Spearfishing through Ice: Modern Adherents to an Ancient Tradition

Spearfishing through Ice: Modern Adherents to an Ancient Tradition

After six hours, my eyes start to water. Sitting in a dark house and staring through a wide hole in the ice takes a mental toll, but when a 40-plus-inch pike swims into view, I perk up . I wait while the beast surveys the old, hand-carved decoy swaying in the current. Slowly, I dip my trident spear into the water, taking care to not startle the hovering fish. Before I can throw, the fish bolts without warning. A lost opportunity? Perhaps, but a damn cool experience nonetheless. With tremors still rattling my hands, I smile, set the spear down, and resume waiting.

Dark house spearfishing is rooted in tradition, loyalty to a craft, and pursuit of food. There’s no catch and release in this game. It’s a culture and community of harvest. Friends and family gather and stare expectantly into a hole, not so different from staring at a campfire as it cooks dinner. Archaeological evidence suggests that indigenous tribes of North America began spearing fish through the ice more than 2,000 years ago—long predating European contact as well as hook-and-line ice fishing. And, practically speaking, the technique hasn’t changed a whole lot since then.

Many folks consider spearfishing to be more hunting than fishing. They liken the feelings inspired by a big northern pike or lake sturgeon to buck fever. Mark Norquist, founder of Modern Carnivore, is one of them. Mark grew up spearing fish in a Northern Minnesota dark house with his father and brothers. He speared his first pike when he was 7, and he’s never looked back.

The Tools
Mark’s family ties to the sport run deep. “Much of the equipment that we still use today is from previous generations. The spears were made in the old Burlington Northern Railroad shops by employees who were also avid outdoorsmen,” Mark said. “They’re some of the most finely crafted spears you can find today. Unfortunately, there aren’t many companies that still make spears, but they are out there. If you dig deep enough, you can find some beautiful examples made by enterprising welders and metalworkers.”

The ice spear, or trident, is the primary tool. The design hasn’t changed for generations: five to seven barbed, parallel points at the end of a metal pole, usually about 5 or 6 feet long and weighing between 5 and 20 pounds. There are two styles—detachable tip and single-piece spears. Detachable tips allow the spear point to break away from the shaft while connected by a rope, allowing the fish to run and fight without the danger of twisting off the spear. This style is also more portable than a fixed-point spear. Traditionalists, however,  say that the one-piece, fixed trident is the way to go. The welding and craftsmanship of a great spear transcends time, as in Mark’s case. The angler attaches a length of strong, thin rope between the end of their spear or trident tip and a sturdy object within the dark house.

The dark house Mark grew up around was of the traditional variety; hard-sided, heavy, and made from wood, it lacked the portability that newer versions provide. Nowadays, pop-up huts from Eskimo and others allow you to get out on the ice quickly and move locations when the spearing isn’t panning out.

One of the attractions to spearing is that it’s quite simple and doesn’t involve much technical gear, besides what you wear to stay warm. Your necessities are the dark house, spear, ice tongs, ice auger, ice saw, decoy, gaff, and slush scooper. For many ice fishermen, the transition into spearing is pretty easy, at least in terms of equipment.

The Hole
The first order of business is selecting a location. Popular target fish include northern pike, sturgeon, catfish, and lake whitefish, so think about areas you would find your target fish and start there. Look for points, humps, and weedlines that concentrate fish travel. Shallow areas between 5 to 10 feet without too much distracting vegetation are ideal.

Once you’ve picked your spot, it’s time to cut. We usually start by drilling six or eight holes with an ice auger in the shape of a rectangle and then cut between those holes with a hand-held ice saw to create a rectangular hole. Ice saws are pretty big, so when cutting through the ice, take long strokes between the augered holes until you have the entire large hole cut open. Many states have specific rules for how wide a spear hole can be, so make sure to check the regs.

