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Ice Spear Fishing and Fish Decoys

by Ronald Deiss

January 2005


Ice Spear Fishing


Fish Decoys


                The Basics

The basics of ice spear fishing have remained virtually unchanged since antiquity.  During the winter months, walleye, northern pike, muskellunge, and other game fish that attack, stalk, or observe prey can be decoyed.  Ice Spear fishing requires a hole in the ice, shelter, spear, and fish decoys.  The hole is cut or chiseled 2 to 3 feet in diameter through the ice to open water.  A shelter is moved over the hole to eliminate direct light and glare over the water.  The spearing hole is illuminated by

sunlight that penetrates the ice and snow around the shelter.  The contrast between the shelter’s dark interior and the illuminated water enhances visibility for decoying and spearing.  A line is attached to a jigging stick and the opposite end of the line is tied to the decoy by a hanger located at the top of the decoy  body. Hangers include holes, notches, brads, screw eyes, wires, and pins.  The best decoys for spear fishing have a slightly curved body or tail and sink very slowly in a spiral path. To attract fish within spearing range, the decoy is allowed to alternatively sink and then is jigged upward to mimic the circuitous forward movement of fish.  A spear with tines tipped with barbs is used to impale the fish.


Native American Mussel Shell Decoys

Native Americans ice spear fished in the northern environs where decoys were carved of wood, shell,

stone, ivory, and bone.  The Upper Midwest GreatLakes Region, the Upper Mississippi River, and the Lower Missouri River are the only locations where decoys made of mussel shells are found.  Over 40 shell decoys have been recovered from archeological sites within these major areas.  Many of these shell decoys are 1000 years old and are attributed to the Oneota Phase of the Late

Mississippian Period in the Upper Midwest and Nebraska Phase of the Central Plains Tradition in the Lower Missouri River Valley.   


European Contact

In the historic period, ice spearing was observed by the earliest French and British traders.  Potowatomi, Ojibwa (Chippewa),

Ottawa, Sauk, Fox, Menominee, Ioway, Winnebago, and Sioux of the Upper Midwest were documented to use fish decoys.  Many

tribes ice spear fished within tepee-shaped shelters.  In 1709 a French explorer documented the use of shell decoys among

northern Indians and the archeological excavation of a 1730s Fox village in central Wisconsin discovered shell decoys.  During the last half of the 18th century, wooden decoys inlayed with lead

ballast replaced shell decoys.  A British trader noted the Ojibwa using wooden decoys in 1763 and in 1819 another British trader fashioned a wooden decoy with bead eyes.  By the mid 19th century, Europeans had been forced out of the Upper Midwestern territories and the majority of the native tribes were confined to reservations, facilitating pioneer settlement. 


Fisherman with Equipment and CatchMidwestern Adaptation of Native Traditions

The void left by Europeans and Native Americans resulted in a hiatus of ice spear fishing in many locations and documents are lacking.  It is known that by the late 1850s, Midwesterners settlers adapted ice spear fishing

from a variety of sources, such as Native Americans, other spear fishermen, and publications.  This adaptation included the use of frame darkhouses.  Ice spear fishing was a predominately rural activity and was referred to as a “primitive method of spearing” and the “Injun method” as late as the 1870s, alluding to its native origins.  In the late half of the 19th century ice spear fishing increased in popularity and spread to a few towns and cities where high densities of darkhouses dotted the ice on rivers and lakes.  In urban settings, ice spear fishing was enthusiastically followed for sport or to supplement incomes.  By the late 19th and early 20th centuries spearing fish in the winter became controversial and associated with over-harvesting and commercial marketing and, thus was banned or restricted in many states, lakes, rivers, and refuges.  During the Great Depression many unemployed caught fish

for food and profit.  The controversy continued through the 1950s when ice spear fishing reached the highest level of participation.  During this period commercial decoys and spearing equipment were mass produced to keep pace with demand.  Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s ice spearing declined and was sometimes labeled as inhumane and primitive.  Proponents claimed a high level of sportsmanship and the long standing traditions.  Today, ice spear fishing remains legal for many fish

species and is permitted in Alaska, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas. Native ice spearing traditions have endured and most spear fishermen are attracted to the historic, sporting, and recreational values.

Contemporary Ice Spear Fishing and Fish Decoys

Since the mid-1980s ice spear fishing associations have been formed to support ice spear fishing, document fish decoys, and promote carving and collecting.  In recent decades, publications which focused on ice spear fishing, spears, fish decoys, and ancillary equipment have been popular and include makers, trends, and regional styles.  In 1989, the Museum of American Folk Art in New York opened the first

major show on early fish decoys.  This exhibit was widely acclaimed at museums during its two-year tour.  Although ice spear fishing has been viewed with controversy, the last decades have seen a growing appreciation for its history and traditions.

The information presented herein remains fully referenced and credited in the article: 


(January 2005) by Ronald Deiss.

Questions can be emailed to: and copies of this article on computer disk

can be obtained by sending $5.50 to:  Ice Spear Fishing Disk, Mississippi River Visitors Center, P.O. Box

2004, Rock Island, Illinois 61204-2004.


Permission Granted by Ronald Deiss

Page last updated on November 3, 2006

Last Updated on November 3, 2006
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