NEAR GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. - Paul Nelson stopped in the snowy woods and looked around.
"This is where we usually get lost," he said.
Nelson and his partner, Liv Mostad-Jensen, both of Grand Rapids, were looking for a lake where they could do some northern pike spearing. They'd been there once before, on this same route. But there was no trail, and on that first trip the two had to do a bit of - well, exploring - before finding the lake.
"Last year was the first time we tried to get in here," said Nelson, 37. "We didn't get there until 2 p.m. It was, 'Do we fish or just go back?' We fished, and the fishing was phenomenal."
On this crisp January morning, he picked a likely looking opening in the woods, and soon the three of us had found the spearing grounds.
Most spearers have their shacks set up permanently and just drive across the ice to them. Nelson and Mostad-Jensen prefer finding lakes well off the beaten path and bushwhacking into them. They haul all their gear - pop-up shelter, ice auger, decoys, heater - on narrow sleds that Nelson built. For these two, getting there is part of the adventure.
Nelson, who has been spearing since his youth, found this lake the way he finds most of his spearing lakes. He researches the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website and Google Earth. Then he and Mostad-Jensen, 35, try to figure out how to get there.
Open for business
Setup went quickly. Nelson drilled four holes at intervals across the lake near a submerged reef. He found depths from 5 to 15 feet. At the deepest spot, he used an ice saw to carve a spearing hole about 40 inches in diameter. Up went the pop-up shelter. In went the heater and chairs. Out came six or eight decoys, all handcrafted by Nelson.
Mostad-Jensen took up the spear and leaned forward to peer into the murky green depths. Nelson began swimming a bright green decoy in slow circles.
It was quite a while before the first northern pike came finning toward the decoy. At least two minutes.
"He was a nice fat one," Mostad-Jensen said, watching the fish mosey out of our sphere of observation.
"This lake has shown us a good number of fish, and a nice size," Nelson said.
He had hardly uttered the words when another northern came idling into view, gazing at a red and white decoy Nelson had switched to.
"That's about a 6-pounder," he said.
It swam off to live another day, too.
In the first half-hour on the ice, four northerns came in, none in a hurry. Mostad-Jensen didn't lift the spear.
Nelson and Mostad-Jensen practice a kind of selective harvest when spearing. Obviously, they cannot release a speared pike, so they simply don't throw the spear often. Nelson speared a 20-pound pike 10 years ago.
"I've probably seen a dozen that size or bigger since then," he said.
He hasn't thrown his spear at one of them.
"I've already speared one that big, and they're not good for meat. I just find it excessive," he said.
On this outing, they were looking for just one fish, about a 2-pounder. That would be enough for a couple of fillets and a few scraps of belly meat for Moo, their calico cat.
"She gets really excited when we come back from spearing," Nelson said.
When Nelson researches new spearing lakes, he checks DNR surveys that show the average numbers of pike and their average size. But he also looks for other keys, like the number of tullibees in DNR assessment netting. Pike fatten up on tullibees.
"You see that high tullibee number - that's someplace you want to go," Nelson said.
And Google Earth is his friend.
"Satellite imaging is by far the best tool," he said. "You can see where a sandbar is, or a weed line. It makes it real easy to get right on the spot."
It's the challenge of researching lakes, finding his way to them and using his own decoys to attract fish that drives Nelson more than actually spearing fish.
"I'd say most spearers have the reputation that you spear whatever comes in," he said. "I'd like to see that change.
"My goal is to see a lot of fish. I'm certainly going to take fish if I want to take fish. But a lot of years, I go out 40 times. If I took one fish every other time, that's a lot of fish to take over the winter for our own consumption. You think about a northern pike - if you take a 4-pound fish, one fillet is enough for two people."
Plenty of lookers
True to his exploratory nature, Nelson hadn't set up on this lake in the same spot where he and Mostad-Jensen had enjoyed their phenomenal fishing last year. He wanted to try the other side of the reef they had fished before. Good decision.
Traffic was steady. From about 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., 18 different pike came to Nelson's decoys. That's pretty amazing action by spearing standards, where seeing a few fish per day is more typical. Most came in slowly, cruising up to eye the decoys. They ranged in size from 2 pounds to 7 or 8 pounds.
Each time, Mostad-Jensen would give the latest arrival a good look. Most were deemed a little too big to justify her throwing the spear. The limit would have allowed her to spear three pike, but only one of them over 30 inches long.
About 2:30 p.m., a smallish northern sidled in to check out a bright green decoy.
"That's a perfect Moo fish," Nelson said.
Mostad-Jensen eased the tines of the spear beneath the surface, then launched it at the unsuspecting pike. The tines of the spear impaled the fish just behind the head - the perfect spot. Mostad-Jensen hauled in the cord attached to the spear, and up came the pike.
It was the only fish they would toss into a sled for the hour-long snowshoe out.
Nelson says he would still like to see a truly huge pike swim beneath the spearing hole someday soon.
"I've still got to get Liv one," Nelson said. "I want her to get one bigger than mine."
"That's my goal, too," she said.