The return of northern pike spearing to Mille Lacs Lake for the first time in 32 years is generating a buzz among long-time spearers — and hope for resort owners whose fortunes long have been tied to the big lake's struggling walleye population.
Steve Deslauriers has been spearing elsewhere for around 20 years, so he was eager for the chance to try Mille Lacs, one of the state's most popular fisheries. The Howard Lake man was pleased with what his family and friends found late last week.
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"Bar none, it was the best spearing experience we've ever had," Deslauriers said Monday. "The opportunity to spear a big one was there. We saw a lot of fish."
Winter spearfishing is different from conventional ice angling or open-water spearing. It's done from darkhouses that block out all outside light. That lets spearers see all the way to the bottom of the lake through a large hole in the floor. A spearer waits for a northern to investigate a decoy hanging above the bottom, then tries to impale the fish with a pitchfork-like spear. One of the appeals is that it's possible to watch not only pike, but all the other fish swimming by.
"Looking down one of these holes is just awesome. Our water in Mille Lacs is so clear," said Daron Stenvold, owner of Fishermen's Wharf Resort in Isle.
Darkhouse spearing hasn't been allowed on Mille Lacs since the winter of 1982-83. It was closed to build up muskellunge, an even bigger predator that bears a strong resemblance to the northern pike. But the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources decided earlier this year it was safe to reopen northern spearing.
"The northern pike abundance is really high for Mille Lacs Lake, and there's an ample number of smaller pike in the set, which will let us take a fairly large number of them without changing the population too much," said Rick Bruesewitz, the agency's area fisheries manager.
Researchers still don't know to what extent predation by northerns contributed to the decline in Mille Lacs' walleye population, Bruesewitz said. But the agency wanted to ease the impact on local businesses from stringent restrictions imposed on walleye angling last spring. So it liberalized the lake's northern and bass rules. Anglers and spearers can now keep 10 northerns from the lake, though only one can be more than 30 inches long.
While the DNR encourages spearers to take smaller northerns, Nelle Phillips of Hunter Winfield's Resort in Isle said many 40-inch-plus pike have been speared since the bays froze over.
"We're definitely getting the spear guys from other lakes because they know there's big fish in this lake, and being closed this long they've got a better shot at getting one," said Kari Hough, owner of Garrison Sports in Garrison. "There's a lot of spear guys who never have speared this lake; they're not old enough."
Dennis Johnson is old enough at 70. The Waconia man has been spearing for 50 years, but last week was his first time on Mille Lacs and it was everything he hoped for. The 16 pound, 2 ounce, 38-inch northern he hauled out last Tuesday was the second-largest of his career, behind only an 18½-pounder he speared elsewhere years ago.
Johnson compared it to deer hunting. Just as a hunter waits in a tree stand for a buck to come into range, a spearer waits for a fish to swim into view.
"You see that big northern down there and it gets your blood pumping," he said. "It's a thrill, yes it is."