Classic rock tunes from the 1980s danced through the crisp darkness at The Bottom of the Lake. Fond du Lac, so named for its precarious position at the southern tip of Lake Winnebago in east central Wisconsin, buzzed with activity and excitement under its frozen crust. Small, chatty groups of people exited their vehicles and traipsed through the snowy, decoratively lit sidewalks, drawn like moths toward the warm pool of light and sound inside Lakeside Park. After weeks of preparation, Fond du Lac’s big weekend had finally reached its climax, and I intended to be a part of it.
Lake Winnebago is one of two locations in the entire nation to offer a legal sturgeon spearing season, and Fond du Lac’s Sturgeon Spectacular festival marks its opening weekend. The celebration is characterized by elements not entirely surprising for a local winter festival. There’s a chili crawl, multiple ice-carving events, the crowning of a festival queen, and live music and performances. Bonfires and party tents over frozen ground or ice are common elements of these gatherings, as I later realized when I witnessed the same thing at a ski/snowshoe race across the frozen surface of Lake Superior during a weekend getaway to the northern part of the state. In this case, though, the main event at the heart of the hooplah was Lake Winnebago’s special form of ice fishing.
For those of you who may not be familiar, a lake sturgeon is a relatively unsightly fish that can grow to be surprisingly large. A local man shown on television today had hauled in a lunker that was over 6 feet in length and weighed more than 140 pounds. In order to wrestle these monsters from the lake’s chilly depths, local ice fishermen cut holes of up to 8 square feet in area in the ice and then spear the fish with long poles. Once the tip of the spear is lodged securely in the giant fish, the pole is detached, and the fisherman uses a rope connected to the spear tip to pull the fish back through the water and onto the ice inside his tiny shack.
The crowd at the event hovered around the giant bonfire outside and swayed shoulder-to-shoulder inside a huge canvas tent, crooning along to covers of old songs…