Big River Magazine
JanuaryFebruary 2006 Issue
Ron Deiss, CEMVRPMA
Rock Island District Corps of Engineers
P.O. Box 2004
Clock Tower Building
Rock Island, Illinois 612042004
Minor reformatting done (ldc)
Through the Ice
This oncevital river fishing tradition centered on La Crosse.
All that's left today are antique decoys and handcrafted tools.
By Ron DeissIce spearfishing is one of the oldest, most traditional methods for harvesting fish during the winter months. Although it's illegal on the river today, it was practiced on the Upper Mississippi River for more than 1,000 years.
It's a simple pursuit. All that's required is a big hole in the ice (two to three feet in diameter); a dark cover over the hole to keep the light out; a fishshaped decoy on a line; a sharp spear; handeye coordination and patience.
Today, while ice spearfishing enthusiasts go to the lakes of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan to fish, historians and antique collectors hunt for old decoys and spears that were once made and used in an area of the river known to fishermen as the La Crosse Reach.
From Teepees to Darkhouses
For Indians in the Upper Mississippi and Great Lakes regions, ice spearfishing was an important source of fresh food in winter. Archeologists have found approximately 40 decoys made of mussel shells from archeological sites within these major areas. Quite a few of them come from near La Crosse, Wis., and Harpers Ferry, Iowa, and are more than 1,000 years old. French and British traders recorded that many tribes of the Upper Midwest traditionally spearfished on the ice within teepeeshaped shelters, using wooden spears and musselshell decoys.
Their tools changed when lead mining and smelting began along the Upper Mississippi River in the early 1700s and the Winnebago, Fox, Sac, and Iowa learned these smelting arts. During the last half of the 18th century, the Indians stopped using their traditional shell decoys and started using wooden decoys inlaid with lead ballast. Throughout this period, Indians traded lead, furs, tallow, and other goods to Europeans in exchange for iron tines and spears. Settlers learned spearfishing from the Indians and it increased in popularity throughout the 1800s.
In an 1859 letter sent from the rivertown of Red Wing, Minnesota, a pioneer wrote: "We have a coy [decoy] fish fashioned of wood, tin fins. We let it through a hole cut through the ice with a string fastened. The real fish fancy they are going to have a good meal and make for the coy. Then we pick them out with the spear." In the late 1800s, a small, rectangular, framed shelter called a darkhouse, named for its pitchblack interior, be came popular. The darkhouse had a small heating stove and spearing equipment, including a saw or spud, which is the basic tool for chopping holes in ice, a chipper to shape the edges, and a skimmer to remove floating debris.
Of all the Queer forms of
fishing— and there are
many of them — that of
"gigging," which is being
practiced extensively about
La Crosse just at present, is
undoubtedly the funniest
This Northern Pike decoy, painted with AllisChalmers Tractor Manufacturing Company's 'Persian Orange' paint, dates from the years shortly after 1929. (Freyermuth)
This small minnow decoy has glass bead eyes, inked scales and multiple hangers. (Freyermuth)
Sporting mussel shell button eyes and tin fins, this sucker fish decoy is made of natural white pine. (Freyermuth)
This brown trout decoy sports gold glass bead eyes and three staple hangers. (Freyermuth)
These jigging sticks in various shapes come from the La Crosse Reach area. (Deiss)
This decoy is of the straight,"simple,"form.The lead weight on the top holds the bar. Note the heavily carved mouth and gills. A jigging stick is attached. (Freyermuth)
This minnow decoy from La Crosse, Wis., has a bar hanger on the top, as well as fins of metal. (Freyermuth)
The La Crosse Reach
Ice spearfishing was especially popular in the area known as the La Crosse Reach from the 19th century until it was prohibited in the late 1930s. The La Crosse Reach encompasses the western border of Wisconsin, and the eastern border of Minnesota and Iowa, and consists of approximately 200 miles of channels and backwaters between the towns of Prescott, Wis., and Cassville, Wis.
La Crosse, Wis., was the hub of ice spearfishing activities in the Reach, possibly because of the record fish harvests there between 1895 and 1899.
Towndwellers enthusiastically took up ice spearfishing as a sport or commercial venture. A photograph in the Wisconsin Historical Society archives, dating from the 1880s, depicts an ice spear fisherman fashionably dressed with his catch, spear, and decoy.
In 1895, the La Crosse Daily Press printed an article titled, "Gigging for Fish: A Popular Pastime Among Men of Leisure Just Now."
"Of all the queer forms of fishing — and there are many of them — that of "gigging," which is being practiced extensively about La Crosse just at present, is undoubtedly the funniest. No less than one hundred persons now follow the sport hereabouts, and the bulk of the fish monger's stock at this time is supplied from that source.... The fish are easily seen at a depth of fully ten feet, and, at this time of the year, when food is scarce, they are easily decoyed to the hole in the ice. In the night time, reflectors are used to light up the water about the holes."
