Spearing excursion offers glimpse into another worldIt was the second-to-last day of North Dakota’s dark-house spearing season, and our only concern was trying to lure a northern pike into spearing range. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a pretty good concern to have.
By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald
Getting to this point had taken some heavy lifting, but now we were sitting in the dark and staring into a large hole carved through 3 feet of ice.
It provided a window into another world.
Only the occasional hammering of a distant woodpecker marking its territory reminded us of the world beyond the darkness that surrounded us on this beautiful March day.
A cold snap that descended in the wake of a nasty March blizzard had loosened its grip, and the promise of spring was everywhere. It was the second-to-last day of North Dakota’s dark-house spearing season, and after a week that had brought more than its share of gloom on both the weather and work fronts, the only concern was trying to lure a northern pike into spearing range.
In the grand scheme of things, that’s a pretty good concern to have.
Spearing’s a time-honored tradition in Minnesota, but it’s only been part of North Dakota’s winter outdoors menu since 2001. A few people gave it a try the first year or two and moved on to other pursuits; others enjoyed the thrill of watching a northern pike move in to hit a wooden decoy and came back for more.
In many ways, dark-house spearing is like hunting — for fish. It’s a game of watching and waiting for a pike to swim into range.
That’s what attracted Mark Bry to the sport. A teacher at South Middle School in Grand Forks, Bry spends his summers working as a fishing guide on Devils Lake. Teeming with pike, few places in North Dakota offer better odds for throwing a spear than Devils Lake.
And without getting too specific, that’s exactly where we were.
Bry doesn’t guide in the winter, but he does spear every chance he gets from the time the season opens in December until it closes in March.
I had to try it, he said.
I didn’t need much convincing.
We originally had planned a spearing excursion in December, but a snowstorm arrived right on schedule to put the kibosh on that plan.
On this morning, though, the weather was about as picture-perfect as it gets for March.
Cutting the hole
Bry started by drilling nine holes in close proximity, using a specially-made saw to cut the ice that remained between each hole. This time of year, that’s no small task. Once the large chunk floated freely, he cut it in half and used a set of tongs to wrestle the pieces onto the ice.
We soon were seated inside the “ice cube”-style tent Bry uses to block out the darkness, trying to adjust our eyes to the goings-on beneath the water. The clarity wasn’t as good as it had been, Bry said, but we could still make out the bottom of the lake 8 feet below us.
Smaller lakes such as Sweetwater and Morrison typically serve up more numbers of pike, but the area where we set up offered better odds of seeing a big fish, Bry said.
He’d seen several pike longer than 40 inches this winter and a girthy 43-incher found its way to the taxidermist.
Bry took the first turn at the spear while I worked one of his fish-shaped decoys like a puppeteer playing a puppet.
That would give me a chance to see how it was done before trying it myself.
The key to throwing the spear, Bry said, is to position it directly over the back of the fish’s head and keep the tines perpendicular to its body. Use the left hand to guide the spear and the right hand to lightly thrust it onto the fish.
If all goes according to plan, the weight of the spear should take care of the rest.
The first hour or so passed without a sighting as we swapped hunting and fishing stories.
Then it happened.
The pike came in from our right at least 3 feet below the ice. It took an initial swipe before returning for a closer look.
In that moment, the center of the universe revolved around the ominous-looking form hovering beneath our feet. Bry dropped the spear — and he didn’t miss.
Fish and spear momentarily disappeared from view beneath the rim of ice, but Bry soon pulled the thrashing mass of fins and scales and metal to the surface and out the hole.
A gorgeous specimen, the pike was larger than he’d expected and stretched the tape at 36½ inches.
Always next time
A half-dozen pike would check out the decoy during our six hours of staring at the underwater world. Bry speared another pike, and I practiced the spearing equivalent of catch-and-release.
With few fish moving, there wasn’t much of a chance to perfect a spearing technique that obviously needed lots of perfecting.
But after spearing for the first time — or trying to, at least — it’s easy to understand the attraction. Far as I can tell, it’s not so much about throwing the spear as it is about watching the fish and how they act.
Of the pike we saw, some of them cautiously approached the decoy, acting almost like the timid school kid in a hallway full of bullies.
Other times, they were the bullies, racing in to attack the decoy and scare the bejeezus out of us — or me, at least.
And that was my first taste of spearing. I blew the opportunity I had, but I got to see how it was done and peek through the window into another world.
In the grand scheme of things, that’s a pretty good way to spend a beautiful day in March.
Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to email@example.com.