Ladies of the trident

FOXHOLM – The participants universally expressed excitement when a fish was taken. Sometimes the celebration amounted to a noisy cheer that would invoke a similar response from other fishermen sitting in cozy comfort in ice shelters nearby. Sometimes a loud and piercing blast from an air horn was used to announce the fortunes of a lucky fisherman.

There was nothing particularly quiet about this fishing excursion – but it wasn’t meant to be, either. The cheers and shouts, even the shock of the air horn, were welcome proof of success.

The BOW workshop held on the river at the Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge was for the purpose of introducing women to spearfishing. BOW stands for Becoming an Outdoors Woman, a program promoted by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. On Saturday, Jan. 26, BOW turned its attention to a darkhouse spearfishing workshop.

The six-hour workshop began indoors with an overview of fishing regulations and a few introductory words about darkhouse spearfishing. When the enthusiastic group moved outdoors under very favorable weather conditions, Tom Pabian, Upper Souris NWR manager and avid darkhouse spearfisherman, demonstrated various items in the spearfisherman’s arsenal.

Pabian showed the gathering how to drill a hole in the ice and clear the slush from it in preparation for setting up an ice shelter. In an instant the portable shelter rose from a carry bag to become a home on the ice. A spear was passed from one participant to another and viewed with great interest.

The ladies were eager to give darkhouse spearfishing a try. When Pabian’s demonstration was complete, the women quickly disappeared into several heated shelters waiting for their arrival. Volunteers were assigned to each icehouse for the purpose of offering advice and assistance. Within moments a loud cheer could be heard from one of the icehouses. It could only mean somebody had successfully speared a fish.

“I did scream a little bit, didn’t I?” said Stephanie Froelich, Minot Air Force Base, with a slight laugh in her voice. “I had to let the girls know.”

Froelich was spearfishing in a house owned by volunteer Bob Olson of Minot. It was her first attempt at the wintertime activity, and she made the best of it.

“It’s awesome! All my experience is from ‘Grumpy Old Men,’ the movie,” laughed Froelich. “I’ve never been spearfishing before. I wanted to experience N.D. in its glory and, to me, this is what it’s all about. This is what you do in the winter. I got a good start, but I’ve got a good teacher here. I was so excited I didn’t know what to do!”

Olson was smiling while listening to Froelich tell about her excitement at seeing a northern pike become visible in the water below her and nose up to a suspended decoy. Inside a dark ice shelter it is easy to see fish several feet below the hole cut in the ice. Sunlight penetrating the ice offers a surprising amount of illumination.

“I have two daughters that have been fishing with me since they were 4 years old,” explained Olson. “I love helping the ladies out. They can experience the outdoors here, better than sitting in the house and watching television or something like that.”

Darkhouse spearfishing involves cutting a hole in the ice approximately 3 feet by 4 feet and then lowering a decoy into the water. A line is used to move the decoy to suit the fisherman’s wishes. Like fishing lures, decoys come in a variety of sizes and colors. Northern pike don’t usually attack the decoy, but rather swim up and examine it very closely. If the pike cooperates, a fisherman above moves a multi-pronged spear into position and releases it over the fish. Several BOW participants had the chance to do exactly that and successfully speared their first fish.

“You can always tell when there’s a fish coming out of the water because there’s always a little bit of squealing and then the zipper comes open on a fish house and out comes a fish!” remarked Nancy Boldt, BOW coordinator for NDG&F. “There’s 15 women here and they are just enjoying it.”

A moment later a northern pike came into view in the hole in the ice being monitored by Boldt and a BOW participant. A trident was slowly lowered into the upper portion of the open water, carefully positioned and, with a flick of the wrist, tossed at the pike several feet below.

It was a near miss. The startled pike swirled hastily, churning up mud from the bottom of the river. A stout pull on the rope freed the spear from where it had become lodged in the river’s bottom.

“That was close!” said Boldt. “It was a nice fish. She got a little excited but did exactly the right thing. Hits and misses, that’s what fishing is all about. That’s why we keep doing these, to get women interested in the outdoors. We’ve got a lot of wonderful outdoors here in the state in the wintertime and you may as well learn to enjoy them.”

The cry of the air horn pierced the air a moment later, an loud indicator of someone else’s success with a spear. The air horn announcements were being made by Tighe Teets, Upper Souris NWR. Teets was assisting with the event.

“I just like to see everybody’s reaction to spearing. I grew up doing this,” explained Teets. “I just think it’s so much fun to see the fish and to introduce someone to this and see their reaction for the first time. This is such a new experience for people.”

Seated a few feet away inside a portable ice shelter was DeAnne Wege of Minot AFB. The native of southern California had never walked on frozen water or experienced ice fishing. She had narrowly missed spearing a northern pike a few minutes earlier.

“It was very cool!” said Wege. “Since I’m living up here for a short time, I want to get out as much as I can and see what N.D. has to offer and enjoy N.D. More people should get out. N.D. has things to offer that you can’t do anywhere else. It’s different and the weather today is wonderful.”

Several northern pike could be seen lying on the ice outside of ice shelters. They had been speared by “first-timers” at the BOW event. The pike weren’t big, averaging perhaps 3 pounds, but the experience was huge.

“I’ve never done this before in my life. Wow! I love it!” exclaimed Beverly Willson, a former Ekalaka, Mont., resident who was obviously enjoying her time on the ice. “I haven’t speared a fish today but I’ve seen a couple of fish. It’s just exciting to be here and I love the people. I had to come and see this for myself and I was really impressed. It’s just great.”

Some of the participants made friendly jokes about watching “Norwegian TV,” a reference to looking through a rectangular hole in the ice into the water below. It was all part of the fun in participating in a picture-perfect event.

“I was amazed how well you can see everything. I didn’t realize it would light up quite like this,” said Morgan Mander, Minot AFB. “Since living in N.D., I’ve pretty much tried to embrace everything that the state has to offer, so this program is pretty nice. I haven’t had any chances yet, but I am a good spectator and got some good pictures. It’s pretty neat just to see the fish.”

After the spearfishing was complete, participants returned to a heated shop at Upper Souris. There they were shown how to remove filets from northern pike. Food was served too, ranging from fish chowder to fish tacos to battered fish taken directly from a deep fryer.

Boldt thanked all those who participated in producing the event and all those who attended. Judging from participant response, the only conclusion possible was that all were looking forward to their next episode of “Norwegian TV.”