Lake Winnebago sturgeon flashbacks, folk art

Mary Lou Schneider, thanks for the flashbacks.

On a wintry Sunday morning in the 1960s. I walk two blocks from church to the little general store in Glenbeulah and wait an hour for my father, who doesn’t arrive. A neighbor eventually retrieves me and chuckles during our four-mile drive back to Hulls Crossing:

“Your dad sure loves his ice fishing.”

On a frigid Friday in the 1970s, my father drives to my Oshkosh college dorm in his blue Chevy pickup and announces we’re taking a new way home. We veer onto frozen Lake Winnebago from Highway 45 and follow it across, taking twice the time to travel half the miles.

Discarded Christmas trees were the ice road’s markers back then, just as they are now.

During a miserable summer in the 1990s, I watch two hungry antique hounds at the family farm, scrounging the remnants of my parents’ lives. I’m pretty sure the skimmers, tip-ups and spears were a part of their meager bounty.

I don’t remember who took the ice shanty with the little stovetop pipe poking from the top. Or the scrappy snowmobile, bought not to zoom the trails but to haul that shanty on and off the big lake.

My father invited me to join him on Winnebago just once, and I was amazed at how warm the shanty was on a subzero day. But the best part was having a choice of soda or candy bar afterward, at a lakeside tavern that doubled as a fish registration station.

He swapped fish tales. I was bored out of my mind.

Years later, my father’s buddy made a corny sign for the shanty: Sturgeon General. The Old Man crinkled into a big grin when he showed me that one.

I kind of rolled my eyes, not really having a clue – until now – about how deeply he cared about a fishing culture and tradition that we tend to ignore or take for granted in Wisconsin. But it is remarkable and unique to the world.

The annual sturgeon-spearing season opens Feb. 9 and lasts up to 16 days. No place on Earth legally harvests more sturgeon for the sport of it than lakes Winnebago, Winneconne, Butte des Morts and Poygan.

The fish is big – the state record is 84.2 inches long and 212.2 pounds – and prehistoric. It’s lasted longer than the dinosaur. It can longer than 100 years. And it almost went extinct in the early 1900s.

“To look at a sturgeon is to gaze back at an ancient world,” explains “People of the Sturgeon: Wisconsin’s Love Affair with an Ancient Fish” (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2009). The original hardcover book recently was released as a $25 paperback.

Most of the planet’s 27 species of sturgeon are threatened or endangered, but not in Wisconsin. Smart and ongoing fish management practices make our lake sturgeon population one of the world’s largest, healthy enough to support a recreational harvest.

And the sturgeon fishermen? They eagerly spend hours in their dark shacks, day after day, monitoring fish movement through holes cut into the ice. Strength, precision and reaction time are crucial if one appears because a barbed-steel spear, tied to rope, zooms into the abyss.

All this makes sturgeon fishermen nearly as unusual as their prospective catch.

Concentration, darkness, silence and decoys make the difference – which brings us back to Mary Lou Schneider, who lives near Fond du Lac and speared the first of about two dozen sturgeon as a teen. She lives in the house where she was born and is known for her folk art: fish decoys.

The first was a recycled bowling pin, which she says got her a 107-pound sturgeon less than one hour after dropping it into the lake.

She and brother Bill Casper were invited to bring fish decoys (and their ice shanties) to a Smithsonian Institute folklife exhibit 20 years ago in Washington DC. Now her work and others’ fill “Ancient Survivors” – an exhibit about sturgeon art, culture, history and conservation – at Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts, Fond du Lac, until March 2.

Decoys hang from the ceiling, a suspended collage of the colorful and the dull, the pristine and the battered, the weather-beaten and the thickly shellacked.

“They like a little something shiny,” someone remarked at the opening reception, to nods of consent. One decoy was simply of attached coffee cans, but when I say most look too pretty to use, the reply is “nah, they’re weatherproofed.”

Schneider turned 85 on the day “Ancient Survivors” opened, a few days after we met through a phone call. She slipped me a little gift: a wooden refrigerator magnet, shaped like Lake Winnebago, with her hot-glue version of a swimming sturgeon in the middle.

“Just a little something that I do” for fun, she explained. They also are for sale at Wendt’s on the Lake, Van Dyne, and other spots popular with fishermen.

I thought that was it, until my own fishing – for family artifacts – began back home. I figure my dad speared at least eight sturgeon, thanks to snapshots with dates and his own handwriting on the back. One was harpooned a few months before my birth, and the one he tagged at age 68 likely was his last.

He liked hanging some of those sturgeon from the top of my swing set, probably so the neighbors could see. Besides the fading images, I found a stashed-away fish decoy, held back from the antique hunters all those years ago.

The yellow fish with silver spots has a red smile. On the belly, I was delighted to discover a little outline of a duck and the initials M.L.S. It matched the back of that sturgeon magnet.

The artist laughed when I called to share the news. “I never had a logo at the beginning,” she says, “but my husband was always real good at drawing a duck with just one (nonstop) line,” so that became her insignia too.

Admission is free to “Ancient Survivors” at the Thelma art center in downtown Fond du Lac.

The exhibit is part of this year’s Sturgeon Spectacular, Feb. 5-10, a winter festival with multiple sturgeon and ice-fishing themes and activities, fun and educational for all ages.

Sturgeon for Tomorrow members and other volunteers help ensure the health and protection of lake sturgeon as a species in Wisconsin. Many are sturgeon guards during the spring spawning season because the fish eggs are valuable.

Wisconsin law prohibits the sale of sturgeon or the roe. To learn more about sturgeon, spearing, conservation and regulations:

For more about the book “People of the Sturgeon,” which also is available in audio, check out Authors are Kathleen Schmitt Kline, Ronald Bruch and Frederick Binkowski.