COHASSET, Minn. — Mike Best of Deer River calls it the fish that got him “addicted” to spearing northern pike. And he didn’t even spear it himself. He was just a kid.
“My dad speared a 20-pound, 9-ounce pike,” said Best, 60. “I got to carry it on my shoulder back to the landing.”
He doesn’t remember exactly how old he was, but he’s been spearing since he was 10 — 50 years. Best was spearing again on Jan. 7 on Big Jay Gould Lake near Cohasset, where he has his spearing shack set up. He was among some 75 people who had gathered on the lake for a “Family Day on Ice” spearing event sponsored by the Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association.
They had all turned out despite temperatures that fluctuated between 3 below zero and 3 above, with a brisk northwest wind. Across the lake, a couple dozen spearing houses and portable shelters were set up on the ice, warm and toasty inside. A dogsledder and his team gave free rides around the lake. A caterer cooked hot dogs and baked beans out on the ice.
A gaggle of Grand Rapids teenagers drank hot chocolate in a heated shelter. One of them, 13-year-old Brayden Jones, already had speared a small northern pike. But then, he’s been spearing since he was 4.
In a portable pop-up shelter, University of Minnesota student Ellen Best, 23, of Grand Rapids and three college friends watched a plump perch swim beneath Best’s spearing decoy. All had come up for the weekend event.
This was the sixth year of the family-day outing, said Rick Guertin of Grand Rapids, president of the Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association and also the Itasca County chapter president.
“We do this to raise awareness of the sport of darkhouse spearing,” Guertin said, “and secondarily, just to give a boost to area youth and family activity levels, to get the kids active.”
Last year, with temperatures in the 20s, about 120 people came out for the event.
As in angling and hunting, fewer young people are taking up spearing than once did. For the past five years, spearing license sales have averaged about 20,000. That compares to about 50,000 per year going back to the 1960s and 1970s, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Spearing has seen its challenges over the decades. At one time, some angling groups lobbied to abolish spearing, but the sport remained legal.
Into the dark
While thousands of Minnesotans have ice-fished, many never have stepped inside a spearing darkhouse. For starters — this may come as no surprise — it’s dark. Spearers want no outside light entering so they can more easily see into the depths below. They sit in a chair next to a large hole in the ice, sometimes 2 feet by 4 feet or larger. They suspend either a live sucker (in a harness of sorts) or a painted decoy — or both — to attract northern pike. The long-handled spear, with several barbed steel tines, rests within easy reach at the spearer’s side.
Unlike in angling, where the angler watches a sonar device or simply a bobber to detect an interested fish, in spearing the angler relies entirely on observation.
“It requires a lot more patience,” said Paul Nelson of Grand Rapids, fishing from a portable shelter during the family day. “You’re so focused visually. Then, all of a sudden, that fish comes in, and it instantly changes everything. It’s much more like hunting.”
The spearer then must decide whether to send the spear at the fish or let it swim away. Obviously, there’s no catch-and-release opportunity in spearing.
Current statewide regulations allow spearers — or anglers — to possess three northern pike, and only one may be longer than 30 inches. (New pike regulations are expected before this spring’s fishing opener.)
Jeff Best of Grand Rapids, a member of the Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association, is working to get more spearers into the activity and get spearers to think about how many pike they need to keep.
“My main thing is to teach people not to spear every fish,” Best said.
Nelson, who spears often during the winter, chooses to let most pike swim away.
“I only eat a few,” he said, “and that affects how many I spear. I take three to six fish a year. I see 100-plus I could spear.”
All spearers talk about the excitement of having a good-size northern pike enter their field of view and take a swipe at a decoy or eyeball the hapless sucker.
“It’s the rush when a fish comes in, the excitement,” Mike Best said. “You get the choice of spearing or watching them. It’s just as exciting as when I was a boy.”
Elizabeth Hedin agrees. The Cohasset woman was spearing alone in a mini-spearing shack on family day. She had speared a 3-pound northern earlier that morning.
“I get, like, a rush out of doing it,” said Hedin, who’s been spearing for 14 years. “I was super excited. Like, ‘Oh, my God.’ ”
Not many fish were speared during the family-day event. A high-pressure system was sitting on northern Minnesota, and that usually means less action, Mike Best said.
“Right before a snowstorm is the best time to do this,” he said.
Beyond the possibility of getting to watch a wild predator stalk its prey, a spearer enjoys the solitude and warmth of the shelter. Mike Best’s shack is 6 feet by 10, with a propane heater and battery-powered electricity boosted by a solar panel atop the shack. Six light bulbs illuminate the shack when he’s not spearing.
It can be almost meditative to sit in a dark, warm shelter watching a decoy swim in slow circles in the still, green depths. It’s something like staring down into a natural aquarium. The meditation session ends abruptly, of course, when 10 pounds of pike comes slashing out of nowhere to smack the decoy.
“It scares you,” Ellen Best said. “Sometimes they just come darting in.”
Her friends from the University of Minnesota were intrigued with spearing.
“It’s so cool to be able to look at the bottom of the lake and see fish swimming around,” said Addie Bona, 22, of Delano, Minn.
Ellen’s friends are just the kind of Minnesotans that Guertin would like to see take up spearing.
“Spearfishing just kind of got to be a group of older fellows, and they just didn’t pass it on to the next generation,” Guertin said. “That’s where we come in.”
Minnesota’s darkhouse spearing season
Darkhouse spearing season in Minnesota opens Nov. 15 and closes the last Sunday in February. This year’s closing date is Feb. 26. The limit on northern pike is three, and only one may be longer than 30 inches. Most inland waters are open to darkhouse spearing. Only northern pike, catfish and whitefish may be taken in darkhouse spearing. Check regulations for details.