Two hundred years ago, the French fur traders were taking millions of beaver, muskrat, lynx, bobcat, wolves, and other canines in the forest regions of Minnesota. They also observed the native Indian tribes, who were taking big fish through the ice, with crude spears. Big fish, they were, of all species, but in particular, the northern pike. The fur trappers augmented their principally meat diet with the fish, by their adoption of the spearing techniques.
The sport of spearing the northern pike continues today. It was at a high back in the depression days of the 1930s when many a family was not getting much red meat. The big fish from our ice-covered lakes were a much-needed supplement toward daily family meals. Spearing was something that everybody did.
Fifty years ago, there were few, if any protestors. Today the animal rights people, the protestors who want to ban hunting and fishing are on the shore screaming that spearing the northern is cruel and barbaric.
Protestors are claiming that wildlife, including fish, have a soul, though not immortal, as does man. But they claim that fish can feel pain when hooked in the mouth, and of course, when struck in the back by the spear thrust at them.
Every small town in northern Minnesota has its spearing advocates. Perhaps even a few detractors. It is mainly the Minnesotans residing in the metro regions who do not look on spearing as a sport -- although there are many down state spearing enthusiasts who come to Detroit Lakes, Park Rapids, Mille Lacs, Grand Rapids and Brainerd's ice fishing areas.
Many of these men spend hours peering into the blue-green waters in a square hole cut through the ice, with the hope that a big northern will move into the range of the spear.
Some anglers, perhaps summertime fishermen, seem to have an axe to grind. There is some objection by the resort industry. They describe spearing with unprintable adjectives, stating their position in the matter.
The resort industry shows some concern, putting up semi-organized opposition to spearing, presumably because it denies the opportunity for a client to take a big pike when angling. Admittedly, the big fish are indeed, taken by spearing in the wintertime, not in the warm months,
Unquestionably, it is true that spearing takes a significant number of large size northerns, often females with eggs. Of course, if the man in the dark house takes these fish in the wintertime, they aren't going to be hatching little hammerhead in the spring. Detractors claim that spearing cuts into the brood stock of the fish.
In the summer months the big northerns are more sluggish. They're not taken by anglers in the numbers that spearing does. The big northern can catch all of the food fish that he wants, and does not need to set his sights on a single, tethered bait fish, or look at your decoy. Your tiny offering on a baited line is probably not what a l6 pound northern wants.
For spearing, the determined fisherman uses a wood and metal decoy. In some instances, it may be a decoy that the man fashioned himself. It is weighted with a lump of lead, inserted into a hole cut into the body. Tethered to a line that fishermen can control, a tempting lure can be made by harnessing a live sucker minnow, a sizeable one, five inches long. The live sucker sees the big northern approaching and becomes active. The non-filament line is holding the decoy, perhaps five or six feet below the low part of the lake ice. A real live action bait is the result, as a big northern treads water a few feet beyond the reach of the spear.
Many fishermen seek out a place on the lake where the depth is nine to twelve feet. With a length of sash cord the spear is kept in control so that it can be retrieved after the thrust toward an incoming pike.
At this lake depth, the spear will pin a northern to the bottom, impaling it on the spear, and the fish will not be lost. The undersized "hammer handles" are permitted to swim past. Many of these wouldn't be able to take a bait the size of your sucker minnow,
It is exciting indeed, to watch a big northern wait a few seconds, then rush forward toward the bait or decoy. You must be ready, positioning the tines of your spear near the bottom depth of the lake ice. Be ready, as the action can be thick and fast. Often the fish will rush in and slam into the bait or decoy. It is exciting indeed, and an accurate throw is needed.
Spearing northern pike through the lake ice is of short duration. The best time is from mid-December toward the end of January. When the ice is not much more than a foot thick.
Ice fishermen, must of course, identify the species. Spearing muskellunge is forbidden. And a muskie has the same general, elongated shape that northern pike have, and quite similar colorations. Walleyes, are far different, so it is inexcusable, and illegal, to take walleye pike by the spearing method.
I do not know whether the practice of spearing northerns through the ice will forever be permitted. The Minnesota DNR encourages it without further endorsement. Spearing is not widely practiced except in the Dakotas, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan. The same ice fishing shanties that darkhouse fishermen use are also adapted to the taking of walleyes, crappie, sunfish and others. But a spear isn't in presence here.
Spearing is not cruel, barbaric, or unsportsmanlike like. Gunning down a duck with a magnum shotgun when the waterfowl is beyond reasonable range of the gun, or sky busting at birds out of range at a pass -- well that's unsportsmanlike in this writer's opinion. Like all hunting and fishing, spearing does require experience and training. It is best to have in your company someone who has done this before. There are lessons to be learned, limitations to be recognized, species identification is necessary. Occasionally a fisherman with a spear is chagrined when he sees that his thrust has resulted in a fish wounded by an ill timed, or poorly aimed thrust, with the fish swimming away.
Spearing a northern pike in the wintertime may be just what you've been waiting for. It may not appeal to you. Accompany someone into a dark house and watch an experienced spearman at work. It just may become your game too.
A good year for outdoorsmen
Minnesota's hunting and fishing enthusiasts completed a very good and very satisfying year in our woods, lakes and streams. Fishing was average again, and one can't do very much about that. Pheasant hunting was a plus with a good opening day, followed by a late surge in December -- if you were brave enough to plunge into the southwestern and western parts of the state and knock on a few farm house doors, for permission. There were pheasants available in the snow-laden dense cattail swamps, and few hunters who were there found any resistant farmland owners. Permission to hunt was easily secured.
Duck hunting didn't materialize to any great extent, yet some did get in on some local successes, particularly early in the mild days of opening day. The goose hunting was pretty good -- very good in the Fergus Falls and the Lac Qui Parle regions. Ruffed grouse was again a disappointment, with early predictions that it was to be quite good. The grouse were not at any peak numbers anywhere in the state.
White tail deer hunting? Well it was good here as one would find in a large part of Minnesota. Some hunters took three deer, using archery, gun and muzzle-loaders for their armament. Our DNR continues to insist that a larger harvest of deer is going to continue to be a requirement, and an aim in management -- the reduction of Minnesota's deer. This is particularly true in the agricultural regions of our state where deer are sometimes extremely abundant, so as to become a problem for farmers with a hungry herd ready to consume part of the harvest.
The Minnesota Department Of Natural Resources (DNR) surprised most everyone with their proposal to reduce the daily allowable limit of walleye from six down to four. Officials say that a reduction in harvest probably will not have much effect on anything. How many anglers catch and retain six walleye in a day of fishing? Not very many I'd venture to say. The DNR plans to have the proposal discussed in January conservation meetings across the state.