Ah, wa’kanakya (white) is everywhere and the coonee (snow) covers all. Pepoonwi (winter) is heavy all around us. Yep, and for those so inclined, it’s time to head out onto the solid water for a little much-quom-me na-me-tha-kie (ice fishing). As a rule, I’m not big on this sport, eh. I’ve always been more of a hunter than an angler, and, although I do really like fishing for panfish and bass in the summer, I figure that it’s because I can look at the terrain and see the cover and what is happening below in the water. Well, it’s that, and the fact that I’m not shivering like a naked jaybird frozen to a bird feeder. Heck, many is the time I’ve been on patrol as a private game warden, and had to check ice anglers, fishing out in the open on frozen water. I’ve always felt sorry for them. I mean, they sit for hours out on the ice over a spudded hole, their eyes blurry from frigid and blustery winds, shivering from the extreme cold. All the while, they’re staring at a tip-up… hoping beyond hope… that the little flag will pop-up, eh. Oh, they always look up – happy as can be – and smile at me through rattling teeth so go figure. Well, not me – thanks. Nope, I’m just not a fan of that kind’a ice fishing. But now, angling from a much-quom-me gah-beshi-goog-wahdeg-in (fishing tent), well, that’s not too shabby a pastime, hmm?
In the olden days, American Indians developed the forerunner to the modern-day “ice shanty”. It was in use when the illegal aliens (colonists) showed up, and they copied the idea PDQ when they began ice angling. Sure, and although some old-time Indians may’ve jigged a fishing line through their ice hole, Indians traditionally speared their fish. Uh-huh, and that’s because heck, man, although it was tough to “carry concealed”, it was a weapon. You might run into an exceptionally vicious pike or… another two-legged enemy while all alone out there on that frozen lake… know what I mean? And if that happened, it was far better to have a chith-hot-wa-ka (spear) in your hand rather than a tiny piece of twine and a little-bitty hook. We never called it a lance, that moniker was given by those pesky Europeans, who equated the Traditional Indian spear with a Knight’s lance from ‘Round Table’ places like ‘Camelot’.
Anyway, archeologists figure that around 10,000 years ago the earliest American two-leggeds – known as the Paleo-Indians – used very primitively made spears hereabouts. My early kinfolk chipped away a large rock to make a spear-point as sharp as a razor. Then they strapped that baby onto a crude, narrow pole and voila: a spear. They found this old-age ‘assault weapon’ worked pretty well to hunt mammoths, mastodons, buffalo, and smaller animals. Heck, it even worked dandy to fend off unwanted or disliked two-leggeds, to boot. Some people just don’t get the message when you use a finger to poke them in the chest – if you get my point (pun intended). Well, later on, these early Indians developed a new tool called an atlatl. It’s kind’ve a spear sling-shot, as it were. This gizmo helped the thrower launch spears very quickly, and with great force, so they could kill animals and enemies while still at a safe distance. Um-hmm and this was the first use of the telephone-company adage: “Reach out and touch someone”. Over time, the spear, and the spear-makers, got better and better.
The shaft of a Traditional American Indian spear was made of wood. The head of the spear was, more or less, just a large arrowhead. It was often made from a piece of dug metal such as copper, or a hand-knapped (flaked or chiseled) stone, or an animal bone that had been sharpened. Spears were a preferred weapon by Indians for generations, and that’s so for good reasons, too. A spear was inexpensive to make and it was also an easy weapon to use. There was less training required to teach a warrior to use the spear than other weapons, and man, quality spears could be made quickly in mass quantities. When used by a proficient warrior, they were truly a lethal weapon. And jeeze, like I said, they worked swell for hunting and… fishing.
American Indians did a lot of spear fishing – all year-round. That’s because fish was a big part of the diet throughout the year. Back in the old days, few Indians had a Zebco 202 fishing pole, so, for the reasons already noted, male Indians went spear fishing and left the hook & line set-ups for the chicks & kids. Women used a simple system of a string with a hook on the end to fish with. As a rule, they were not allowed to use spears to fish, because it was the job of the males in the tribe. Since spears were also implements of war, women were usually prohibited from spear fishing within most Indian nations. This varied a bit from nation to nation, but generally, women could only use a weapon when needed to defend the village. Otherwise, battle and weapons were the men’s area of expertise. Um-hmm, the old-time Indians held fast to the “No Women in Combat” rule, eh.
Winter and spring were the optimal times for spear fishing. When ice on the nearest bodies of water melted, Indians would ride out in their canoes to go spear fishing. It was done mostly at night, and they used fire torches to illuminate the water’s surface. They also traversed shallow waters, sometimes standing for long periods of time, just to spear a fish at just the right moment. Ice fishing became very important in winter when the food supplies began to dwindle. As soon as the lakes and rivers froze, Indians cut holes in the ice. They used hand crafted lures made from wood or bone that crudely resembled something that the fish would eat, like minnows or other small critters. Woodland Indians caught pike, sturgeon, perch, trout, and muskies, and Indians out West caught different varieties. If they didn’t have a fishing tent with them, they’d lay prone and cover their heads with a fur while they looked through the hole in the ice. By blocking out the outside light, they had a better view of the fish swimming below. Depending on the size of fish they were spearing, they had different types of spikes with a differing heads. For the Woodland Indians, copper and bone tips, in particular, were popular fishing spearheads. A tip with three prongs was often used for small fish.
Indians used two types of spearing tents before the early 1900’s. One type was seven-feet tall and allowed the spear-thrower angler to sit down with a long-handled spear extending outside the framework of the tent. The second type, still used today by many Traditional American Indians, is a crawl-in type which covers about two-thirds of the fisherman’s prone body. It’s designed for use with a short-handled spear. The fishing tent is often erected the day before fishing to allow the stakes to freeze into the holes cut into the ice for them. The frame or stakes generally are made of slightly bowed alder. Fresh-cut balsam branches are laid around the hole for warmth and comfort. In the old days, the frame and branches were often covered with hides or furs. Today, we use canvas or blankets. The branches and the covering on the frame help reduce unwanted light and glare in the hole so that fish are not aware of the presence of the fisherman. Basically, fishermen lower fish-shaped decoys into holes cut through the surface of a frozen lake and jig it to mimic a baitfish, attempting to lure a bigger fish within range of the spear. The fisherman lies flat on the ice, covered by a dark tipi, and readies his spear to stab the approaching prey.
Yeah, and this kind’a much-quom-me na-me-tha-kie (ice fishing) isn’t too bad, eh. Of course, there is one other form of chilly fish’n that Indians did and still do in the winter. Of all of the ice fishing practices, I like this one the best. It’s called much-quom-me pet-hon-wie (ice trapping). Sometimes, you can see fish under the ice, and you can usually deploy a trap. Once fish were spied in this manner, old-time Indians whacked the ice, cracking it with clubs. The ice was then pried up with antler wedges to open a big hole. Then floating traps were inserted under the ice to hang and drift. Then, the anglers used the same clubs to pound the ice behind the school, and shoo the fish into the floating traps. The trap handler at the hole would draw up the contraption, ensnaring the catch, and there you go – ice fishing without having to stare at a tip-up or lay – belly-down – on a piece of chilly ice. You bet’cha, and I gotta say, folks, this… is my kind’ve much-quom-me na-me-tha-kie (ice fishing).