Simple anticipation

NEW LONDON -- Modern anglers haul a plethora of gadgets with them on the ice these days, everything from electronic fish locaters and underwater cameras to graphite rods and even camera flashes to make their lures glow under the water.

NEW LONDON -- Modern anglers haul a plethora of gadgets with them on the ice these days, everything from electronic fish locaters and underwater cameras to graphite rods and even camera flashes to make their lures glow under the water.

Bob Halvorson of rural New London carries essentially the same gear he first brought to the water in 1954, when he purchased his first $1 license from the Minnesota Conservation Department to spear fish through the ice.

His license costs $18 today, and he uses a propane heater instead of wood stove to warm his house, but that's all that has changed.

Just as his father had once done before him, Halvorson uses a hand-powered saw to slice a small rectangle in the ice and open his window to the world below his feet. He sets his small darkhouse over it, fires up his heater, and sinks a hand carved fish decoy into the water that glows in a soft shade of green.

Then, he waits in quiet anticipation with a hand-held spear, occasionally jigging the decoy that dangles from a fish line and stick.


The "simplicity" of the sport remains one of its prime attractions for Halvorson, who has enjoyed it now for more than 50 winters.

Halvorson, president of the Minnesota Darkhouse & Angling Association, said the simplicity of the sport is also one of the reasons he remains so optimistic about its future. "There are a lot of people out there looking for a simple sport,'' said Halvorson.

Each year, some 17,000-18,000 Minnesotans purchase licenses for darkhouse spear fishing each year, according to Halvorson. The sport is "holding its own" in terms of numbers, he said.

The organization he heads lists over 2,500 members, a membership rate that reflects how passionate spear fishermen and women are about their sport, according to Halvorson.

It's all about anticipation, the patient wait for a lunker northern pike to emerge into view, said Halvorson. Just like a bow hunter perched in a tree, the spearer must also wait for the fish to move into position for a strike.

"You sit there for the longest time, and all of a sudden something happens,'' he said.

Halvorson has watched northern pike come from nowhere and charge his decoys like a bull chasing a matador's cape.

One time a northern chomped down on his decoy and sped off like a torpedo, but continued to hold stubbornly to the wooden fish. Halvorson pulled him back like a thief nabbed in the act.


Other times, he's held his breath as a dark shadow slowly takes form in the depth, and the lunker northern pike it represents casually looks over the decoy and then wanders off like a disinterested shopper.

And sometimes, fish just aren't there to be seen. Halvorson said his father long moaned the day he spent on Nest Lake just offshore from the Girl Scout camp without seeing a fish. Just a snowball's throw away, a friend speared northern pike of 25 and 27 pounds within one-half hour of each other.

His father, Cy Halvorson, was an avid outdoorsman who operated Cy's Tackle Box in Willmar. He made his own, distinctive white- and red-colored spear fishing decoys that he sold under the logo: "Made by a Fisherman for a Fisherman.''

Cy Halvorson introduced his son to spear fishing at a young age. "He brought me to the house and tied a rope around me,'' said Halvorson with a laugh. That kept his mother happy, who worried about her son falling in the water.

Norway Lake was their favorite spear fishing destination, with Green Lake and Eagle Lake the second and third choices for them. When the snow got really deep one winter, Halvorson said his father convinced a friend to fly them out to their darkhouse on Green Lake and pick them up after a day of spearing.

The Willmar and New London-Spicer areas have a long and rich history of spear fishing. Cy Halvorson was one of a number of local residents who became known throughout the state for the wooden decoys they carved, or in other cases, the metal spears they manufactured.

Halvorson said there is a growing interest today in the tradition and lore of spear fishing. Collectors eagerly buy up the wooden decoys of yesterday. There's even a folk art that has grown up around the carving and painting of decoys.

But don't worry, he said. There are still plenty of crafts people carving decoys meant for spear fishing. There are also low-cost, plastic decoys that work just fine, too.


By and large, Halvorson said most people take up the sport because they were introduced to it like he was, by a parent or someone else.

Those who continue with the sport are people who appreciate the style of fishing it offers. Spear fishing offers the opportunity to enjoy quiet and solitude on the ice, he said.

Spearers prefer locations on lakes where they can get away from the noise and commotion, said Halvorson. That tends to be harder to do these days, as there is increasing traffic from snowmobiles, four-wheelers and pick-up trucks.

The fishing has changed, too. The size of northern pike in many Minnesota lakes is definitely on the wane.

Halvorson said research indicates that spearers tend to harvest northern pike that on average are larger than those taken by hook and line anglers.

But Halvorson said notions that spear fishermen and women are taking all the big pike have also been disproved by research. Spear fishing technology has really not changed in the last 50 years. For the time they spend on the water, their take of the harvest is certainly lower than that of anglers armed with all the modern electronics and gadgetry of today.

His own experience tells the story, too. In more than half a century of avid spearing, he's harvested no more than three northern pike over 36 inches in length, and only a handful in the 10- to 12-pound range.

He is just as apt these days to pass up opportunities on some large northerns. He practices a selective harvest that is complementary of the catch and release ethic many hook-and-line anglers are adopting.


Halvorson said he and many others spearers are just as interested in harvesting an occasional meal of northern, more so than trophy hunting.

And more than 50 years after he took up the sport, Halvorson said it's not just the same type of equipment that he carries out on to the ice with him. Each time he goes spearing, he brings with him the same anticipation for excitement, and comes back with the same sense of satisfaction for time well spent.

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