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Scott Rall: Anticipation is good for the outdoors person

Scott Rall

Daily Globe outdoors writer 

I am embarking on a project for a friend that has done me about 40 favors over the past few years.

I am heading up to the Whitefish Chain of Lakes near Cross Lake Minnesota in a few weeks to take in my annual spearing event. This is a relatively new winter activity for me and I have only been doing it for about three years. Needless to say, I am not very good at it but I think this is true for about everyone who tries something new. I get a little better every year.

I have known for a long time that spending time in the Great Outdoors is as much about the people you get to spend time with as it is the actual activity. I have made many great new friends who will also be at the lake when I get there.

Gary and Ron have been just great at helping me get the spearing thing into my blood in a very short time. Spearing is not anything like ice angling through the ice.

If you want to go ice fishing, you need an auger and a five gallon pail with a few ice rods and reels and a small tackle box of lures in it. This is normally done from some sort of ice house and they come in both portable and permanent varieties.

The big difference between angling and spearing is the preparation needed to participate. The good ice fisherman that I know can drill holes, set the house and be fishing in the heated comfort in about eight minutes.

The bigger and fancier houses take more time to set initially, but once they are set it is really a matter of reopening the holes and starting the heater and you are good to go. Anglers that fish often don’t even turn off the heat and this keeps the holes open all the time. There must be good ice conditions on local lakes as I have seen lots of truck traffic on area lakes.

Setting up a spearing house which looks the same as an angling house on the outside takes a lot more effort. In the spearing houses I have used the opening in the ice is about four feet long and three feet wide. Getting a hole this big in two feet of ice is more than a little chore. The modern participants will cut the hole with a chain saw with a long cutting bar and chain on it.

The full-size chunk of ice needs to be broken up and then removed from the hole. Many times this is done manually with a gnarled-looking saw blade on a long pole. It kind of reminds me of the lumberjack competitions I see on the sports channels. Cutting the hole is no easy effort and I can usually enjoy a few adult beverages while I watch the experts complete this task.

I would help if they would let me, but I have not been given the opportunity. The big chunks of ice are stacked near the house and returned to the open hole when the house is moved to ensure that they are not crashed into by a snowmobile or other lake user. It is customary to secure a tree branch over the hole after the house is moved to keep others from driving over it as it is not the same strength as the surrounding ice.

The bigger the opening in the ice the greater field of view you have of the underwater world. In a spear house, the inside, when in use, is kept completely dark.

Every attempt is made to keep out all light. This allows your eyes to adjust to the darkness and makes seeing any fish that comes into view easier to see. Water clarity when you are fishing with a hook and line is generally less important as you are usually using live bait and the fish can find and eat the bait.

In spearing water clarity is everything. It is this fact that makes most of the spearing take place in northern Minnesota. When the water is hazy or turbid it requires that you spear in very shallow water.

In Nobles County most spearing is done in three feet or less of water. This allows the spearer to see the bottom and the outline of the fish against it. Up north in clear water you can spear in 15 feet of water depth with no difficulty. Many spearers will break up egg shells and let them sink to the bottom of the hole to help provide the contrast necessary to see fish in dirty water.

It is much harder to hit a fish with a spear near the bottom in 15 feet of water than it is one that is much closer to the spear fisherman in five feet of water. The deeper the fish the greater the margin of error in the spear throw.

Fish are attracted to hole either by using an artificial lure called a spearing decoy, or others will use a live bait harness and swim a live sucker chub on a string. I have never used live bait. My host Kirk Schnitker is an adamant decoy carver and we use only his creations.

Still others will hang a dare devil with no hook on it to lure fish into spearing range. All three of these methods work, but you need to be on the ball. A fish might swim in to check out the offering and exit all within seconds. There is no room for inattentive behavior if you want to capitalize on the infrequent opportunity.

It is hard to describe what it looks like when a fish moves in. Almost all of the fish speared are northern pike or whitefish. Some states allow spearing of other species but not Minnesota. When you see a fish it is usually barely moving. You can just barely make out the outline of the fish. It is like a thin white line that outlines the fish against a darker bottom. It looks a lot like a submarine in an underwater movie.

The fish is not exactly where your eye sees it. There is a reflection off the surface of the water and this needs to taken in to account when you throw the spear.

The fish is actually at a little different angle than your line of sight. This has been my excuse for three years now when I miss. It is a good excuse but there is an element of truth to it and the best spearers have made the proper adjustments to be accurate with every throw. The best thing to do as an amateur is to determine where the fish in relation to the decoy and the sting it hangs from and then position the spear so it is thrown straight down.

This will improve accuracy and put more fish on the dinner table. So the project that I am working on is the construction and delivery of a new spear house to my host when I head up north in a few weeks. It is not hard to build but it will take a little time to do it right. Spear shacks don’t normally last for many years. Even if you monitor ice conditions regularly they occasionally freeze down and get pretty beat up prying them up.

This year is going to be especially difficult in the Cross Lake area as they had only four inches of ice and then got over 20 inches of snow. The snow adds lots of insulation and weight and when you cut a hole the water just pours up on to the top of the ice and creates slush that can be over a foot deep.

There are spots on the Whitefish chain that are considered honey holes that might not see a spearing shack at all this winter. That’s why you need to be familiar with many lakes so adjustments can be made to deal with individual lake conditions. After more than a week of below zero temperatures there was still water and slush in the ATV tracks from the week earlier. Why this does not freeze is a mystery.

I am sure that before I know it I will be taking the Harley cycle out of the shed for a ride, but on this Friday as I am writing there is a blizzard warning and 30-below wind chills. It seems oh, so far away. Looks like a great weekend to build a shack and try to bag a big pike or two.

Even if I don’t get any pike, trying to do so is better than watching reruns of Law and Order for the 15th time. Anticipation is part of the outdoor experience and be it spearing or open water fishing or riding the Harley, all of these anticipations are helpful in getting through what looks like one of the toughest winter cold snaps in over 40 years.