For 30 years, Richard Kolarik faithfully ventured onto frozen Lake Winnebago for the sturgeon spearing season.
And for 30 years, he never saw a lake sturgeon swim past his hole in the ice.
Until this year.
Armed for the first time with a permit to spear on nearby Lake Poygan, where the odds are better at both seeing and spearing a sturgeon, the 81-year-old Denmark resident postponed hip surgery to head out onto the ice once more, this time with his brother, Bill, 64.
And this season proved successful, as Kolarik not only saw sturgeon but came away with one measuring 45.4 inches and 18.7 pounds.
“I can’t even tell you how happy he was,” Bill said. “Dick went into that shack 81 years old, and when he came out with that sturgeon he was 46 years old. I haven’t seen Dick smile like that in 30 or 40 years.
“I showed a picture to my sister, who’s 78 years old, and she said she hadn’t seen Dick smile like that in years either. He was one elated boy. He’s probably still smiling.”
Richard speared his sturgeon mid-morning on Feb. 15, three days before the season ended on the Upriver Lakes. Richard saw his first three sturgeon on opening day but didn’t catch a glimpe of any over the next five days.
“I wasn’t too worried,” Richard said. “Since I had seen a few on the first day I was thinking I might see another one.”
On the seventh day, they did. Bill spotted the sturgeon about six feet down in eight feet of water, prompting Richard to grab his spear and throw it toward the fish.
“I hit it right in the head,” he said. “The fish wiggled right when we got it out of the water and the spear came out (it was in by one tine), so it’s good my brother was there to gaff it.
“I was just so excited and felt warmed up that I got one. I was hoping this would be my year. When I won the lottery (his permit for Lake Poygan), I told the doctor my surgery would have to wait. So I’m glad it worked out.”
Richard was one of 479 people to receive a license to spear on the Upriver Lakes, which include Lake Poygan. Comparatively, 12,411 people had licenses for nearby Lake Winnebago, which is much larger and deeper. Overall, spearers came from 70 Wisconsin counties and 32 other states.
Bill speared three sturgeon over the previous three decades, so he was determined to support his brother again this year, especially since he was spearing on the Upriver Lakes.
“I wanted to make sure Dick got a sturgeon, because the odds there are better than on Lake Winnebago,” he said. “I didn’t care if I got to go sturgeon spearing or not, but I wanted to make sure Dick got a sturgeon if he saw one.
“When that sturgeon came right down below us between his legs, he fired the spear at it. I was so happy for him.”
Ryan Koenigs, the Winnebago System sturgeon biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said it’s nice to see people like Richard spear their first sturgeon.
“Every season we hear from people that have been spearing for 20-plus years and are either registering their first fish or have never seen a fish,” Koenigs said. “The relatively low success rate during the spear fishery makes it even more special when a fish comes through that hole and a spearer fills their tag.
“Literally, every fish should be viewed as a trophy because it takes so much effort and good fortune to be successful.”
The Winnebago System is home to one of the world’s largest self-sustaining populations of lake sturgeon, with an estimated 40,000-plus adult fish. They can grow to more than 200 pounds, making them the largest fish in the Great Lakes. And they are considered living fossils since they have survived, virtually unchanged, for more than 100 million years.
Richard was raised on a 16-Holstein dairy farm in Stangelville. After graduating from Kewaunee High School, he began working at a cheese factory in nearby Ellisville. He frequently got together with friends “and we’d put a little boat on top of the car and go fishing somewhere.”
Later in life, Richard was encouraged by Bill to experience sturgeon spearing. At the time, Bill was an industrial arts teacher in Chilton and one of his students persuaded him to head out onto the ice.
Both Richard and Bill have been hooked on sturgeon spearing ever since.
“I’ve gone every year since I started,” Richard said. “Most of the time I went at least half of the days the season was open because I really wanted to get one. Never seeing one can get frustrating, but it’s a challenge. The whole thing is a challenge. It’s not easy. When the visibility isn’t good, it’s like staring into a pan of dirty dish water for hours hoping for a fish to swim past.
“Sometimes it’s one of the most boring sports. But there’s always the chance a sturgeon might swim past you when you aren’t expecting it. So you have to be ready for that moment.”
He capitalized on that moment this year.