Menasha Man Relaunches Springtime Sturgeon Patrol
Fish pirates have largely vanished from the Fox and Wolf rivers in recent decades, but spawning sturgeon from the Winnebago System’s big lakes in east-central Wisconsin still need some watchdogs during their vulnerable journeys of reproduction.
And Don Mielke, 67, is there to help. Mielke, a rural Menasha resident, was disappointed when COVID-19 precautions forced the Department of Natural Resources to cancel its volunteer-based Sturgeon Guard patrols in spring 2020 and 2021. After that two-year absence — and faced with dwindling volunteers, few poaching complaints, and the frustrating logistics of feeding all the guardians — the DNR suspended Sturgeon Guard indefinitely a year ago.
That benching triggered heartburn in Mielke and other long-serving guardsmen. That’s why he vowed Sturgeon Guard would return with the spawning sturgeon this month, and remain a fixture in the years ahead.
Mielke said he understood the DNR’s decision to terminate Sturgeon Guard, but worried endlessly about its absence the past three Aprils. He feared the longer Sturgeon Guard stayed sidelined, the sooner pirates would resume their nighttime raids on these prehistoric fish as they laid and fertilized their eggs in river bends and rocky shallows.
The DNR and the citizens group Sturgeon for Tomorrow created Sturgeon Guard in the late 1980s to deter poachers by stationing two-person teams at spawning sites along the Wolf River and Fox River. The effort proved popular and sparked civic pride in riverside communities. Mielke fears losing that support if Sturgeon Guard remains idle, triggering a return to the indifference of the 1970s and early 1980s.
Big sturgeon were rare back then because many locals tolerated poaching from Lake Butte des Morts to Princeton on the Fox River and Lake Poygan to Shawano on the Wolf River. Combined, those rivers stretch hundreds of twisting, turning miles to and from Oshkosh and Lake Winnebago, home to much of the system’s sturgeon population.
“Growing up, I had an uncle in Shiocton who sometimes fed his 12 kids with sturgeon taken illegally from the Wolf River,” Mielke said. “Those fish were cut up and ready to ship to the big cities. If a shipment got held up, he’d somehow end up with it.
“Poachers didn’t waste those fish, but they put a real dent in the population,” Mielke continued. “That’s why you didn’t see many big sturgeon in the 1970s. During the February spearing seasons back then, phones rang off the wall whenever someone registered a 100-pound sturgeon at Waverly Beach (on Lake Winnebago’s northern shoreline). A 100-pound sturgeon today still isn’t common, but it’s not rare. Sturgeon Guard helped more fish grow old and big.”
Dave Algrem, a retired DNR game warden in Wautoma, spent much of the 1980s patrolling the Wolf River’s woodland marshes in Shawano and Outagamie counties. Algrem recalls Shiocton residents with long “traditions” of poaching walleyes and lake sturgeon each spring.
“The Wolf River around Shiocton still had an outlaw culture during the 1980s,” Algrem said. “The fish pirates ran setlines, snag-hooks and fish-traps; and they viewed DNR citations as a cost of doing business. They even sold hats and jackets embroidered with ‘Shiocton Pirates,’ ‘Wolf River Pirates,’ and ‘Poor Man’s Caviar’ to raise money to pay their fines.”
Algrem thinks that culture has since improved, with most people taking pride in protecting the area’s natural resources. “By the 1990s, Shiocton was becoming a bedroom community for nearby businesses and the Fox River Valley,” he said. “The old culture was dying out, and neighbors quit looking the other way. Sturgeon for Tomorrow helped patrol the river each spring, and poured a lot of money and manpower into helping the DNR with habitat projects.”
Mielke was one of those volunteers, but won’t take sole credit for relaunching Sturgeon Guard. He said the relaunch started during a phone conversation with Ed Goldwin in Montello, who pledged to coordinate patrols along the Fox River near Princeton. Also helping are Josh Reitz, Scandinavia; and Glen Mattern, Menasha.
“The job is too big for one person,” Mielke said. “We can’t do everything the DNR did the past 30 years, like the daily meal and all-night patrols, but we think we’ll make a difference. The DNR also has more electronics and surveillance tools now, so that helps too.”
Mielke takes pride in his 30-plus years of volunteer work with Sturgeon for Tomorrow, and credits the group for buying the $40 Kwik-Trip gift cards that volunteers can earn, based on their time donated. Mielke said his fellow members are also volunteering for patrols, as are high-school icefishing teams and other groups. In addition, Alliant Energy is buying reflective safety vests for volunteers, who will work in pairs and move about their assigned areas to deter poaching.
“I don’t know the extent of poaching activity these days, because we haven’t been out there since 2019,” Mielke said. “I doubt it’s like the old days when poachers used bale hooks to yank sturgeon out of the river, but we don’t want anyone thinking it’s now open season again. A lot of people are out there walleye fishing, and it can be tempting to sneak out a smaller sturgeon. We want them to know we could be watching.”
Sturgeon Guard members, however, are told to observe and report violators, not confront them. “We’ll give our volunteers handouts with FAQs so they can educate people about sturgeon, their spawning behaviors, and why they’re rolling and porpoising alongside each other,” Mielke said. “The last thing we want is someone carrying a gun. They’ll carry a pen, paper and a smartphone with a camera. We tell them to take notes and photos, and call a game warden or the sheriff’s department.
“This is more about protecting sturgeon through education and cooperation,” Mielke continued. “We’ll work on anything that gets kids and families outside, away from their computers.”
If you'd like to volunteer, contact Mielke at (920) 428-1386 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Onlookers crowd the Wolf River’s shoreline below the Shawano Dam to watch spawning lake sturgeon during a recent April. — Patrick Durkin photos
A pod of lake sturgeon roil the Wolf River’s surface while spawning.