Ice spearing for northern pike

Spearing is a fascinating way to harvest one of Minnesota's largest fish. Looking down from above, you seek  – and see – the fish in its world rather than blindly pulling the fish in on a line strung with enticements and attractions from your world.

Found in in nearly every Minnesota lake and river, the northern pike is a voracious predator. That instinct draws it to the decoy dangling in the portal from which you'll be peeking into the northern's world.

Though somewhat challenging to fillet, the northern pike is excellent table fare.

A northern pike being speared from above in a dark house
When to spear

Generally, spearing is limited to rough fish such as sucker. But spearing on the ice for northern pike is allowed from mid-November to the last Sunday in February. Check the fishing regulations for specific information.

Minnesota has three northern pike zones and regulations vary depending on where you're spearing. You'll find the regulations for each zone listed in the inland waters section of the online fishing regulations. For an explanation of what these regulations are designed to accomplish, check out our northern pize zones page.

Even with the zones in place, some Minnesota waters still may have special regulations in place for pike. Check to see if this list contains the lake in which you're spearing.

Regulations also may differ on Minnesota's border waters with Canada, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

Where to spear

Most Minnesota lakes and rivers contain northern pike but not all so, if you intend to spear northern pike, a good place to start is our LakeFinder tool, which contains fish population information for more than 4,500 fishing lakes.

Northern pike in winter in many of the same places you find them in autumn – points, narrows, vegetation lines and other vegetation places where this top predator can hide while waiting to ambush prey. Lakefinder includes underwater topographic maps that can help you find some of these prime locations.

Typically, northern pike spearing occurs in relatively shallow water, commonly in the six-to 10-foot range. Spearing works best if your dark house is over a sandy or light-colored bottom rather than a dark muddy bottom. That’s because northern pike show up better when suspended over a light background.

How to spear

Spearing is a fascinating way to harvest a northern pike but it requires equipment different from standard ice fishing. So, if you want to try spearing you will need to borrow or buy a few specialty items, including a spear, dark house or roomy portable shelter, fish decoys, ice chisel, ice saw, auger and maybe even ice tongs.

Given the item you need, a good way to get into spearing is to try it first with someone who knows how to do it.

So how do you do it? Here are the basic steps:

  1. Cut a good-sized rectangular viewing hole. Typically, viewing holes are about three feet long and two feet wide. To make a viewing hole drill four holes where you want your four corners. Next, use an ice saw or chisel to connect the four holes, thereby creating a rectangular slab of floating ice. When the ice is relatively thin you can push the slab under the ice and away from the hole with your chisel. Later in the year, when slabs are thick and their buoyance makes them difficult to push down, it is best to pry them out of the water with your chisel. If you do this always return the slab to the water when you are done spearing. You don’t want to leave large chunks of ice on the lake as they become safety hazards for snowmobilers and other motor vehicles. Also, when finished spearing mark your spear hole with a tree branch or brush. This is a traditional signal to others not to drive or walk over this spot as the ice may not be safe.
  2. Clean the hole. Do this with an ice fishing scoop/strainer or even a shovel. The key is to get the slush and small ice chunks out of the hole so you can see perfectly into the water.
  3. Get dark. The key to dark house spearing is being enveloped in darkness. Darkness makes the fish and lake bottom visible. Darkness also prevents the fish from seeing you. Unlike most ice fishing houses, dark houses do not have windows or the windows are covered to seal out the light.
  4. Drop a decoy. Fish decoys attract northern pike to your viewing hole. Artificial decoys come in a variety of shapes, lengths and colors. It’s smart to buy decoys that mimic common prey in the lake you fish. A live decoy – typically a large sucker minnow trussed in a harness – is another option. Decoys are typically tied to a short rod and reel, and jigged fairly frequently to attract curious and hungry fish. Larger jigging motions are best for attracting distant fish. More subtle motions are best for keeping the fish’s interest when it is in or near the hole. The decoy’s purpose is to lure the fish into the center of the hole and relatively close to the surface so spearing success is higher.
  5. Get ready to spear. Since you never know when a fish is going to swim into the hole it is best to keep the spear tip in the water. This way you won’t splash the water with your spear and scare the pike away when it arrives. When throwing a spear be sure to keep it perpendicular to the water. You want the fish to be directly beneath the spear. Don’t throw a spear at an angle because this most often results in a miss due to the light-bending properties of refraction. Though anglers talk about “throwing” the spear in reality many spearers more or less drop the spear with a two-fingered motion akin to tossing a paper airplane. This type of release is effective because spears are heavy, sharp and gravity works. Finally, when possible it is best to drop the spear when the fish is facing away from you. Aim for the back of the head. Make sure your spear is tethered to the wall of your dark house or some other fixed object. If you have speared a large pike keep pressure on the fish until it stops moving by keeping the spear perpendicular, thereby essentially pinning it to the bottom. If you let the spear fall flat on the bottom there is a chance the fish will wiggle off, swim away and die elsewhere.
Gear

