‘Grandpa Sturgeon’ piqued interest in big fish
By Roger Pitt
There was no trail then. County X snaked along the Wolf River and a “white railing” fence separated much of the road from the river. A bridge let the overflow into the Mukwa Marsh for walleye spawning.
One day a giant of a man, leaning against a tree, a huge landing net and a Hills Brothers coffee can at his feet, caught my eye. Curiosity led to my introduction to Dan Folz, all 6-foot-9 of him.
Folz became my advisor and first tutor on the life, history and future of the sturgeon.
It was during those early days that a vision of a safe place for people to view sturgeon, out of harms way of traffic, and more than a narrow strip of land where the big fish were tagged, measured, had a fin clipped and data recorded.
Later sturgeon had tracking devices attached, revealing data, including some conflicting with theories about moving from the lakes up river to spawn.
Over the ensuing 52 years I have probably written about sturgeon more than 100 times.
Watching the spectacle of huge fish spawning en mass no longer entices me to the rocky shores.
Recently while traveling home, the huge man — sitting in a chair, a towel hanging over his neck and topped by a baseball cap — sparked memories of my first day of school.
It is not the sturgeon, but “Grandpa Sturgeon” that attracts me to the Wolf River Sturgeon Trail. Folz earned that nickname because of his years studying and protecting sturgeon.
“Hi old friend,” Dan said, as I approached. Extending a once powerful hand, that for years manned nets and wrestled 100 pound fish out of the water.
We briefly relived our personal history, beginning with the first meeting.
Like old men the discussion turned to our health and how things like walking and staying upright are an everyday challenge.
In 1964, Dan was relatively new to the state Department of Natural Resources and his office was in the basement of the old Waupaca County Courthouse. The ceilings were low and Dan needed to walk stooped over to navigate the halls.
At our first meeting he explained the can was an experiment to raise sturgeon in a hatchery. Those first tests were at Rev. W. E. Lange’s trout farm near Northport and had been failures because the eggs would coagulate and not hatch.
Experiments found using clay as a catalyst prevented that problem. It has enabled stocking other waters with the goal of creating natural spawning sites.
That was basically my introduction to Sturgeon 101 and Dan Folz.
Ron Bruch took over the sturgeon program when Folz retired. Their relationship is like a father and son, enjoying time together and a passion for sturgeon.
Ron continued and expanded the encyclopedia on sturgeon during his illustrious tenure. He also was at the recent meeting on the trail, manning the net and giving statistics to Dan, chronicling data, essential in an ongoing study predating 1964.
Ron said he is doing well coping with an illness that forced his early retirement.
He was instrumental with the trail project that was a joint effort of local citizens and organizations, Waupaca County, DNR and other state and federal agencies as the Wolf River Sturgeon Trail Committee.
My favorite sturgeon area has changed during the years.
County X was rebuilt, eliminating some of the twists in the road. The white railing that consisted of heavy cable strung post-to-post, was replaced with a modern metal guard rail.
The rebuilt road had no bridge for water to overflow. A culvert was installed after water backed up flooding New London. Recently, a double culvert allowing more water to flow into the marsh, was installed.
Folz and Bruch led the scientific research for nearly 50 years.
Curt Sommer, my friendly barber, filled in the local history — including poaching sturgeon for its expensive caviar. He introduced me to many of the poachers, who became friends, and avid defenders of sturgeon and walleye in subsequent years.
Many became the most avid and dedicated benefactors in protecting the sturgeon and walleye. The Wolf River and Bamboo Bend sturgeon trails and improved spawning areas also became a reality because of their support.
“Grandpa sturgeon” and Ron are greatly responsible for that change.
Despite my fascination and long history writing about it, I have not tasted sturgeon nor caviar.