An article titled “Fishy Business” from the February issue of Milwaukee Magazine reported on an unusual criminal investigation in the Lake Winnebago area. There, a loose network of spearfishers, current and former Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources employees, and caviar processors were swept up in a case being investigated by the DNR. They were looking for evidence of illegal sale or barter of sturgeon roe for processing into caviar.
As the article was being written, a Freedom of Information Act request was filed with the Wisconsin DNR regarding the case. FOIA requests can typically take months (sometimes even years) to process, and we just received the results — a redacted 156-page document — a few weeks ago. While there aren’t any huge new revelations about the case, it does give a better idea of the scope of the investigation. Ultimately, four people were initially charged, although almost all charges were dropped.
Case title: “Lake Winnebago Sturgeon Roe” also highlights the distinctive Wisconsin nature of the case – photographic evidence includes jars of caviar in an employee refrigerator at a DNR station nestled between hamburger buns and half-empty ketchup and mustard bottles and a photo of the caviar processor phone numbers jotted down on a promotional pad from O’Reilly Auto Parts.
Here are five interesting takeaways from reading the document.
The key figure caught in the crackdown was DNR employee Ryan Koenigs, dubbed in local media the “Sturgeon General”. According to the report, he was part of a culture where “DNR Boys”, as one fisherman called them, collected unwanted sturgeon eggs to turn them into caviar. The salty treat was then taken to employee meetings and local bars for snacking, with whole jars being donated.
Another DNR employee explained it this way: “If the pitcher didn’t want to get it back, ‘basically we distributed ourselves among ourselves and had a good time'”. This, according to the report, sometimes involves putting them “on pizzas”. , etc.” as well as on Ritz crackers, washed down with beer.
They seemed aware that what they were doing was not entirely legitimate. A DNR employee, when asked what happens to the eggs if the harpoons don’t want them: “Aaahhh…ha ha…yeah, I don’t want to…I don’t want to cause anyone trouble whatever, I mean, I think they’re free. to give them to whoever they want.
Another retired MNR employee who worked with Koenigs to acquire sturgeon eggs described an MNR regional manager as “a fussy and upright person” for warning them to destroy the remaining eggs. In 2020, a search warrant was executed on Koenigs’ electronic devices which showed he had been in contact with local caviar processors.
We reported that one restaurant, Wendt’s On the Lake, was investigated for serving free caviar in its bar and at parties. Charges against one of the Wendt family members were later dropped. Rumors of caviar being sold in bars near sturgeon registration stations led the DNR to conduct covert surveillance on and in Jerry’s Bar (in Oshkosh), Boom Bay Bar and Grill (in Larsen), Paynes Point Bar and Grill (in Neenah), and Critter’s Wolf River Sports Shop (in Winneconne) during spearfishing season in 2018.
At Jorgie’s Bar in Berlin, undercover guards saw that “the establishment was crowded with standing room only and very noisy. We observed about four sturgeons on the pool table, all tagged…I spent $7 cash on a secret upgrade while [REDACTED] and I was there. We left the area soon after.
Reports build a narrative that caviar bartering is quite common among processors. Although some processors charge $25-30 per hour for the service, which would be legal, most processors provide the service because they love caviar and want their own supply. The FOIA report reveals that the DNR’s main resource was a woman named Betsy who worked at area universities teaching the Russian language. A DNR employee described her as a “Russian phile” and apparently her secret touch was a method “Russians call ‘malosol’ (little salt or slightly salty).”
Here’s another dish that doesn’t look pretty – in a post, Betsy tells Koenigs that they “should tell his Russian friend Boris about his sturgeon head soup recipe”.
DNR guards investigated Betsy, making an undercover visit, questioning her, and then seizing her electronics as part of a search warrant. Although two octogenarian caviar processors were slapped in this investigation, Betsy did not, even though the report says she lied and likely destroyed evidence.
Interestingly, there is a report from the search warrant evidence review, that the guards found “a thank you note from a sitting Winnebago County judge” for the caviar which was likely obtained by Betsy. “by its illegal barter processing activities”. The note read “Thank you so much for the gift of caviar – my wild palate has never experienced caviar. We look forward to the treatment, thank you for your kindness.”
Most spearfishermen around Lake Winnebago are silent on caviar, a touchy subject they’d rather avoid than say the wrong thing. The report recounts how guards interviewed a longtime DNR volunteer, who admitted “in the past he would buy beers when given eggs, but not in exchange for the eggs, but as a thank you.” This volunteer also says that he heard that there was a thrower saying that he was selling the eggs and that when he saw this thrower he told him that if he heard anyone other than the guy was spreading a rumor like that, he would. have “big problems”.
One of the things we wanted to know with the Fishy Business story is if there is a genuine outdoor black market in caviar tied to Lake Winnebago. The report contains only the faintest hint that there might be suspicious figures lurking in the area in hopes of getting their hands on illegal caviar. The report says:
“Koenigs said that over the past two years they have been asked by people with Eastern European accents how to get a sturgeon or buy one at the Boom Bay check-in,” and another DNR employee reported something similar. But the majority of this survey describes Wisconsin residents who didn’t sell eggs but bartered so they could have a delicious, locally made snack.