A chainsaw is another excellent tool for cutting the ice hole, but in some ways, an ice auger can work just as well and it also reduces the size of the ice chunks you need to haul out of the lake. Once you’ve finished cutting, use the ice tongs to remove the large pieces of ice. These tongs resemble the tools used by ice harvesters in the days when refrigeration was only a luxury. When the big chunks are out, remove any remaining ice and slush with some form of a scoop, which could be a shovel, strainer, or the small ice scoopers generally used in conventional ice fishing. If you revisit the same hole the next day, a chisel or spud works great for reopening the original hole.

Once the hole is cut and cleared, it’s time to set up the dark shelter. Make sure to arrange the hole entirely within the shelter and up against one side to give you and your pal plenty of room to sit. You’re going to be there for a while. Spearing is a game of patience. If you see any light coming in through cracks or windows, do your best to block it out. The darker, the better. Your eyes will quickly adjust and you’ll be amazed at the detail that you see in the water beneath you. If you need to run a heater, be sure to create some form of ventilation.

The Waiting
Slow times in the dark house resemble the long hours waiting in a deer stand. Once the heater is going and you have something to sip on, the decoy gets its grand entrance. These can be as simple as a line attached to a wooden pole with a shiny spoon, maybe a large homemade jig, or a proper spearing decoy. Decoys are meant to attract fish, so they tend to be pretty flashy. Some don’t look much like real fish at all, with fluorescent colors and strange markings that reflect the aesthetic of the carver. You can find all kinds of hand-carved decoys that are as much works of art as they are functional tools. In fact, there are trade shows and conventions focused on the art carvers create.

Jig the decoy to impart a swimming effect. Experiment with different jigging motions and decoys. If you want to keep it really simple and au naturale, a large sucker minnow or shiner is the perfect live bait for spearing. Again, check the regs to make sure you’re legal, as specifics about using live bait as decoys or having hooks attached to decoys vary from state to state.

The Throw
Staring at the decoy while perch and crawfish swim by is always fun, but what should you do when your intended target swims into view? Technique and quick reaction times are critical. Jumping up and chucking the spear into the water like a Spartan warrior won’t get you anywhere. It might put you in the hole instead of putting a fish on the ice. In that case, the embarrassment far outweighs the actual threat to your health.

Take your time. Slowly lift the tines of the spear off the ice and dip them into the water to avoid any loud noises or splashes. Aim just behind the head of the fish. Don’t huck it like a javelin; let the heavy spear do the work. Throw, don’t stab—that’s why it’s attached and retrievable by rope. Before you throw, make sure to identify the species, and if you’re not absolutely positive, do not throw the spear. For example, pike are usually fair game while similar-looking muskie are absolutely not.

When you’re ready, your aim is true, and technique sound, you’ll put dinner on the ice. The feel of connecting and fighting the fish by rope is the best part. There’s something special about pulling in a speared fish hand over hand, gaffing it for extra security, and hoisting it from the water attached to the business end of the trident.

At the end of the day, many ice spearers replace the ice chunks they removed from the hole and leave a log, long stick, or brush sticking up from the hole to make it visible for ice travelers in the days and weeks to come. It wouldn’t be much fun to accidentally run a four-wheeler through the ice.

The Camaraderie
I recently had the privilege of accompanying Mark to one of his local spearing haunts. I was particularly fond of his family tradition to pack sandwiches wrapped in tinfoil and slathered in butter and lay them on the grate of the propane heater to toast. They tasted great and provided a lovely break from staring into the hole. Venison pastrami was an added bonus.

Sharing the past and present with old friends and new is central to spearing. I think Mark said it best on that trip: “It’s always fun to take someone who’s relatively new to spearfishing out on the ice. There are usually long hours of peering down the ice hole without any activity, but it provides a great opportunity for conversation. If you want to get to know someone, sit in a dark house with them. In no time, you’ll have a good idea of who they are, and you might have a new friend for life.”

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