You often hear that simple is better. Well, in the case of darkhouse spearfishing, that saying is true. Put away the fancy fish finders, specialized poles and tackle box full of ice lures. All you need for this sport is a spear.
Get back to your roots and try out darkhouse spearfishing. The thrill of a spot-and-stalk hunt for fish under the ice is one of the oldest forms of angling. Once banned in most states, it has returned and exploded in popularity in several upper mid-west and northeastern states.
If spearfishing for your next meal sounds like something you want to try, keep reading and we will share everything required to get started.
What is darkhouse spearfishing
Before you try spearing for the first time, it helps to know the basics. At a bare minimum, darkhouse spearfishing involves cutting a large rectangular hole through ice on a frozen lake, placing a darkened shelter over the hole and spearing fish as they swim by.
Most states that allow this type of fishing only permit the spearing of northern pike and rough fish (carp, suckers, bullhead).
Northern pike are what most spear throwers are after. These fish swim shallow while they forage for food and are readily lured under the spear hole by decoy baits. A pike’s long body makes them a good target for a spear and they taste delicious too.
Where can you go darkhouse spearfishing
The upper mid-west claims most of the attention for pike spearing and for good reason. North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan meet all the requirements. With abundant populations of northern pike and plenty of frozen water, these states are your best bet for darkhouse spearing.
A few other states have spearfishing available but darkhouse spearfishing for pike is not legal or possible in most states.
Always check the fishing regulations before going. Not all states allow non-residents to darkhouse spearfish and some states also require special registration.
Easy guide to darkhouse spearing for northern pike
Once you know where you’re going and you have the right license, the next step is to get all the gear.
Get a pike spear
Obviously, you’ll need a spear to get the job done. All good pike spears have several things in common. Here’s what you should look for when picking your first spear.
- 4 to 6 feet long
- Spears with 7 to 9 barbed tines
- Durable, rust resistant metal
- Comfortable grip, usually wood
- Eye for attaching rope at the end of the handle
- Good balance and weight towards spear head
- Narrow shaft for smooth throwing
Your success hinges on a good spear so don’t skimp on quality. If you need to, try a friend’s spear first so you can learn what works best for you.
Most spears cost between $60 and $200 but you can find excellent spears for around $100.
Oh, and don’t forget the rope. It’s a real bummer when you throw the spear into the water before you realize the rope is not tied on. 20 to 25 feet of 1/4 inch, high-strength cord works fine. Tie it through the handle with a secure knot and secure the other end of the rope as well. Some spearers use a wrist strap. You can also tie it to something solid in the shelter.
When you get a new spear, practice with it before the fish show up. It’s good to know how your equipment handles when the moment of action arrives.
Find a pike hot spot
In most of these mid-west states, pike are plentiful. It is not difficult to find pike, however there are spots that are going to be better than others.
Think shallow. Pike cruise shallow depths on the prowl for prey. 5 to 8 feet is the sweet spot. Also, if you go any deeper, it get’s hard to throw the spear fast enough without the pike dodging it.
Target weed lines near structure and flats. Weeds and submerged structure provide cover for aquatic life that draws in schools of foraging fish. Big northerns seek out these spots to scavenge and hunt.
Find their travel routes. Instead of randomly picking shallow spots, try looking at a lake map with contours and isolate likely travel routes. Small shallow bays, the inside turn of a point and narrow channels between open water are places that concentrate pike activity.
Drill out an ice hole
When you have the spot nailed down, it’s time to cut the spear hole.
The first step is to drill the corner holes of a rectangle. Use a manual or power ice auger to drill through the ice. Next, cut the ice with an ice saw to connect the holes.
Alternatively, you could drill several holes close together and chip out the opening with a metal spud bar.
Either way, you need to get the loose ice out of the way. If it’s not too thick, you can push down on one edge of the cut piece and slide it under the main ice until it’s out of the way.
When the ice is over 12 inches thick, it is just easier to cut it in smaller pieces and pull out chunks with a set of big ice tongs. You can find them online or at some sporting goods stores.
After the big chunks are out, clean up the rest with a landing net or ice skimmer. Get the ice hole nice and clean for an unobstructed view.
The hole size can vary depending on your shelter size. As long as you have good visibility below the ice and space to position the spear, you’re all set. I recommend an opening of at least 2 square feet.
