Humans have fished for as long as their activities can be traced. Fishing was first done out of need to survive. Only much later did fishing become a sport or hobby, something to be done to relax and enjoy the out-of-doors. Nevertheless, most fishing is still done on a subsistence or commercial basis to supply needed foodstuffs.
Humans have fished for centuries, and continue to fish, using a wide variety of techniques. Some of the first fishing “tools” included spears, harpoons, blow-pipes, clubs, traps, nets and the most common technique, and most popular with today’s sport anglers is, of course, the hook and line.
Winter spear fishing requires chisels, augers and saws of various kinds to cut through the ice that can be more than three feet thick. Fish decoys and jigging sticks or reels hung from the roof of the shanty are also part of the spear fisherman’s toolbox. Spearing decoys, or fish decoys as they are called by collectors, are the main lures used to try to entice fish to the ice hole, although live suckers, shiny spoons and even tin cans have been used with success. The history of spearing decoys dates back to primitive tribes of humans or Eskimos and ancient examples of fish decoys carved from bone or tusks have been found. Spear fishing is one of the oldest forms of fishing done by man, predating angling, especially angling as a sport. Native Americans were spearing fish through the ice long before Europeans reached North America. It is difficult however to pin down the precise origin or darkhouse spearing. Spear fishing in general was thought to have been independently introduced in many places around the world; no single location can be credited with its introduction. It could have begun in northern Asia, North America, or northern Europe.
The modern history of fish decoys starts in the early 19th century and continues to the present day. Quite a bit of knowledge has been gained about the history of fish decoys made from the early twentieth century to the present day. Colorful stories are told of spear fishermen who carved these examples of early American folk-art, gathered food with them, or traded their creations for alcoholic spirits. There was a big surge in the amount of spear fishermen in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. This was probably due to the great depression and a need to forage for food in the harsh winters by any means necessary. Many of the most highly prized collectible fish decoys came from this time period. If you would like to expand your knowledge of the history of winter spear fishing and or the history of fish decoy and spear making, please check out our suggested reading link at the bottom of this page.
A special kind of recreational spear fishing exists in North America today; where the fisherman sits in a dark house on a frozen lake or river waiting for a fish to be attracted into range by a decoy hanging several feet below the surface of the ice in the clear water below.
Darkhouse spearing is as much a tradition as it is a sport for those who participate. Darkhouses, spears, decoys, techniques and favorite fishing spots are passed along to younger generations. There is something different about spearers; they are less social than anglers and more secretive about their success or lack thereof. Darkhouse spearing is usually a one-person activity. Spearing is simply the spearer, his own thoughts, and the activity going on in the lake below.
Clearly, darkhouse spearing, as we know it today evolved from what was passed on to the European settlers by Native Americans. How through-the-ice spearing got to North America – whether it evolved or was dispersed from Asia – remains unresolved. What is known, however, is that given the ideal natural conditions for ice fishing in the Great Lakes, it probably wasn’t long after the last glacial period, about 10,000 years ago, that the first fish was speared through the ice. Today, nowhere outside of Minnesota, are there as many people who enjoy the sport of spear fishing.
“Run your decoys high, keep your spear on your shoulder,
and your foot off the rope.” -unknown-