THREE MILES ONTO LAKE WINNEBAGO, WIS. - America's greatest conservation success story might not be the return of the eagle, the wolf or the peregrine falcon. More likely it's a fish, and a disagreeable-looking one at that, the lake sturgeon.
Or what Wisconsin's Menomonie Indians call nama'o.
Paradoxically, the rebirth of these 150-million-year-old critters in this huge lake has depended on people who love nothing more on a winter's day than to send a razor-sharp spear into chilled water, hoping to stick a sturgeon.
So it has been as long as people have lived on Winnebago's shores, or along the banks of rivers flowing into it.
The other day, on Winnebago, Paul Muche of Fond du Lac, Wis., was in a shanty staring into a large watery hole. The sturgeon's 16-day season was winding down, and relatively few people were on the ice, in part because 20 pickups had dropped into the lake during a recent warm spell, and one spearer had died.
Still, peering into the water in Muche's shanty, waiting for a sturgeon to appear, was mesmerizing, in an anxious sort of way -- like staring at a TV test pattern while waiting for a real live monster to leap from the screen and grab you.
Also in the shanty was Karen Rediske, Muche's aunt. She too was transfixed by the water, and it returned her reflection. Hanging nearby were spears, 8 feet or so in length, their sharp steel tines submerged beneath the water, an important detail if a sturgeon appeared.
"When a fish swims into the hole, you don't want to spook it by moving the spear around too much,'' Muche said.
As popular as deer hunting is in Wisconsin, sturgeon spearing hereabouts is equally so. More lifestyle than sport, it's equipment-intensive: Four-wheel-drive pickups. Long-barred chain saws. Shanty heaters. Portable LP tanks. Decoys. And, of course, spears. All are needed.
"The spears are made by different people around the lake,'' Muche said. "Each is a little different.''
First designated as a game fish in Wisconsin in 1905, the lake sturgeon by 1915 was protected altogether, its population depleted. All harvesting was banned.
Not everyone got the word. Or wanted to hear it. Reviled by white settlers because they tore up handmade commercial fishing nets, sturgeon in the 1800s were considered garbage with fins, and their carcasses, when unwrapped from nets intended for walleyes and other table fish, were stacked on shore by embittered commercial fishermen.
Later, the opposite occurred. Sturgeon and particularly their eggs were valued so much that poachers nearly wiped them out. Many thought their eventual extinction from Winnebago was certain.
Before statehood, the Menomonie had enjoyed consistently high sturgeon populations, in part because they and other Indians in the area were relatively few, and the pressure they put on sturgeon was low. They speared through the ice in winter. But more intensively, the Menomonie speared Lake Winnebago sturgeon in spring when they ran up rivers to spawn, particularly when they crowded by the thousands in the Wolf River, near Shawano.
Shawano is 125 miles from Lake Winnebago.
Oshkosh, leader of the Bear Clan of Menomonie, in the mid-1800s successfully resisted efforts by the federal government to move his people to Minnesota, in part because of the rich resources available to them in Wisconsin, including sturgeon. The Indians not only ate the sturgeon and their eggs fresh, they smoked the big fish for consumption months later.
But hard times would beset Lake Winnebago's sturgeon during much of last century, and following decades of legal overharvest and poaching, Bill Casper had had enough.
Casper, a machinist who had grown up on the east side of Winnebago, didn't throw a single spear in the winter of 1977. Winnebago was dead sturgeon water, he thought. Or nearly dead. So he organized a group called Sturgeon for Tomorrow, which in the years since has pushed for better management, a cleaner Lake Winnebago and, particularly, for protection from poachers of spawning fish.
Muche is one of thousands of Sturgeon for Tomorrow members.
"We have banquets around the lake, raise money and volunteer to guard spawning fish,'' he said.
As he spoke, Muche's cell phone rang. John Wilkens, one of a small gang of spearers who had ventured onto Winnebago with Muche in the half-light of early morning, was calling.
"All right!'' Muche said. Wilkens had stuck a sturgeon.
The fish would be one of five speared Thursday near where Muche and his bunch were collected in shanties a few miles offshore from Oshkosh.
Spearing ends each day at 12:30 p.m., and harvested fish must be registered by 1:30 at one of a handful of DNR stations around the lake. Each fish is sexed and aged, with females managed separately as juveniles and adults, and harvest quotas set for each, and for male fish.
So well is Wisconsin's new era of sturgeon management working under the watchful eye of DNR expert Ron Bruch that the largest fish ever registered in 79 years of Winnebago spearing was taken last year, a 212-pounder.
Don Muche, 73, Paul's dad, was on the ice Thursday, and at day's end -- meaning the end of spearing -- he was happy enough about the state of his sport.
In a tavern near a DNR registration station, he held forth about the finer points of throwing a spear, which actually isn't "thrown'' at all, he said.
"You slip it into the water and down as close to the sturgeon as you can, then you push it,'' he said, adding:
"Of course, a lot of people get too excited, and miss.''
Editor's note: For more about sturgeon, read, "People of the sturgeon. Wisconsin's love affair with an ancient fish,'' by Kathleen Schmitt Kline, Ron Bruch and Frederick Binkowski, with photos by Bob Rashid. $29.95. Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2009.