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Blane Klemek column: Hunting for northern pike in the darkhouse

Drive a stretch of highway along a solidly frozen Minnesota lake and you'll notice there are often clusters of small fish houses, like villages, scattered all over the lake's ice-covered surface.

And paralleling the lakeshore in an orderly and equidistant manner will often be other houses and various shelters conspicuously set apart from those other villages of fishing shelters.

Those are the "darkhouses," the spear-houses. If you look close you may see a large block of ice, perhaps two blocks, sitting near the dwellings. Sometimes you will notice dark smoke drifting from a rooftop stovepipe, or a nearby vehicle parked on the ice, which will be a clue that someone's probably inside.

The spear-fisher's choice of equipment is simple; it's a crude spear with maybe five, seven, or nine barbed tines. His quarry is northern pike: a predaceous fish shaped like a torpedo with a mouthful of teeth that can grow as large as 10, 20, or 30 pounds.

The darkhouse, never very large, is sometimes a portable-type that sets up and disassembles in a jiffy. But most often the shelter is a "permanent" structure (granted, no fish house is permanent, for the ice does indeed eventually melt). Any number of different tools carves a hole through the ice; an ice auger, chainsaw, chisel, or ice-saw all do the trick just fine.

After a square or rectangular-shaped "hole" in the ice has been cut with the tool of choice, the block of ice is removed, the ice chips are skimmed from the frigid water with an ice strainer, and the darkhouse is slid over the hole and aligned perfectly with the hole in the floor. Afterwards, the house is banked with snow, piled against all sides of the house to insulate it from the cold and to block sunlight from penetrating around the sides of the newly cut hole.

Next, it's important to get the stove started. Maybe it's a wood- or oil- or propane-burning stove, no matter, as long as the stove radiates plenty of heat to last the day. Once inside the house, the spear-fisher sees for the first time the aquatic world he or she has settled above. The correct depth is a matter of preference, but generally six to 12 feet of water is preferred.

What will matter, however, is the water's clarity. Spearing northern pike is best accomplished in clear water. After a few more chips of ice are removed from the hole, the spear-fisher is ready to fish.

By this time, the stove has heated the house sufficiently enough so a garment or two can be shed. A cooler with a lunch, a thermos of coffee, box of decoys, chair, a radio, and the spear are brought inside the fish house. The spear's rope, of which one end is tied to the spear's handle and the other end tied to the spear-fisher's chair, ankle, or wrist, is essential in order to keep from losing the spear after it has been thrust at a pike.

At last it is time to spear, and time to open the box of decoys. The decoys are facsimiles of fishes. Some decoys have metal fins that can be bent for different swimming actions. All are either wood or plastic and painted like the species they represent, or with colors you would only see on tropical fish.

Typically, the spear-fisher will choose their favorite decoy to fish with first: the one that has lured in many a pike. Then, from an old bait-casting reel affixed to the ceiling, a length of line is pulled from it and the decoy is attached to a snap-swivel.

And making certain that the decoy is properly secured to the line, the spear-fisher drops it into the water. Plop! Down it goes in corkscrew fashion until the end of the line has been reached — about three to six feet down.

The spear-fisher swims the decoy around and around by holding the line between thumb and forefinger while yanking the line upwards. This is done frequently to hopefully lure in a pike. If the spear-fisher is lucky, a northern pike may swim into view and, if he or she is really lucky, the fish will be lured into view just long enough for the spearhead of the spear to be submerged into the water, aimed, and thrown in a timely, silent, and accurate way.

Even so, it isn't necessarily required that the spear be thrown at the pike — or any pike for that matter. The ultimate catch-and-release fishing method, the spear-fisher can practice "watch and release." The pike, not even aware that anything's amiss, can be observed, studied, appreciated, and allowed to swim away underneath the ice, out of view, and possibly never to be seen again.

Indeed, often the spear-fisher will sit all day inside the warm and cozy darkhouse — alone — eating a lunch and sipping hot coffee, listening to the radio, and swapping out different artificial decoys or watching his or her harnessed live sucker decoy lazily swim throughout the hole, without ever bringing home a fish for the frying pan.

And so it is; as the spear-fisher watches the watery world below pass by and all the minnows and other fishes swimming casually about, be they the occasional walleye, perch, or sunfish — waiting, hoping, and wondering if today will be the day that a giant northern pike reveals itself at last — the spear-fisher is always content in knowing that no matter what the outcome, any day's a good day to be fishing as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.