Fish Out Of Water
Bon Appétit|March 2017

What draws people to isolate themselves in shanties on a frozen lake in hopes of spearing a massive sturgeon? Julia Kramer goes fishing.

Julia Kramer

What draws people to isolate themselves in shanties on a frozen lake in hopes of spearing a massive sturgeon? Julia Kramer goes fishing

I. HOW TO DRIVE ON A FROZEN LAKE

Just to be safe, do not wear a seatbelt. Watch for heaves: ridges of snow indicating that the ice below it has cracked, like the fault line of an earthquake. When you get to a heave, drive alongside it until you find a bridge. In the context of Lake Winnebago in February, a “bridge” is two parallel metal tracks strong enough to support the weight of a pickup, laid down across particularly gaping holes in the ice. And keep the windows rolled down. So you can get out. Just in case the rental car you’re un-seat belted into hits a crack in the ice and plummets into freezing water.

That is the advice given to me—a Chicago-born 30-year-old who has never regular-fished, let alone ice-fished—by the people of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. And it is the advice that I followed over the course of the three days I spent pondering my mortality on a 215-square-mile lake.

I was here for the opening weekend of the annual sturgeon-spearing season. For generations men and women have hauled homemade plywood-and-sheet metal structures called shanties onto this frozen-over lake, sawed holes into the ice, and held out hope that this will be the year—the year they spear a sturgeon that could weigh upward of 100 pounds. The tradition has little to do with actually eating the fish; it’s a sporting event and a community gathering. In that spirit, the Fond du Lac Area Convention and Visitors Bureau began organizing an accompanying festival in 2016 called the Sturgeon Spectacular. The activities advertised to locals included an ice hockey game, a fat-tire-bike race, a chili crawl, live polka music, a 5K run, Siberian dog–sled rides, and a bonfire.

I expected these festivities to take place on the type of picturesque small town lake we used to go pontooning on at summer camp in Wisconsin. What I encountered, driving in on Highway 41, was a stomach-dropping subarctic landscape: a desolate abyss, with metallic huts scattered on the deserted ice like “Oregon Trail” wagons abandoned after a cholera epidemic.

What, again, was I doing here? It all went back to a night in a dive bar in Milwaukee a few years earlier, when I first heard about the spearing season. I became fascinated by the idea that sturgeon—often prized for their caviar— were not only a delicacy in Russia but also important to a community just over two hours north of where I grew up. So one day I called the visitors’ bureau, spoke with some very nice people, and received the names of a few folks in the area who might be willing to host a visitor to the land of the lake sturgeon.

This is how I ended up at the home of landscape designer Paul Muche. He drove me out onto the lake in his GMC pickup, icy air streaming in through the rolled-down windows with the gusto of a million freshly bought A/C units. On my drive up from Milwaukee, I’d pulled off the highway at an REI, swaddling myself in Smartwool socks and intensely warm boots. I thought I was prepared.

Muche parked the truck next to a shanty he was setting up for his 12-year old son and grabbed his chain saw from the back seat. Within five minutes of stepping onto the ice, my fingers went numb, the ink in my pen froze, and I can only imagine what thoughts must have run through Muche’s head when he saw me take out my iPhone and hold it up in the air, recording a video of him for a solid ten seconds before my device promptly shut itself down. I brought out my recorder, hoping it might pick up more than just the howling of the wind. (It didn’t.) There was nothing I could do but watch as Muche wielded a chain saw through 16 inches of ice, carving out a rectangular fishing hole. Sturgeon-spearing season started at dawn the next morning.

II. HOW TO SPEAR A STURGEON 

Sturgeon in Lake Winnebago cannot be “caught.” The only legal way to obtain one is with a spear: Think six-foot-long, 15-pound, five-pronged pitchfork. The spearhead is attached to a rope, which is essential for pulling up a massive fish fighting for its life.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM BON APPÉTITView All

Thank You, God, For This Food. Amen

Rembert Browne on learning how to be black, one Thanksgiving at a time

10+ mins read
Bon Appétit
November 2017

Salt Of The Earth

How Did Maldon Become the One Name-brand Ingredient Every Chef and Home Cook Can Agree on? Nick Paumgarten Travels to the Marshe of Essex, England, to Sift for Some Answers.

