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Doug Leier: A look at darkhouse spearing – both past and present – in North Dakota

Spearing no longer has a specific opening date in North Dakota, so you can start spearing whenever you can find safe ice on which to set up a darkhouse.

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Last year, 60% of the respondents to a Game and Fish Department darkhouse spearing survey reported they had taken someone spearfishing in North Dakota who had never speared. Contributed / North Dakota Game and Fish Department

We are a hearty bunch. When temperatures drop and the ice begins to form, it doesn’t signal the end to spending time hunting and fishing – it’s just a transition.

One of those transitions taking place now is the wait for darkhouse spearfishing. When the first spearing season opened, there was a set date, which sent a mixed message. It wasn’t meant to indicate safe ice. In fact, no matter the legal opening of the season, no matter the date, 100% safe ice doesn't exist.

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Spearing no longer has a specific opening date, so you can start spearing whenever you can find safe ice on which to set up a darkhouse.
It’s hard to believe it has been over 20 years since darkhouse spearfishing for northern pike became legal in North Dakota. Here are a few changes on how the North Dakota Game and Fish Department gradually adjusted the spearing season.

  • 2008-09 was the first winter that the first two weeks of March were open to darkhouse spearing.

  • 2009-10 was the first winter Minnesotans could darkhouse spearfish in North Dakota.

  • 2012-13 was the first winter when most of the state was open to darkhouse spearing.

  • 2020-21 was the first winter when individuals younger than 16 did not have to register.

Survey numbers show that people are taking advantage of the expanded opportunities for winter outdoor recreation.
Here’s a recap on darkhouse spearfishing in North Dakota from the 2020-21 season, based on information gathered in a post-season survey.

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2020-2021 highlights

  • 4,372 people registered– 2,853 residents and 1,519 nonresidents – and 16,605 northern pike were harvested.

  • Early ice conditions were again relatively unsafe until close to the holidays because of mild weather. In addition, ice-out was earlier than normal.

  • Average spearer was 49 years old and 88% were male.

  • 72% of the respondents indicated they actually did darkhouse spearfish.

  • Median and mean weights of the largest pike reported harvested by the respondents were 6.0 and 7.8 pounds, respectively, which was down from the previous year.

  • 60% of the darkhouse spearing survey respondents reported they had taken someone spearfishing in North Dakota who had never previously speared.

Other spearing info

  • Everyone who participates in darkhouse spearfishing must first register on the North Dakota Game and Fish Department website, gf.nd.gov. Participants age 16 and older must possess a valid fishing license.

  • Spearers and anglers are reminded that materials used to mark holes must be in possession as soon as a hole greater than 10 inches in diameter is made in the ice.

  • North Dakota residents who do not have a fishing license may spear during the winter free fishing weekend Dec. 25-26, but they still need to register to spear.

  • All waters open to hook-and-line fishing are open to darkhouse spearing, except East Park Lake, West Park Lake, Lake Audubon, all McLean County; Heckers Lake, Sheridan County; Lake Ashtabula, Barnes and Griggs counties; Larimore Dam, Grand Forks County; McClusky Canal; New Johns Lake, Burleigh County; Red Willow Lake, Griggs County; Whitman Dam, Nelson County; and Wood Lake, Benson County.

For more information, check out the current North Dakota Fishing Guide .

Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at dleier@nd.gov.

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Doug Leier

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