Making Spearing Holes… and Memories

I had been dating and chasing his daughter around the college campus for a couple months when I had the opportunity to first meet him. How fitting it was during the month of December, traditionally the best time of the year for winter fishing. It was many years before I appreciated the significance of that December introduction to Walt. I knew minutes into our first conversation that we shared an understanding and enthusiasm for one of Minnesota’s unique winter activities, spearing Northern Pike. I don’t recall why he hadn’t put his fish house out for many years but it was clear that his passion for the sport could be easily rekindled, especially if I continued to share stories from my recent ice fishing ventures.

His fish house hadn’t really set idle for the last dozen years, (if allowing young chickens to run in the old 4×6-foot spear house can be characterized as occupied). During one of our conversations over the next few weeks, Walt said that he had decided to take me up on an offer. He had purchased a spearing license and was going to join me on one of my favorite lakes. However, his shack would require a few minor wall repairs, a couple critical floor reinforcements and some serious cleaning before it could again be christened, “frozen-lake worthy.” He planned to renovate the house himself but made it apparent that he would appreciate my assistance to load it up and to find a favorable location on the lake. Such was the start of 21 seasons of Northern Pike spearing with my future father-in-law.

Fishermen who winter spear know the sport shares few similarities to a social event. Walt and I usually had our shacks 30-40 yards apart and seldom visited each other, except to occasionally make comments from outside each other’s fish houses like: “Have you had any action?” “It’s so cold my wood decoy won’t even move.” “What time should we depart this dead sea?” Meaningful discussions on a typical day of spearing are rare, as most conversations are one-way and possibly directed at a lazy sucker decoy. Walt and I did converse, however, during the drive to and from the lake and also while sharing fish cleaning chores in a farm house basement. We often had luck, sometimes outstanding luck, and didn’t have a problem reliving or re-detailing every moment of the spearing experience. We were our own best listeners.

Walt passed away over 16 years ago and when December roles around now, I’m truly on my own to get my fish house ready and to move it out for another season of potential thrills. It recently dawned on me that what I miss the most from those days I speared with my father-in-law has nothing to do with the large fish that swam through our holes, the great fish meals that we shared with our family, or even the bonding conversations we had in his pickup truck going to and from the lake. No, the memories that so vividly stick with me from those days are associated with the countless spearing holes that we chopped out together, standing on the ice in the middle of Minnesota winter weather seldom fit for human beings.

The process of creating a spearing hole can be physically exhausting and draining, but if all goes well, quite satisfying. It literally depends on how much ice is down there, or to put it another way, how far to water? When the ice depth reached a foot or more, it was always back-breaking work. You see, we chopped out all our spearing holes with nothing but ice chisels. We never had an ice saw, ice auger, or anything else to make the process go faster or with less strain on our bodies. Oh yes, we attempted to use a chainsaw one time but the residual bar oil on the surface of the completed hole frustrated us so much that we never did that again.

If it was to be a spearing hole for his house, he lightly chipped out the approximate dimensions so we knew the shape of the project ahead of us. If it was to be a spearing hole for my house, I performed the same personal ritual: lightly chipping a rectangular blueprint. We stood across the diagramed hole from each other and chopped our way around, always taking care not to interfere with each other’s vertical thrusts into the ice. When the ice was exceptionally thick, we routinely chopped out the middle section as we “searched for water”, stopping only for a few minutes to shovel out the larger chunks. We were often fatigued to the point that our arms and shoulders suffered and icicles grew from our noses. As we stood over the large box-like crevice in the lake, leaning forward on our chisels and gasping for air, we silently told ourselves that this was half the fun and the spearing would be worth every second of our labors.

If an ice fisherman only had to chop one spearing hole per year, it might actually be fun. However, Walt and I often “winter-trolled”, looking for the Northerns that we knew were plentiful… somewhere. We never owned a depth finder so some of the holes we made were totally un-useable, usually because of high heavy weed beds. One time we were so absolutely sure we had landed on a hot spot from a previous year, that we even pushed the house onto the newly created hole—-before realizing we had just chopped out over two feet of ice and were sitting on less than three feet of water! We had landed squarely on a sand bar! We were too tired to even attempt to chisel out another hole that day. I don’t remember if we talked much to each other as we departed the lake, (I think we felt slightly embarrassed), but I do remember it took years before we appreciated the humor in our error.

One particular winter, our visit to a small and seldom-fished Otter Tail County lake resulted in a solid month or more of outstanding spearing. We returned to the same lake the following December with high expectations, but saw very few Northerns despite several days of intense fishing. We felt compelled to move both fish houses over and over until we could duplicate the fishing experiences of the previous season. When a spearing house is removed from a lake location, the ethical and safety-related act is to place the large ice chunks (remnants from when the hole was originally made) and a tall dead tree branch in the spearing hole so that other fishermen and snowmobile riders might avoid that area until the hole safely refreezes. That season we never did locate any prime feeding areas for Northerns on that lake and finally hauled our houses off, but only after leaving one end of the lake looking like a young Green Ash or Willow tree farm.

Today I own an ice auger and drill out six holes before breaking out my proven and trusty ice chisel to finish the chore of making that perfect spearing hole on a well-traveled Northern Pike highway. In the winter months I often think of Walt, especially when I realize he’s not standing there assisting me with a new spearing hole. I smile at the memories we established while toiling over spearing holes, rarely mumbling a word, but believing the hours and days of fishing ahead, under that special piece of ice, could easily be the best we might ever experience.

By Gary Harrington

East Otter Tail Darkhouse & Angling Club