NEENAH — Only one thing will keep Jordan Vanderloop off the Lake Winnebago ice this coming weekend.
“If I’m in the hospital having my baby, you probably won’t see me out there for the start of sturgeon spearing,” the town of Holland woman said. “But my due date isn’t until Feb. 20, so I plan to be in the shanty.”
She won’t be the only one, either.
Since 2011, Vanderloop, 28, and her mother, Stacy Frakes, 58, of the town of Vinland and sister-in-law, Becky Frakes, 33, of the town of Neenah have embraced the bonding experience of sturgeon spearing together on Wisconsin’s largest lake.
In a winter outdoor activity most commonly associated with men, the trio are part of a growing group of women venturing onto the frozen lake. They’re doing their part to keep the trend going by bringing Becky’s daughter, Morgan, 3, and Jordan’s daughter, Grace, 2.
The adult trio will be among the 12,979 license and tag holders expected to try their sturgeon spearing luck on Lake Winnebago and the Upriver Lakes (via lottery system) starting Feb. 10. The season lasts 16 days or until harvest caps are met. Licenses were sold to spearers in 71 out of 72 Wisconsin counties and representatives from 32 states and one Canadian province.
The Winnebago System is home to the world’s largest self-sustaining population of lake sturgeon (an estimated 44,000); last year, 847 were harvested, an increase from 703 the year before.
Lake sturgeon can grow to exceed 200 pounds, making them the largest fish in the Great Lakes. They’re considered living fossils since they’ve survived, virtually unchanged, for more than 100 million years.
Dream come true
The rich history of Wisconsin’s sturgeon spearing season, which dates back more than 85 years, motivated Stacy Frakes to purchase her first license and tag for the 2010 season.
She went sturgeon spearing with Dave Frakes, her boyfriend and now husband, starting back in the late 1970s, but she only watched as he ended up spearing several fish over the years. It wasn’t until Stacy read the book “People of the Sturgeon: Wisconsin’s Love Affair With An Ancient Fish” in 2009 that she felt inspired to become actively involved in the state’s time-honored spearing tradition.
“The moment I finished that book, I said to myself, ‘I have to do this,’ ” Stacy said. “After I got my license, I kept thinking about spearing a sturgeon. And the more I kept thinking about it, the more I was getting this clear picture in my head about how everything was going to happen.
“It got to the point where I was telling everybody who’d listen that I’d be out there for one hour and the fish would weigh 84 pounds. Everything was just so very clear in my head. I would wake up at night thinking, ‘This is going to be so easy. I won’t be out there long and it’ll be an 84-pounder.’ “
On opening day in 2010, shortly after getting situated inside a friend’s shanty, Stacy’s dreams came true — literally.
“I was out there less than an hour, and all of a sudden I looked down in the hole and saw an eyeball staring up at me in the water. Some people wait years and never see a sturgeon. And here I was, seeing one right away on the first day of the first year I had a license. I grabbed the spear off the wall and dropped it — and it turned out that I got it!”
Just as she predicted, Stacy’s sturgeon was speared within the first hour and weighed 83.6 pounds. She said it tasted delicious.
Thankfully for Stacy, she speared that sturgeon when she had the chance — in the seven years since that moment she hasn’t seen another one swim past.
But the sturgeon spearing season is about far more than just landing a sturgeon; last year, less than 10 percent of would-be spearers took a fish home. For many people, the season is about camaraderie among family and friends.
Friends and family
Not long after the 2010 sturgeon spearing season, a friend of the Frakes family offered to let Stacy have an old ice shanty that was sitting in his woods.
The following year, in 2011, Frakes was joined in that newly painted pink shanty by her daughter and sister-in-law, all of whom wore matching Team Frakes pink sweatshirts. They have enthusiastically gone sturgeon spearing together ever since (the only exception was 2016, when Jordan gave birth to Grace the day before the season opened).
“I think the sturgeon spearing season is about a time for family to be together,” Stacy said. “You’re all in a confined space without a lot of distractions. You have time to talk about anything you want. We play music, too, and Morgan and Grace dance and we all have snacks and laugh. We have a lot of fun.”
Ryan Koenigs, who leads the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources sturgeon team, said the DNR frequently hears similar sentiments.
“Spearers continually tell DNR staff that it’s the chance to get together with family and friends, to relive old memories and create new ones, that keeps them coming back year after year,” Koenigs said.
For Jordan Vanderloop, those memories harken back to kindergarten, when her father, Dave, picked her up from the bus stop after school and drove them out to the family’s shanty on Lake Winnebago.
“I was a little too young to really understand what sturgeon spearing was all about,” she said. “But I liked going out there with my dad on the snowmobile or four-wheeler. And when I wasn’t staring into that hole looking for a sturgeon, I was playing with my Barbie dolls or coloring books, so I had fun either way.”
Now that she’s older, Jordan said the most fun is opening weekend.
“What really keeps me going is the excitement of those first couple days,” she said. “If I didn’t go out there, I’d miss out on a lot. The camaraderie of the family tradition is a big thing. I couldn’t see myself not doing it.
“Opening weekend, it’s like this town out on the lake. The shanties are everywhere and there are so many people. Everyone is waiting for someone to come running out of their shanty saying they got one. Sometimes it can get a little boring staring down into that hole, your eyes and mind kind of go into a daze. But those first two days, you don’t notice it much because it’s so exciting.”
Fish and the future
Jordan and her sister-in-law, Becky Frakes, said they’d love to see their daughters, Grace and Morgan, continue the family’s sturgeon spearing tradition as they get older. Jordan’s husband, Mark, and Becky’s husband, Jake, also spear in different shanties, as do other friends and family members.
Becky said she feels as energetic as her daughter when opening day of sturgeon season rolls around.
“I go out there really for the pure joy and excitement,” she said. “You never know when one will swim by the hole. I haven’t seen one yet, but you keep going and trying. One day, I will spear a big sturgeon, I know it.”
And how would she feel when that first sturgeon swims past? “I’ll definitely be excited and shocked,” she said.
That same enthusiasm is what keeps Stacy heading onto the ice.
“It’s exciting, but it’s also peaceful,” said Stacy, a member of the board of directors for the Payne’s Point Hook and Spear Fishing Club, one of the sturgeon spearing registration stations.
“A lot of mornings during the week, I’ll go out there before I go to work (as a manager at Holt’s Jewelry in Neenah). I’ll get out of the shower and have a wet head still, and I’ll throw a cap on. A lot of times, I put pajamas back on, get on a winter coat and ride the snowmobile out to the shanty and sit there for two hours and come back in and get ready for work.
“And then I’ll go back out the next day and do it again. I just love sturgeon spearing, and I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.”