Basic

  • Auger for drilling corners of viewing hole
  • Ice saw for carving viewing hole into the ice
  • Ice chisel for pushing and prying ice slab out of the way
  • Scoop, large strainer or shovel for removing ice and slush from the hole
  • Dark house or roomy portable shelter
  • Spear with an attached rope or cord
  • Plastic bucket or chair to sit on
  • Warm clothes and boots

Useful & handy

  • Sled for hauling your gear
  • Emergency ice picks to stab into ice in the event you break through
  • Propane heater
  • Disposable hand and toe warmers
  • Face mask
  • GPS unit or smartphone app (they are quite inexpensive) that shows lake depths and bottom contours
  • Small towel or rag for drying hands
  • Warm, waterproof gloves
  • Ruler for measuring fish to ensure your catch is legal size
  • Compass in the event snow squalls prevent you from being able to see shore
  • Slip-on ice cleats for your boots
What's important to know
  • Residents age 18 to 89 and nonresidents age 18 and older need a dark house spearing license and an angling license. Youth age 16 and 17 need an angling license but do not need a dark house spearing license.
  • You cannot use artificial light to attract fish while spearing.
  • Party fishing does not apply to spearing. Each person can only spear their own fish.
  • Northern pike regulations vary throughout the state. Determine the number of fish you can spear and sizes that are legal to harvest using LakeFinder, LakeFinder Mobile or the fishing regulations booklet.
  • If you are in doubt about the size of the pike attracted to your decoy, remember you do not have to spear it. Consider taking a photograph, or recording a video of the pike coming to the decoy.
  • Size limit regulations mean you must have a good idea of how long a northern pike is before you attempt to spear it. This can be difficult without some type of guide. One approach is to use a large decoy, of known length, and base your estimate of the fish’s total length on the length of your decoy.
  • When cleaning your catch it is common to see small black spots on the fillets. These pepper-like appearances – called neascus – are not harmful nor does it alter the health or flavor of the fish.
  • Northern pike are very tasty but require an extra step to remove Y-bones during the filleting process. If you have never filleted a northern pike, view our pike filleting video or search online tutorials.
  • Another option is to simply pickle the northern pike you catch. The Y-bones dissolve in the acidic vinegar.
Basic biology
  • Northern pike are typically olive green with short white bar-like spots on the sides and a white underbelly. The fins are reddish.
  • Northern pike often become sexually mature at just two years old. They breed in late winter and early spring in shallow grassy areas, starting when ice still covers the lakes.
  • Northern pike are not fussy eaters. They will eat most any fish, including those with spiny fins.
  • Northern pike have an exceptionally slimy body that reduces friction as it accelerates through the water.
  • The state record northern pike weighed 14 pounds, 12 ounces.
Helpful information
  • Check out the Minnesota Darkhouse & Angling Association's information on spearing history and buidling a portable shelter.
  • An internet search of "how to spear northern pike" will yield various articles and videos that further expand on how to spear northern pike.
  • An internet search of “ice fishing augers” is something you may want to research because drilling a hole is the very first step to catching fish. Hand and power augers come in a wide variety of price ranges and styles with battery powered augers increasingly popular because they start reliably with the flip of a switch. If you choose a hand auger, you may want to consider one with cutting blades no larger than five inches in length. That’s large enough for bluegill yet easier on your body because you will be making a smaller diameter cutting through less ice.
  • An internet search of “ice fishing electronics” will yield various articles and videos on sonar units, underwater cameras and GPS units. These days the majority of ice fishing anglers use some sort of fish-finding technology rather than, as they say, “fishing blind.”