When was the last time you used a chain saw to cut a 2-foot-by-4-foot rectangular opening in the ice for the express purpose of using a spear to impale the shark of freshwater fish: the toothy northern pike?
“I can answer that,” said 25-year-old Amanda Johnson. “Over Thanksgiving weekend.”
Johnson, who grew up in Plymouth and graduated from Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School, is a full-throated devotee of dark-house spearfishing — a small subculture of ice angling that has roots in pre-settlement Native American culture. She started spearing six years ago with her now-fiancé, Matt, on Medicine Lake in Plymouth, a formative experience, she recalls, that became the spark that lit the fuse to her current “pedal to the metal” outdoors lifestyle as hunter and angler.
“Growing up, aside from some fishing, my family really didn’t have a connection to the outdoors. No one shot firearms or hunted … and I was strictly an athlete,” said Johnson, who has a biology degree from the University of Kansas. “I started spearing very casually with Matt, who is a crazy-avid hunter and angler. I remember my first time spearing, hearing the ice crack on Medicine Lake and being completely freaked out. But now I have the knowledge and confidence to go by myself, cut my own holes, use my own gear. It’s empowering, and I love it. Being outdoors hunting and fishing is my medicine.”
Johnson wants other women to love it, too — and she’s isn’t merely paying lip service to a cause. On Jan. 10-12, Johnson will host Ladies Spearfishing Weekend on Bay Lake in Deerwood. Roughly 30 women have signed up for the event (it’s capped at 35). Johnson, who started the event last year, will teach an informal class on spearfishing and its history. Participants will learn how to clean pike, including removing those pesky Y-bones. Family-style dinners, including some wild game, will be served.
“We’re going to teach the basics, so it’s the perfect opportunity for beginners,” Johnson said. “It’s a fun weekend. Lots of bonding and camaraderie and talk about what we’re doing in the outdoors. And, hopefully, lots of spearing, too.”
Johnson got the idea of putting on a women’s-only pike-spearing event after Matt, then Johnson’s boyfriend, said she couldn’t attend an annual spearing trip “with the guys.”
“I got snubbed,” she said, laughing. “Actually, nothing grinds my gears more than somebody telling me I can’t do something because I’m a woman. So I was a little ticked.”
In retrospect, Johnson said, the snub was actually a blessing wrapped in an opportunity. “For women, there are countless barriers preventing us from learning to hunt and fish,” said Johnson, who is a member of several hunting and angling groups, including the Minnesota Darkhouse & Angling Association. “We lack mentors, cheap and practical gear, confidence, and so much more. I want to be a woman who encourages and inspires other women to break through these barriers and successfully learn to hunt and fish.”
That’s why Johnson started Amanda’s Outdoor Adventures, or what she calls her own personal brand for introducing women to hunting and fishing. “It’s my mission,” said Johnson, who served on the Minnesota DNR R3 Council before taking a job recently in Omaha. “Before I started hunting and fishing, I was an introvert. I lived in my own bubble. I didn’t take risks. Hunting and fishing changed all that, and I want that for other women. Nothing makes me happier or more fulfilled.”
Johnson routinely uses social media, primarily Instagram and Facebook, to showcase her day-to-day outdoors lifestyle and connect with other women. Her posts and videos, like the one with her using a chain saw over Thanksgiving weekend, are honest and forthright. “I don’t do glamour shots,” Johnson said. “I want to show women what this lifestyle is all about, warts and all.”
Johnson said part of the allure of spearfishing for pike is eavesdropping on the piscatorial underworld. The rectangular opening in the ice acts as a portal or television, with events — baitfish or walleyes casually checking out her pike decoy — playing out in real time.
“When you’re sitting in a dark house, it takes a little while for your eyes to adjust. But when they do, you can see everything crystal-clear, like it’s in high-definition,” said Johnson. “It can be fascinating.”
In another sense, Johnson said pike spearing is similar to sitting in a deer stand waiting for a whitetail to appear. “Like deer hunting, there can be a lot of down time … but there is always that sense of anticipation,” she said. “When a pike finally does appear, everything changes. Your heart starts to race. Your breathing becomes heavier. It’s incredibly exciting. The only difference is that, with spearfishing, you can talk to your friends, eat snacks and listen to the radio.”
Johnson said Bay Lake in Deerwood is the perfect setting for a spearing event. It’s full of pike, most of which are small “hammer handles” that can be transformed into delicious meals. If the fish cooperate, Johnson will do a demonstration on how to make fish cakes; she may even prepare oven-baked pike with lemon and butter, a nod to haute cuisine. She’ll also have pickled pike on hand for everyone to sample.
“For some women, this will be the first time eating wild game or fish,” she said. “Eating what you kill is important … and I want to pass that along, too. Besides, pike is delicious. I don’t care what anyone says, it’s way better than walleye.”
Amanda Johnson can be reached on Instagram @amandas_outdoor_adventures.
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance outdoors writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.