Local sturgeon rites
I drive past the Wolf River Sturgeon Trail, along County X west of New London, twice a day and it usually has people walking or fishing on it.
This time of year, however, it is crowded with people drawn by the sturgeon spawning along the shoreline of the trail.
The trail and enhanced spawning grounds are there because of the joint effort of many area residents, outdoor/service organizations, Waupaca County, state Department of Natural Resources and other sources of funding – local, county, state and federal.
This was a vision I wrote about in my initial column on sturgeon spawning in 1965 – my first spring in New London.
At that time there was no trail, limited spawning area and County X had a serpentine course along the south shore of the Wolf River between New London and Northport bridge.
There was a bridge upriver from where the culverts are and white posts and cable formed a safety barrier between the road and river where much of the trail is now located.
It was the first time meeting Dan Folz, then stationed in the basement of the old Waupaca County Courthouse. Dan, who played basketball at the University of Wisconsin, had to fold his 6-foot-9-inch frame to get to his office because of the low ceiling in that building.
“He still does stoop a lot,” said Ryan Koenigs, the current designated Winnebago Sturgeon Biologist. “We are glad ‘Papa Sturgeon’ is here.”
The first time I met Dan was in 1965 at a bend of the river, a coffee can of sturgeon eggs at his feet. He was a fish biologist acting as interim sturgeon guru until being named Winnebago Sturgeon biologist in 1974.
Decades of poaching vulnerable spawning sturgeon put it on a critical list, adding to the importance of studies and protecting it.
The eggs were used in a search for a catalyst to hatch sturgeon for planting. Years later it was found simple clay soil was the catalyst to prevent the eggs, that adhere to the rock surface to be fertilized by the males, from coagulating into an infertile ball.
Fifty years later, Dan is still involved in charting the ancestry of this prehistoric fish. His voice is quieter, his handshake less strong and he is recording the size, sex and other data that has bit-by-bit accumulated providing vital information in managing this fish – so vulnerable at this time of their lives.
Dan delighted handling the net, capturing a sturgeon in the webbing and wrestling it out of the water and up the steep bank for somebody else to measure, take a sampling from a fin and tag it before sliding back into the river.
“It is good to have Dan here,” said Ron Bruch, who succeeded him as sturgeon guru.
Bruch was there when, in addition to tagging the fish, some had telemetry attached that gave the DNR ability to track sturgeon and record activity and habits unknown at that time.
A television news woman asked if I wanted to go on camera.
“I think a youngster would be a better reaction,” I suggested.
The ideal interview was talking with Folz as I approached.
They were grandparents, who had assisted with sturgeon watches and tagging years ago, introducing their great grandson to this spring ritual. A few months earlier he spent time in a shanty during the spearing season.
I regretted not taking the opportunity to reflect about Dan Folz and the dynamic cooperative effort responsible for the Sturgeon Trail.
There is more work to be done.
Replacing the culverts carrying water into the Mukwa Marsh spawning area is on the Waupaca County Highway Department to do list.
Bruch, while helping land one of the male fish, studied the shore below. “We are going to need more rock to keep the spawning area viable,” he said.
Bruch always cautioned “we learn something new” when asked about the state of sturgeon studies during several decades of interviews for the annual spring story.
Ron’s speculation about size and age of sturgeon in the Winnebago System was confirmed two years ago when his crew netted a 7-foot, 3-inch, 240-pound female at the Shawano Dam – the limit spawning fish can go upriver.
The fish was estimated at 125 years old.
That is a lot of fish – tail and all.