BRAINERD, MINN. - Barack Obama was not our president the last time I had been darkhouse spear fishing. Neither was a man named Bush. Nor Clinton. Nor another guy named Bush.
"I can't remember when I last looked at a lake bottom through a 2-feet-by-4-feet hole in the ice," I said to Trent Baumann during a recent spear-fishing outing.
Trent, 40, of Brainerd, had invited me to join him for a morning of spearing northern pike in his small darkhouse. A week or so prior he had placed his shanty on a little lake not far from town, 8 inches of clear ice supporting it.
Actually, on that day, I chose to be a spectator. I figured should a pike appear, handling a spear and a camera while hunkered over a huge hole in the ice might lead to the wrong equipment going into the lake. Also, I was without the necessary license in my pocket.
It had been a few days since Trent had used the darkhouse, so an inch or two of ice needed to be removed from the large rectangular hole. With that chore complete, Trent lowered two decoys. One was an old standby that even I recognized. It was a red-and-white affair, carved in the shape of a small pike. The other decoy was a more modern version. It was made of soft plastic molded to resemble a sucker minnow.
Trent positioned the decoys about 6 feet down. The lake bottom, barely visible in the green-stained water, was 12 feet below us. A few dozen feet to our left was deeper water, roughly 18 feet, and to our right was a shallow flat about 4 feet deep. Our hope was that hungry pike would be cruising the breakline and would find our decoys to their liking.
Just a few minutes passed before the first northern appeared. It swam in slowly, eyeing the red-and-white decoy.
"Just too small," said Trent. The fish eventually moved off.
During a lull in the action, Trent told me he had been a spear fisherman most of his adult life. "I actually got started when I was in college," he said. "We speared and ate pike all winter.
"I really enjoy time spent in the darkhouse. It's like watching nature on a big-screen TV. It's fun to observe how minnows scatter when a pike is nearby. It's sort of like bow hunting for deer. I often let does and small bucks pass by when I'm bow hunting, just like I usually let small pike swim away. I can throw the spear, or not."
The next pike to swim into view was a bit larger. Trent slowly grabbed the spear in one hand and maneuvered the decoy with the other. When the northern was positioned directly below, Trent eased the spear into the water. Then with a quick motion, he flung the lance downward. The spear pierced the pike just behind the head. A perfect hit.
I'd like to say it took some maneuvering to get the pike out of the hole, but that was not the case. The fish weighed about 3 pounds.
"Fish for supper tonight," Trent said.
Trent usually fillets the northerns he spears, removes the Y-bones, and cuts the meat into 1-inch chunks. Then he boils them and dips the pieces into butter -- his version of poor man's lobster.
About noon the action slowed. We had seen 11 pike, but just one lay on ice outside the darkhouse.
"There's a lot of spearing left this winter," Trent said as we packed up. "Maybe next time a monster will appear."