What do Minnesota darkhouse spear fishermen think about slot limits? Just ask.

On certain lakes in Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources employs fishing slot limits: regulations that prohibit or allow harvesting fish within a designated size range. Slot limits are designed to increase the average size of fish in a particular lake, or to restore population levels.

But some practitioners of one traditional fishing method feel unfairly limited by the regulations.

Darkhouse spearing is a method of icefishing derived from Native American tradition, in which the spearer sits in a dark shack over a hole in the ice, dangling lures or live bait into the water until suitable prey comes within range. Slot limits on northern pike — the only legal game for darkhouse spearers — essentially prevent spearers from fishing at all, as they cannot measure a fish before spearing it, and can’t release a fish that’s been speared.

Hoping to help fishery managers better understand fishing demand and effort, the Minnesota DNR contracted Susan Schroeder and David Fulton, respectively a research associate and assistant unit leader with the Minnesota Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, to study the fishing preferences of anglers and darkhouse spearers seeking northern pike.

The researchers’ methods were simple yet informative. They sent mail surveys to three groups: anglers targeting northern pike, darkhouse spearers targeting northern pike, and northern pike anglers who also held darkhouse spearing licenses.

“Our research confirmed that darkhouse spearers are very resistant to slot limits, because of the challenges they present when spearing,” Schroeder said. “Indeed, many darkhouse spearers will stay home, rather than go spearing, if all the lakes near their home are managed with slot limits.”

A shanty on White Bear Lake in Minnesota (Credit: Scott Costello, via Flickr)

Between 30 to 35 percent of all Minnesota anglers specifically target northern pike, Schroeder said. Unlike the spearers, anglers tended to be more open to slot limits and tagging regulations. They almost always practice catch and release, going after trophy-sized pike for sport rather than sustenance.

“The most interesting thing we learned was that darkhouse spearers are more motivated [than anglers] to target northern pike for food,” Schroeder said, noting that this remained true whether the individual was actually spearing or angling.

As a result of the study, the Minnesota DNR eliminated northern pike slot limits from 21 lakes in the state. Schroeder said that she believes her research will help fishery managers provide more diverse fishing and spearing options across the state.

“Improved understanding of spearers’ and anglers’ motivations for participation and their ‘catch orientations’ can help managers provide satisfying fishing opportunities,” Schroeder said.

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