10+ mins read
Bon Appétit
April 2017

Put An Egg On It

We’re living in an egg-topped age, folks. Rice bowls. Toast. Pasta. Salads. Whether crispy-fried or jammy-yolked, lovingly poached or boiled and cured, the humble egg has gone from breakfast staple to an all-day superstar, and we’ve got the recipes and tricks you need to get in on the fun.

6 mins read
Bon Appétit
April 2017

That One Time I Nearly Destroyed The Family Business

Owner of Night + Market and Night + Market Song in Los Angeles.

3 mins read
Bon Appétit
March 2017

Fish Out Of Water

What draws people to isolate themselves in shanties on a frozen lake in hopes of spearing a massive sturgeon? Julia Kramer goes fishing.

10+ mins read
Bon Appétit
March 2017

Don't Worry Eat Happy

Eight years ago nate appleman was an overweight and angry chef. Today he’s 85 pounds lighter and happier than ever. And it all started with a diet of moderation, not deprivation.

10 mins read
Bon Appétit
February 2017

Fermentation Nation

What do labneh,kimchi,kombucha,soysauce,and salami have in common? They’re all infinitely more delicious -not to mention nutritious-thanks to old school curing, pickling,and aging techniques.We cataloged 258 eclectic ferments from 22 restaurants around the country.Here’s a taste of our favorites.

3 mins read
Bon Appétit
February 2017
RELATED STORIES

$1,400 STIMULUS CHECKS HELPED MARCH RETAIL SALES SOAR 9.8%

Newly vaccinated and armed with $1,400 stimulus checks, Americans went on a spending spree last month, buying new clothes and going out to eat again.

2 mins read
Techlife News
Techlife News #494

BIG-BUSINESS PUSHBACK AGAINST VOTING MEASURES GAINS MOMENTUM

Big business has ratcheted up its objections to proposals that would make it harder to vote, with several hundred companies and executives signing a new statement opposing “any discriminatory legislation.”

4 mins read
Techlife News
Techlife News #494

THE DISABLED HOPE THEIR OSCAR MOMENT CAN BECOME A MOVEMENT

Right down to its production design, the Oscars have not always felt like the most welcoming place for the disabled.

5 mins read
Techlife News
Techlife News #494

A $1.2 BILLION LOSS FOR DELTA, BUT RECOVERY IS ON THE RADAR

Delta Air Lines lost $1.2 billion in the first quarter, more than expected, but executives said Thursday that the airline could be profitable by late summer if the budding recovery in air travel continues.

3 mins read
Techlife News
Techlife News #494

USERS COULD SOON HIDE ‘LIKE' COUNTS ON INSTAGRAM, FACEBOOK

The tiny red hearts that appear under Instagram photos of kids, kittens and sandwiches can be a source of stress for many users, an insidious way of measuring self-worth and popularity.

1 min read
Techlife News
Techlife News #494

DRIVERS WANTED: RECORD DEMAND AT UBER AS VACCINATIONS RISE

Uber is offering sign-up bonuses and other incentives for drivers as it faces record demand for rides and meal delivery.

2 mins read
Techlife News
Techlife News #494

US RECOMMENDS ‘PAUSE' FOR J&J SHOTS IN BLOW TO VACCINE DRIVE

The U.S. recommended a “pause” in use of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to investigate reports of rare but potentially dangerous blood clots, setting off a chain reaction worldwide and dealing a setback to the global vaccination campaign.

5 mins read
Techlife News
Techlife News #494

COINBASE SOARS IN MARKET DEBUT, VALUED NEAR $86 BILLION

Coinbase made a rousing debut on Wall Street Wednesday, with shares of the digital currency exchange rising as high as $429, briefly giving it a market value over $100 billion.

3 mins read
Techlife News
Techlife News #494

GOOGLE EARTH ADDS TIME LAPSE VIDEO TO DEPICT CLIMATE CHANGE

The Google Earth app is adding a new video feature that draws upon nearly four decades of satellite imagery to vividly illustrate how climate change has affected glaciers, beaches, forests and other places around the world.

2 mins read
Techlife News
Techlife News #494

The Food Fight in Fake Meat

Beyond Meat was an early leader. But rival Impossible Foods and others want to eat its lunch

6 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
April 19, 2021