Dave Estrem witnessed firsthand the frenzy that occurred this winter when northern pike spearing was allowed on Lake Mille Lacs for the first time in 32 years.

“The bays were just littered with spearhouses,’’ said Estrem, manager of Hunter Winfield’s Resort near Isle.

His resort rented eight darkhouses. “From Thanksgiving to the first of the year, they were filled on weekends, and two or three were filled during the week,” he said. And many spearers found their mark.

“They got lots of fish, from less than 30 inches to more than 30 inches,” Estrem said. “A lot of guys were happy. And it was a nice bump in business for us.”

Though angling accounted for 95 percent of Mille Lacs fishing pressure this winter, the allure of the lake’s new spearing opportunities helps explain a stunning 44 percent increase in the sales of Minnesota spearing licenses this season. After averaging about 16,000 resident licenses the past 10 years, the Department of Natural Resources sold 26,236 spearing licenses this year — nearly 8,000 more than last year and the highest in 27 years.

“To increase that much in one season is almost mind-boggling,” said Tim Spreck of Stillwater, a lobbyist and past president of the Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association. “The only thing that has changed is the opening of Mille Lacs [to northern spearing].”

A DNR creel survey this winter recorded 65,000 hours of spearfishing on Mille Lacs — which translates to an estimated 5,000 spearers, said Eric Jensen, DNR large lake specialist.

“Even if we assumed all of them were new, it doesn’t add up to 8,000,’’ Jensen said. “It [the increase in spearers] has to be more than just Mille Lacs.’’

Spreck offered another theory: “The Darkhouse Association has done a phenomenally good job of promoting itself. Our Facebook page is getting 30,000 to 35,000 hits a week during the season.”

Roger Goeschel of Burnsville, former Darkhouse Association president, questioned the accuracy of the DNR’s numbers. “You just don’t pick up 8,000 people in one year,” he said. He noted that a 2013 law change required seniors age 65 to 89 to buy a darkhouse spearing license, and he suspects those spearers are somehow just showing up now in the license sales statistics.

Northern harvest triples in size

The Mille Lacs creel survey showed spearers took 2,800 of the 3,175 northerns harvested this winter. The rest were caught by anglers, at least some of whom oppose northern spearing, worrying that the lake’s trophy-size pike might be disproportionately targeted. (The spearing season closed statewide Sunday; the northern angling season on Mille Lacs continues through March 29.) Total weight of the northerns was 18,400 pounds. Last year, with very poor ice conditions, winter anglers took just 2,000 pounds of northerns. In 2013, with normal ice conditions, they harvested 6,000 pounds.

While this year’s harvest is triple that amount, the total yearly northern harvest, including open-water fishing, should be well below the 50,000-pound safe-harvest target. Last year, summer anglers took about 16,000 pounds of northerns. Chippewa bands also were allocated 50,000 pounds.

“I have no concerns of overharvest,” said Rick Bruesewitz, DNR area fisheries manager.

To help encourage anglers to visit Mille Lacs despite a recent drop in the walleye population and tight regulations that make keeping walleyes difficult, last year the DNR boosted the bag limit on northerns from three to 10 fish, with one over 30 inches allowed. The limit was boosted to allow more opportunities for anglers to harvest fish from Mille Lacs, while perhaps also benefiting the lake’s walleyes.

No anglers in the DNR creel survey kept 10 fish, Jensen said. Estrem, too, said none of his customers speared 10 fish.

“It was not happening,” he said.

Jerry Brandt owns Brandt’s Ice Fishing, a rental house business on the south end of the big lake. He added two darkhouses this winter to his bevy of 26 ice-fishing houses.

“I wish I would have had more darkhouses,” he said. “We were booked through the middle of January. It was fantastic to start with, then slowed down.

“No one took that many fish; they were after trophies,” he said. “They didn’t want the little ones.”

The spearing definitely boosted his business and others around the lake, he said. Business that has been down because of the walleye woes.

DNR to meet with locals

Jensen and other DNR officials will discuss the northern harvest at the annual meeting Thursday with the Mille Lacs Input Group, a consortium of resort owners, bait shops and other local businesses.

Yet, whatever attention is given northern spearing at the meeting, prospects for recovery of the lake’s walleyes will be the top concern.

On Mille Lacs, Jensen said, “Walleye is still king.”


Twitter: @dougsmithstrib