From the 1890s to the late 1930s, ice spearfishing evolved a distinct style in the La Crosse Reach, suited to the area's braided channels and complex backwaters full of seeps and springs.
La Crosse Reach darkhouses were typically small, which made them easier to store, heat and carry on small sleds.
Spears, jigging sticks, and other equipment were also small, on a scale to suit the smaller darkhouses. Jigging sticks were fashioned from branches, but many were turned, carved, and shaped to reflect personal tastes. Spear owners took pride in the highly finished spears, spuds, and chippers with turned handles and brass fittings, all made locally.
Before electric tools, all these tools were made by hand and many show great care and art invested in their making. This is especially true of the fish decoys, which are now recognized as a form of folk art, attracting avid collectors.
Local Carving, Local Art
There were approximately 60 decoy carvers in the La Crosse Reach whose names are known. They made decoys of basswood, cedar, and maple, which grew in abundance in the surrounding hills and valleys. Decoys were typically between four to six inches long and realistic in appearance.
Most have eyes made of commercial beads, hatpins and buttons. Glass trade beads and mussel shell buttons tacked onto the decoy with small nails or pins were most popular. Beads could be easily purchased, and mussel shell button factories first built in the late 19th century were located in nearly every river city, including La Crosse.
La Crosse Reach decoys are heavily weighted. Bar, inchworm, pigtail and other types of ordinary fish lure hangers were used as weights to allow for adjustments to decoy balance in changing water flows. Decoy fins were cut from brass, copper, and steel. Both straight (simple) and curved (complex) decoys were carved for different swimming patterns and river conditions. Simple decoys have a straight profile along the length and are jigged with the decoy facing into the current. Since faster current usually means turbid water, these decoys were often painted silver, light grey, white to increase visibility in turbid water.
Decoys with a curved profile along the length, allowing for a forward spiral swimming pattern, were used in the slow current of the backwaters. The decoys used in these translucent, tranquil back channels were painted in more detailed and colorful paint schemes.
La Crosse carvers developed decoys specially for the Mississippi River, which has current, unlike lakes. They are weighted down in front in a way that makes them look like they're swimming in a circle as they sink and rise.
Stylistically, the decoys from the LaCrosse Reach exhibit excellent and precise craftsmanship, attention to detail, and realistic carving of nearly all river fish species. Many fish decoys are finely painted by blending, sponging, and stippling.
Local paints were from La Crosse industries. For example, in 1901 the Allis Chambers tractor manufacturing company used dark green paint and a few decoys exhibit this color. In 1929 the company switched to "Persian Orange" tractor paint and many decoys followed suit.
Controversy and Regulation
Meanwhile, by the 1870's declining fisheries resources became an important topic on the river, and in 1871, the office of the United States Commissioners of Fish and Fisheries was established to monitor this loss. In 1874, the states of Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin set up their first fish commissions. As the decline continued into the first decades of the 20th century, regulation of ice spearfishing in the La Crosse Reach was inevitable. Nonnative species, pollution, and river and railroad improvements are now known to have been the real culprits, but at the time suspicions hovered around ice spearfishing. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, many unemployed people depended on river fish for food and small profit, yet ice spearfishing continued to be associated with over harvesting and commercial marketing. By 1937, the Minnesota and Wisconsin conservation commissioners adopted joint provisions declaring ice spearfishing illegal in all boundary waters, completely closing the La Crosse Reach to one of its oldest methods of harvesting fish. (Jigging is simply a fishing technique by which a lure is repeatedly jerked up and down in the water. It is not illegal.) Although ice spearfishing is legal in Alaska, the Dakotas, Montana, and areas of Minnesota and Wisconsin that are not boundary waters, the controversy and opposition to ice spearfishing continues throughout much of the Upper Midwestern Great Lakes region. And it has never again been made legal on the Upper Mississippi. Since the mid 1980s enthusiasts have formed ice spearfishing associations to support ice spearfishing, facilitate fish decoy collecting, and promote traditional and competitive carving. Several popular publications focus on spearfishing, spears, fish decoys, carvers, trends, and regional styles. In 1989, the Museum of American Folk Art in New York opened the first
A sunfish decoy made in La Crosse, Wis., has a finely carved body, but no eyes. (Freyermuth)
Glass hatpin heads were used for the eyes of this small trout decoy. (Freyermuth)
major show on early fish decoys. This exhibit was widely acclaimed at seven museums during its two year tour. Although ice spearfishing has been viewed with controversy, the last decades have seen a growing appreciation for its history and traditions.
Ron Deiss is an archeologist with the Army Corps of Engineers, Rock Island District.
He enjoys spearfishing where it's legal and he carves his own decoys, besides collecting antique decoys.