envied and eyed the world over. And Ron Bruch is only one of many in Wisconsin working diligently to safeguard it.