Hunting for fish

While people seem to know that Minnesota is considered the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” some are not aware of all of the unique activities that take place on many of those lakes, including spearfishing, an old tradition that a number of people in the area are more than happy to keep alive.

“It’s a neat sport,” said Justin Lightfoot, a professional fishing guide in Minnesota. “It’s kind of a dying thing. Not as many people do it anymore, and the youth aren’t getting involved anymore. But it’s amazing to do.”

Galen Boerboom, who farms in the Minneota area, has been spearfishing since he was 11 years old, having accompanied his parents, Vincent and Prudence Boerboom, on their many angling, ice fishing and spearfishing adventures.

“They’ve fished all their life,” Galen Boerboom said of his 89- and 87-year-old parents. “It’s just like bowhunting. You take the ones you want and leave the ones you don’t.”

This past month, Boerboom brought his mother out to the lake to go spearfishing a couple of times. On Jan. 29, Prudence Boerboom used the opportunity to spear a 12-pound northern.

“We were sitting in the fish house and she spotted a big one coming in,” Galen Boerboom said. “We were in about 9 to 10 feet of water, and it was at the bottom and she got it. She was just like a kid with a hand in the cookie jar. She was excited.”

While memorable, the 12-pounder wasn’t the largest Prudence Boerboom had ever recorded. In 1993, she speared a 28-pound northern that was 41 inches long and 24 inches around the belly, with photos to prove it. Ironically, her monster catch that January day at Lac qui Parle Lake made her husband’s 17-pounder he’d snagged that day seem rather small.

Though they’d like to, the Boerbooms don’t get out spearfishing around the area as much as they used to. Part of the reason for the limited participation locally has to do with water clarity. To be able to successfully spear northern pike and rough fish, which includes bullheads and carp, the water needs to be fairly clear.

“I don’t see a lot of people spearfishing locally, but a lot of it has to do with water clarity,” Lightfoot said. “I spend more time in central Minnesota. There’s a deep tradition of spearfishing that goes way back. It’s absolutely cool to look down the spear hole. It’s like a window into the underwater world.”

Jim Opdahl also describes the visual experience of spearfishing as something truly remarkable.

“If you find a lake that’s clear, it’s like watching TV down there,” he said. “If you keep the fish house dark, the sun illuminates the water underneath the ice. It’s almost like looking into an aquarium.”

Opdahl, also a farmer in the Minneota area, was introduced to spearfishing by Galen Boerboom this past year.

“This is my first winter that I’ve done this,” Opdahl said. “It’s fun. It’s like hunting a fish instead of fishing for them. Galen introduced me to it, and I’ve fallen in love with it. It’s a nice, relaxing pastime.”

While he can’t spear walleyes, perch or bass, Opdahl said he enjoys watching them swim past his colorful decoy or live minnow in the water below.

“You can sit out there and as you’re watching for a northern to come in, you can think about different things,” he said. “It’s nice and peaceful.”

Although spearfishing is a perfect solitary activity, oftentimes people prefer companionship while they wait for fish to swim by. At different times this season, Opdahl has brought nearly every family member, a considerable number of friends and a few neighbors with him to enjoy the experience.

“A lot of people have been spearing out here this year,” Opdahl said. “My son Todd and his girlfriend (Kallen Hayes) were out here, and it was fun watching her spear a northern. I had my daughter Alyssa and my 4-year-old grandson out here, and my son Lee’s been out here, too.”

This past Sunday, Dawson resident Mark Evjen joined Opdahl in the portable dark house.

“Mark made ice tongs for me,” Opdahl said. “He’s a welder. All he wanted in return was for me to take him spearing. He’s went along twice with me so far.”

On Wednesday morning, Opdahl brought Dennis Heggeseth to his favorite lake.

While the temperature was hovering around zero degrees outside, the heater allowed Opdahl and Heggeseth to stay warm inside the dark house, where Heggeseth, who was just there to hang out and observe, got to see Opdahl spear two northerns that weighed close to 5 pounds each.

“I’ve had pretty good luck,” Opdahl said. “I have better luck in the a.m. than the p.m., but it varies from day to day.”

Though things can differ each time, experience certainly helps, Opdahl said.

“You get pretty good after you’ve done it a few times,” he said. “When you see a fish, you get the spear part-way in the water and then shove it down. Otherwise, it really splashes and scares the fish. You gotta be sneaky about it or you can spook them.”

The biggest key in spearfishing, Opdahl said, is having patience. After setting up the portable dark house and then spending at least a half-hour cutting holes with the auger, lifting chunks of ice out as he goes, Opdahl is ready to sit down, relax and watch for fish.

“You have to twirl your (plastic) decoy every 10 minutes or so,” he said. “Plus, you use one live minnow to attract the fish. They usually stop and check out the decoy and that’s when you spear them. I’ve done some ice fishing in the past, but this is more fun for me.”

The experience of spearfishing, Opdahl said, is priceless in more than one way. Not only does the winter activity allow people to be outdoors and create opportunities for entertainment and conversation, it doesn’t cost anything, with the exception of the gas to drive to the lake, the price of fishing and spearing licenses and a dark house registration fee.

Since only three northerns are allowed in one’s possession, fish have to be eaten up quickly before heading back out onto the ice. That hasn’t been a problem for Opdahl. Whether it’s pickled, smoked or fried, Opdahl said he enjoys eating the fish, which fortunately, have been plentiful this year.

“Ice fishing down here has been really good,” Lightfoot said. “I think it’s because there’s good ice this year. The lakes are accessible.”

Lightfoot pointed out that this winter season has provided the best opportunity people have had to spear fish or go ice fishing for the past four years.

“Last year, it was too warm and the ice wasn’t safe,” he said. “The two years before that, there was too much snow. So in the past four years, this is the first year that fishermen in the area have had good accessibility.”

With the limited opportunities to spear or reel in fish the past couple of years, Lightfoot said, the fish population has also had the chance to grow.

“The more fish in a lake, the more fish that are going to be caught,” Lightfoot said. “There are a lot of factors involved, but if there’s been a couple poor years in a row, the fishing is typically going to be better, with more fish in the lake.”

While most of his clients are interested in fishing for walleyes and other fish in the central part of Minnesota, he often takes the time to stop and talk with people who are spearfishing.

“I’ll stop and visit with them,” he said. “I’ll look down their spear hole. It’s cool to talk to them about the fish they see.”

Spearfishing is a bigger deal in central Minnesota, too, Lightfoot said, noting an annual spearfishing decoy show in Perham.

“It might be the largest spearfishing decoy show in the world,” Lightfoot said. “There are amazing hand-carved fish decoys there. It’s a huge deal.”