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I never did much of the kind of ice fishing depicted in the photo to the right, which shows my brother Jim on the shallow waters of West Leaf Lake in Otter Tail County in north central Minnesota. It was a bright, warm day in March 1972, but it’s not the kind of light I had in mind for the title for this month’s group writing theme.
I presume Jim was fishing for crappies or bluegills, as it would have been out of season for walleyes, bass, or northern pike. My favorite kind of ice fishing was dark house spearfishing for northern pike. The photo below, taken the previous winter on the same lake, depicts a scene from that activity. Even though days are short in early January, when this photo was taken, the scene probably wasn’t as dark as this deteriorated photo makes it appear. I like it, though, partly because of the mood it evokes and because it shows family members who didn’t care much for ice fishing getting in on the fun of moving the fish house or dark house (either term was used) on a sledge to a new location on the lake. Any new location had to be chosen carefully, as it could be a bit of a production to move. In the photo I see myself, Dad, my two sisters, and perhaps one cousin. My guess is that some of them were glad to get outside for a little fresh air and exercise and then went back home when the actual fishing started.
There wouldn’t have been room for all of them inside anyway. The dark house was a 4-by-6-foot structure with 2 by 2 stud walls with a wooden floor on top of a 2 by 4 floor frame. It was comfortable enough for two, but there was only one hole of 2-by-2-feet square for spearfishing. A little shoebox-sized wood-fueled stove occupied some of the space, and when it got good and hot, one wouldn’t want to sit too near it.
Another common size was 4 by 8, and the one belonging to the friend who taught me about spear fishing when we moved to Minnesota was just 4 by 4. That one was easier to move, but was a tight fit for two people.
I have seen and heard of much larger fish houses, but those weren’t generally outfitted for spearing. They might have several smaller holes for fishing with a jig, like the one my brother had in the first photo. They might even have bunks, cooking facilities, a well-stocked cooler, and propane heat. There wasn’t usually much danger of a heated fish house melting the ice beneath it, what with heat rising and an air space below the floor, but one would sometimes hear about one of those fancy ones sinking into the melted ice beneath it after the heat was left on for days on end.
The deadline for removing them was sometime in February. The Department of Natural Resources didn’t want them staying out on the lakes until the ice was too rotten to safely remove them and then littering up the shoreline and lake bottom. That’s why in the first photo my brother was sitting out in the open. Even though the lakes may still be ice-covered into April or May, all fish houses had to be removed from the lakes before March. The best spearfishing conditions were over by then anyway, as will be explained later.
After moving the fish house to a new location, a hole had to be chopped in the ice, usually a little larger than the 2-by-2-foot hole in the fish house. In the photo below, it looks like I’m the person who chopped around the edge with an ice spud, with one of my brothers helping and my mother and youngest sister watching on. Once the chunk was loose, it was good to have a pair of ice tongs to pull it out, but I don’t think we ever had one. We probably just broke it up into pieces that we could flip out and cleaned up the remainder with a little ice strainer.
That worked well enough early in the season if the ice was only 6 to 8 inches thick, but what works in one set of conditions might not work so well in another.
When we first moved to Minnesota and my friend (the one with a 4 by 4 fish house) invited me spearfishing, the ice on this same lake was over 4 feet thick. His father cut out a square hole with his chainsaw to the depth of the saw chain. Then, after we chipped up the ice and threw it out of the hole, he jumped into the hole and cut to another chainsaw depth. I was getting nervous for him at that point, but after we chipped that ice out, there were still a few inches to go, which we chipped out with a spud.
After the hole was cleaned out, we’d position the fish house on the hole. On subsequent expeditions to the fish house, it would suffice to chip out the new ice from inside with a spud. That was much easier than moving the whole thing to a new location.
I don’t claim to be an expert on all of this, by the way. There may be people on Ricochet who know more about this stuff than I do. I’m just telling about my own lived experience, so to speak. I didn’t learn about dark house spearfishing until I was a sophomore in high school. After college, I moved away from Minnesota. For many years until recently, nonresidents were not eligible for spearfishing licenses. My memories are from high school and college Christmas breaks, and not even all of those.
I was a little surprised to see that the date on the second photo above was January 1971, because by then I was a resident of Illinois. Maybe the fishing license I had got the previous year was still good for the entire winter. Or maybe I was just helping to move the fish house for others to use.
The most memorable season was Christmas break of 1966-67. The ice conditions were good that year. Sometimes I would have to unthaw the lock on the fish house to get inside, but after I got a fire started in the stove, I was soon stripped down to my T-shirt (and some guys would strip down further than that). Even if it was minus 20 outside, it was shirtsleeve weather inside. There would be Christmas carols or other music on the transistor radio that would sit on a shelf.
And this is where the light would come in. I’d put a fish decoy on a line, lower it into the water, hang it over the hole, and watch. Because it was dark inside the fish house, one could see what was happening under water. There was enough sunlight that passed through the ice to light up the first several feet of water as well as the lake bottom if the spot was shallow enough, as good northern pike habitat usually was. I would mainly be watching for northerns, but there might be other fish or invertebrates that would come along too. Life was good.
There wasn’t much to do other than keep the spear ready and work the decoy line a little to make it swim in a circle. Move it too vigorously, and a big northern might rush in, smash the decoy from the line, and carry it off before there was time to react. Or a big northern that was wise in the ways of the world might realize it was fake. Move it not at all, and it might not get a fish interested. So patience and a little technique were required. Work it just right, and maybe a big northern would glide in slowly to investigate. Then it would be time to drop the spear on it right behind the gills. I think we used a five- or seven-tined spear. The ones I see in some YouTube videos about dark house spearfishing seem a lot bigger than the ones we used. It was important that the spearhead be in the water when you let go so it wouldn’t splash and scare the fish off. There was such a thing as missing the target, especially if you got excited and felt the need to throw the spear hard or weren’t patient enough to let the fish come close.
The technique could be deadly to northerns, but the limit was only three per person per day.
If no northern pike came at all, all was not lost because it was relaxing to just sit and watch the lighted underworld.
Later in the winter, when the ice got thicker and/or more snow piled up on the ice, not so much light got through, and it was not so interesting.
Some years there would be a thin layer of ice followed by a heavy early snowfall. It might not block the light too much, but it made it difficult to walk out to the fish house because the weight of the snow would push the ice down. Water would come up and form a layer between the ice and the snow, and the water would stay unfrozen even in minus 30 temperatures because of the insulating layer of snow. The water might not come over your overshoes, but it’s always nicer to walk on solid ice than step through snow and water before your feet reach a very slippery layer of ice. Wherever you stepped, the water would soon freeze solid, so a couple trips back and forth to the fish house would give you a solid path to walk on. But even then, it was very easy to slip off such a path. One thing such conditions did was keep the snowmobiles off the lake, as the water would freeze in the snowmobile tracks and bring them to a halt. Those winters, the lakes were quieter. But it also made it very difficult to move a fish house. When you did, you first had to chip it loose from the layer of ice that had come up and encased it.
You couldn’t count on ideal conditions of light and dark or snow and ice to come every year. But the good years are to be savored.
I think I have a photo somewhere of Mrs. R fishing inside a fish house. But I’m not sure where it is, and it didn’t involve any spearfishing. I do have a couple of my dad’s photos of Jim and me with our prey, though, both taken on that best of all winters of dark and light, 1966-67.