By nature they're solitary. Their small, windowless shelters appear in back bays and along the shallow shorelines of lakes and rivers. A plume of smoke rising from the chimney is often the only sign of life.
Darkhouse spearers go it alone for practical reasons. It's hard to decoy northern pike where there's too much commotion, meaning most popular ice fishing spots are avoided.
But on Saturday, Nov. 18 a rare gathering of darkhouse spearers took place at the Brainerd American Legion. It was the first meeting of the Brainerd chapter of the Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association. About 15 people attended, a six-member board of directors was formed and a president chosen.
The Brainerd chapter of the non-profit organization is the 11th in Minnesota. Others are located in the Twin Cities, St. Cloud, Cass Lake, New York Mills, Detroit Lakes, Duluth, Park Rapids and Waseca. Total statewide membership is 1,260.
On the back wall of Bob Johnson's fish house is a reproduction of the famous Les Kouba painting "Darkhouse Action." A copy of the painting will be given to every new lifetime member of the Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association. (Dispatch Photos by Vince Meyer)
"I was very pleased with the amount of interest," said Bob Johnson, a Brainerd High School teacher who will serve as the new chapter's first president. "Over the weekend the vice president and I must have handed out about 30 applications."
A one-year individual membership is $10, a youth membership is $5 and a lifetime membership is $250, which includes the famous Les Kouba painting "Darkhouse Action." All of the money the Brainerd chapter raises the first year stays here. After one year the proceeds are split 50-50 with the state chapter, headquartered in Burnsville. An annual banquet will be the primary fund-raiser. Meetings will take place at 7 p.m. at the Brainerd American Legion on the second Thursday of every month from fall through
The first year darkhouse spearing shelter licenses were sold in Minnesota was 1947, though the sports origins can be traced to primitive times, when Native Americans decoyed fish into tent-covered holes cut into the ice. The sport's popularity peaked in Minnesota in 1961, when 55,118 licenses were sold. Last year 17,345 licenses were sold.
The decline in darkhouse spearing is due in part to the negative connotations associated with spearing of any kind. "People say we take too many fish, especially too many trophy fish," said Johnson, who began spearing as a boy with his father on North Twin Lake near Waubun. "There's been a lot of bad press on certain aspects of spearing, especially the tribal spearing. If it's written in a treaty they have every right to do that. Yet there's a lot of negative feelings about it."
There's also negative feelings about spearing on lakes where muskies are present. Muskies are protected from spearing because they're relatively rare, grow to larger sizes and are expensive to stock. Johnson said there's no excuse for spearing a muskie. "If you've ever had one come in your hole you know the difference," he said. "Their markings and fins are different, even the color is different. The only time you might have trouble identifying a muskie is on stained lakes where visibility is poor."
Spearing might regain a measure of acceptance through a recently-proposed management strategy by the DNR. It promotes the removal of small pike from lakes where the predator-prey relationship is out of balance. These lakes are filled with small pike but have few perch. The best scenario, according to the DNR, is to have fewer but larger pike and more perch. This could be attained if small pike are removed by fishermen, particularly spearers.
Johnson said he spears about 10 northerns per year and that he hasn't speared one over 12 pounds in 10 years. Most spearers, he added, don't throw at every pike that comes in the hole. "A lot of us just enjoy decoying fish," he said. "You could compare it to bowhunting. How many deer does a bowhunter see before he finally takes one?
"A term we've come up with," Johnson continued, "is decoy and release. When a northern comes in, grabs your decoy and races off it really gets your heart pumping. Sometimes the bait fish suddenly scatter and you know something big is nearby. It's just a thrill to watch what goes on under the ice in the winter. It's something most people never see. Sure, we take some fish, but so do anglers. I take some smaller northerns to pickle, but I let a lot of others go by."
As the name implies, the Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association isn't just for spearfishermen, but that's undoubtedly who will form the base because other angling associations don't include "darkhouse" in their names. State president Dave Burg, who also publishes the "Minnesota Darkhouse and Fishing News," predicts the Brainerd chapter will become one of the largest.
"There's a lot of spearers up there and there's never been an effort to unite them" Burg said. "All it takes is word of mouth. What other organization can your join for $10 a year and get a newspaper and a banquet where you can win hundreds of dollars in prizes?"
Johnson said the main thing is to unite darkhouse spearers and provide a forum in which to voice their concerns. "When I'm out fishing," he said, "I'll see a fish house a little ways off and I don't go there because I don't want to bother someone who's spearing. Most other spearers feel the same way, so conversation is limited. This organization will give us a dialogue with each other, a place where we can get to know each other, share stories and voice our concerns."
For more information on the Brainerd chapter of the Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association call Bob Johnson evenings at (218) 829-6446.
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