Ice-Spearing for Pike Offers Same Guarantee as Tip-Up Fishing: None
MENOMINEE, Mich. — If you’re strapping ice-creepers to your boots and heading out to catch a quick meal of northern pike from an Upper Peninsula lake, you’ll likely do as well with tip-ups as your spear and decoys.
Either way, the only near-certainty is having a good time.
Unfortunately for Wisconsin anglers, they must drive to Michigan, Minnesota, Lake Superior or farther to hunt pike with a spear from a darkened icehouse. Why isn’t pike spearing legal here statewide? Maybe because many Wisconsinites assume it’s too easy, even unfair, to spear pike through the ice. Or they assume most spearers can’t tell pike from muskies. Or that spearers can’t resist stabbing walleyes, bass, perch, crappies or monster bluegills that pass innocently by.
Such critics even overlook ice-spearfishing’s most basic prerequisite: clear water. Cloudy, muddy or tannin-stained waters make spear-fishing futile.
Ryan Ebert of Fort Atkinson has heard all the reasons — assumed and imagined — for confining pike ice-spearing to Wisconsin’s Lake Superior shoreline. All that Ebert asks is that skeptics try it themselves or study it before condemning it.
After all, if people can’t be trusted with a spear, why do we have so few problems each February when over 12,000 license-buyers try spearing sturgeon on Lake Winnebago and its upriver lakes? And if Wisconsin can trust those folks to properly mark their refrigerator-size holes in the ice to safeguard others, why wouldn’t pike spearers do likewise when leaving behind smaller holes?
Despite those widespread suspicions and assumptions, Ebert remains optimistic Wisconsin will eventually support efforts to open a pike-spearing season. Voters can start by participating in the annual spring conservation hearings, which run from noon April 10 through noon April 13. An advisory question from the Wisconsin Conservation Congress asks voters if the state should hold a pike ice-spearing season from the first Saturday in December through the last Sunday in February.
Ebert believes the activity is growing in popularity, judging by the number of shows that feature pike spearing on TV and YouTube. Among those shows are “MeatEater” (https://www.themeateater.com/fish/whitefish/how-to-spear-alaskan-whitefish), and its offspring, “The Fur Hat Ice Tour” on You Tube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=acP4Vu58hvI).
Besides, at least six states besides Minnesota and Michigan allow widespread ice-spearfishing, including North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado, Montana, Vermont and Alaska.
Michigan’s statewide pike-spearing season runs Dec. 1 to March 15 on all lakes and streams except for designated trout waters and Wisconsin’s boundary waters.
Minnesota’s statewide season opens Nov. 15 and closes the final Sunday in February. Its Department of Natural Resources even devotes a web page to it, upselling the season this way: “Spearing is a fascinating way to harvest one of Minnesota’s largest fish. Looking down from above, you seek – and see – the fish in its world rather than blindly pulling it in on a line strung with enticements and attractions from your world.”
Whoever wrote those words, however, must not have spent much time in a spearing shack or tent. Ice-bound pike spearers take pride in their handcrafted “enticements and attractions,” otherwise known as fish decoys. Unlike the heavily weighted decoys used for sturgeon spearing, which simply hang stationary from a nylon cord while looking pretty, pike-spearing decoys work their fins and tails off. In fact, when Ebert and his friend Mike Kitt of Marinette get together, they critique how their decoys look, sink, swim and gyrate while they work them like puppeteers.
When Kitt goes spearfishing, he keeps a large box of his home-crafted decoys beside him, and switches every 15 minutes in hopes of attracting nearby pike. One of his favorite decoys mimics a giant bullfrog, and glides gracefully through the water until he jerks the line. The frog then rises sharply into a barrel-roll before resuming its orbit below the hole.
“I keep changing decoys because most pike show up soon after I switch,” Kitt said during a recent spearing trip to the Menominee River’s backwaters in Michigan with Ebert, as well as the father-son team of Doug and Jake Wagner of rural Marinette. Kitt said he’s made about 1,500 ice-spearing decoys, but concedes he’s guessing. He neither numbers his creations nor tracks their whereabouts once he sells them.
Ebert, in contrast, has carved, weighted and painted 362 decoys; and he uses pushpins in a map to mark the hometowns of his customers nationwide. He estimates he makes 30 to 40 decoys a year, all of which must rest even-keeled and almost neutrally buoyant in the water. His standards also require they sink slowly while gliding outward in their circumnavigations.
“It’s a lot of trial and error,” Ebert shrugs.
Ebert and Kitt often spend more time carving decoys and participating in fish-decoy shows than they do spearfishing. They’re immersed in ice-spearing’s history and culture, tracing its roots to native tribes who speared fish while watching from beneath animal hides long before Europeans reached North America.
Ebert and Kitt are also active in ice-spearing’s Darkhouse Associations in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. Ebert said Wisconsin’s group is basically a Facebook page with 1,800 followers, but Michigan and Minnesota have larger membership rolls and multiple chapters statewide. Ebert also serves on the National Fish Decoy Association’s board of directors (https://www.nfdadecoys.org), and enters his decoys for judging each April at its biggest show in Perham, Minnesota.
He said fish-decoy shows and the Darkhouse Association highlight the sport’s allure.
“I started spearfishing in 2008 when Mike and his son Josh took me to the Menominee River, and I saw trout and an otter swim through,” Ebert said. “I never saw a pike, but I really liked seeing what was in the water below. Plus, I like all the art: the ice tongs, old ice saws, and spearing teepees; and drilling a shovel full of holes for scooping ice from the water.”
Plus, ice-spearfishing generates great memories.
“During a trip to Hayward Lake in the U.P., a bear stalked me across the ice until it turned off about 10 yards away,” Ebert said. “Interesting things seem to happen when you go pike spearing.”
Mike Kitt, left, works one of his hand-crafted fish decoys while Patrick Durkin waits with a spear during a recent trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. — Ryan Ebert photo
A small northern pike swims away after inspecting a frog decoy. — Patrick Durkin photo
Mike Kitt of Marinette, Wisconsin, uses a handcrafted stick to maneuver his ice-spearing decoys like a skilled puppeteer. — Patrick Durkin photo
Mike Kitt, left, and Ryan Ebert saw a hole into the ice while preparing to spearfish for northern pike. — Patrick Durkin photo