Be mindful that you don’t fall into the hole. When you’re done for the day, alert other anglers to the hazard by placing a flag or tree branches over the hole.
Put a darkhouse over the hole
It really is nothing more than a shelter that blocks out all light. A pop-up ice fishing tent, ice shanty or a custom darkhouse will work as long as there is enough space for the hole, your gear and a good friend or two.
Get it positioned over your newly cut spearing hole. You may need to maneuver things a bit until it’s situated right. Most spearers like to have it centered in the shelter so you can walk around to adjust your throwing angle if needed.
Without the darkhouse, spearing is much harder. Outside light causes glaring which prevents you from seeing down into the water.
Make the shelter as dark as possible. The ambient glow from the water looks like an HD television in clear water. Just remember, turn off head lamps and phone screens when a fish approaches. They can see out just as easy as you can see in.
Drop down a decoy
There is a chance that a pike may randomly swim under your hole but to convince a trophy pike to stop long enough for you to spear it, you need a decoy.
The real diehards of spearing get serious about decoys. Many are hand carved and painted. It is an art form of it’s own and probably the most likely item to spend your money on.
The decoy is really just a large fish-shaped lure without hooks. Most are painted (red and white is a popular choice) with special fins attached to give it a natural appearance when moved.
Attach it to heavy duty fishing line and drop it into the water. Every once in a while, give the line a couple quick tugs to make it swim around. Pike look for commotion that might signal a feast.
Decoys are available online and in sporting goods stores for around $30. You can also use live bait if it is allowed. Big sucker minnows are a favorite. Have a bucket of them because they do get torn off and lost.
Wait for the pike to show up
Like all fishing, spearfishing for pike is a waiting game. Some days the action is hot and the fish are on the move. Days like this are a blast and give you plenty of opportunity to hone your spear throwing skills.
Other days, you may wait hours for one pike. I hear experienced spearers say that darkhouse spearing consists of long stretches of boredom punctuated by short moments of adrenaline inducing action. Especially when a trophy swims in.
Always stay alert. A fish can show up at any time and they appear out of nowhere like ghosts.
Get ready to throw the spear
It’s the moment of truth. A big pike is below checking out the decoy. Now what? The first step is to slowly and quietly get the spear into position.
Double check your rope attachments and slowly lower the spear head beneath the water. The key is stealth. Pike are wary predators and will dart away at any sign of danger.
Position the spear with the row of tines perpendicular to the pike’s body, just behind the head. Give the spear a smooth thrust down and release.
The barbs on the spear keep the fish locked on while you hoist it up with the rope. Occasionally, the spear may graze the fish and stun it. Quickly pull up the spear, reposition and throw it again.
Don’t be disappointed if you miss the first few fish. It takes practice and some good coaching to get your technique dialed in. It will be worth the effort though when you get your first one.
Essential tips for getting more pike with a spear
At some point, we all find ourselves making costly mistakes that end in missed opportunities. While darkhouse spearfishing seems simple, there are a few nuances that separate the pros from the amateurs. We have compiled a couple tips that are sure to put your spear through more fish.
- Stealth is critical: The majority of lost opportunity happens before the spear is even thrown. Keep in mind that you are fishing shallow; loud movements and excessive talking alerts fish to your presence. Once you drop the decoy, be extra quiet.
- Decoys don’t make up for bad spot selection: No matter how nice your decoys look, it won’t attract fish if they are not there. Half the battle is won with preparation. Scout out the best spots. If you are familiar with the lake, target spots where you catch them during the summer and fall.
- Don’t over use the decoys: One mistake new spearers make is moving the decoys too much. Life slows down during winter under the ice. Too much commotion can keep pike at a distance. Pike will look closely at subtle movements that mimic actual fish.
- Take your time with the spear: Everyone gets excited to throw the spear but the moments leading up to the throw are the most important. It is crucial that you get the spear head below the water first. This reduces splash and lets you line up the tines with your target. You are not throwing the spear so much as pushing the spear down. A smooth throw means less splash and better accuracy. You’ll hit where you aim more often if you take the time to setup your throw.
If you’ve ever wished for a bit more excitement from your fishing adventures, then darkhouse spearfishing is worth a try. From the moment you drill the hole to seeing a 40 inch pike below, nothing beats the memories you’ll make.
Spending time with friends or family while spearing for pike is a recipe for fun. Get outside this winter and bring home a few tasty pike on a spear.