One of North Dakota’s most recent expansion in fishing opportunity is darkhouse spearfishing.

At least, it seems like it’s recent, but in checking the record, it was back in 2001 that the North Dakota State Legislature authorized, and the North Dakota Game and Fish Department implemented, a winter spearfishing season.

Since then, the season has evolved and expanded. This year, instead of a defined opening date of Dec. 1, spearing could begin whenever participants could find safe ice on which to prop up their darkhouse. And this year was one of those years when people could get on the ice in places before Dec. 1, so the new provision has provided increased opportunities.

The other rules and regulations for spearing are pretty much the same. Legal fish for spearing are limited to northern pike and nongame species.

All individuals who participate in darkhouse spearfishing must first register online at the North Dakota Game and Fish Department website, gf.nd.gov. In addition, anglers 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.

Nowadays, most North Dakota waters are open to spearing. In 2001, only 28 lakes were open. In 2018, less than a dozen lakes are closed, all because of the presence of muskellunge. The closed lakes are:

• East Park Lake, West Park Lake, Lake Audubon in McLean County

● Heckers Lake in Sheridan County

● Larimore Dam in Grand Forks County

● McClusky Canal

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● New Johns Lake in Burleigh County

● Red Willow Lake in Griggs County

● Wood Lake in Benson County 

Recently, Game and Fish Department biologists compiled statistics from last winter’s spearing season. Some 2017-2018 highlights are:

• A record 5,387 individuals registered, with both resident, at 3,772, and nonresident, at 1,651, numbers a record.

• The number of pike speared, an estimate of 28,138, was also a record.

• The average spearing participant was 45.3 years old, and 90 percent were male.

• Median and mean weights of the largest pike reported speared by the respondents were 7.0 and 8.6 pounds respectively, which is similar to previous years.

• A much larger percentage of spearers reported spearing a large — 20 pounds or larger — pike, and a record 9.4 percent of the survey respondents indicated the largest pike they harvested was 20 pounds or larger; this compares to the previous record of 7.3 percent last year, and 7 percent during the winters of 2005-06 and 2006-07.

Survey respondents also indicated spearing took place on 104 water bodies in the state. Devils Lake remained No. 1 for the second year in a row, with Lake Sakakawea coming in second. Those two lakes together contributed 30 percent of the overall pike speared, though many of North Dakota’s smaller lakes played a significant role this past winter.

One other statistic of note: About two-thirds of people who spearfish for pike say they do so simply for the opportunity, and not the prospect of taking a trophy fish.

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Doug Leier is a biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.