116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
I waited in the dark at the ice-covered boat ramp with uncle Larry.
Most people know him as uncle Larry. The strong yard light in front of the tavern was our artificial full moon. There was plenty of light to see each other and our party's boat plying the river.
Uncle Larry said they used to call it “torching,” a name that dated over 70 years and a couple of generations before that. He said they used to have a board that extended from the prow of the boat. The board was usually wrapped in burlap. Cantilevered over that was a container that dripped oil onto the burlap, then lit. With a skilled hand it would burn just enough to avoid consuming itself.
The boat in the river sported a homemade rig of submersible car lights connected to a deep-cycling battery. The orangeish glow emitted from the dark water gave the boat a look of a UFO rather than an aluminum jon boat.
Why the need for light? Because we were spearing fish. With a dark sky and light at the water, a new world of underwater life appeared.
The Cedar River became our aquarium, Poseidon's trident our instrument of work. If you’ve never seen spear fisherman in action, then you’re not alone. The endeavor has two strikes for secrecy. One, it’s a rare art that few ever practiced and less so today. Two, it’s usually done on dark winter nights when the thought of standing on the prow of a moving boat in the dark would make most sensible people blanch.
My friend Joe gave me an invitation to partake in the ritual with his crew that counted their time in Linn County since 1865. The Pisarik clan was from Bohemia and fish were for pickling, smoking, frying, giving away to those who wanted, and for the faithful around Lent.
In a small-minded world, I was the odd man out. In the brotherhood of all fishermen, I was family.
Our rivers teem with fish. Sport fish dominate the attention in society. Walleyes, bass and catfish energize Iowa anglers. Their popularity also necessitated regulations like a fishing license, bag limits and manner-of-take.
But among all the fish in our rivers, the game fish are but a few among many. The many being so-called “rough fish.” These are the fish for which bag limits or method-of-take do not apply. A simple fishing license and a measure of pluck are the requirements.
Inflationary economics and politics are at hand. The cry to cut our dependence on imported oil is loud. Groceries seem pricier than usual, too. We could use our rivers full of practically free fish to cut against those costs, cut our dependence on imported food. We could.
Uncle Larry’s “torching” name hinted to ancient origins. Spearing for fish was a practice of the Ojibwa that predated contact. A renowned lake in northern Wisconsin still carries the French name that described what those first explorers saw: a lake covered with fires as the natives canoed among the fish at ice out “Lac du Flambeau.”
The Wisconsin tribes regained their treaty rights to spear on off-reservation ceded territory. They had the right to spear game fish which caused the “walleye wars” of the late Eighties between the tribes and the non-native anglers who saw their prized walleyes and muskies as being plundered.
No such treaty exists in Iowa and spearing for game fish has been taboo since 1895. According to the Oxley diaries, “One of the last ‘sportsmen’ who bragged of his fish spearing skill was Mr. Richards, our County Superintendent of schools, who helped ruin the sport of fishing at the Palisades.”
Our quarry were native suckers, like the redhorse and beautiful quillback, for pickling. The native buffalo fish also was a target, a large, white-fleshed fish perfect for the smoker or fryer. And the most bountiful of all, the common carp, an Eurasian import of infamy.
The delicacy of Europe was imported by various people during the 18th century to replicate its aquaculture industry. Industrialization made all business ventures seem possible in the Gilded Age. Industrialization also despoiled our lakes and rivers, choking out native fish with pollution and stopping their migrations with dams. The common carp was a fish that could survive in water no longer fit for walleye, bass, sturgeon or shad.
The U.S. Fish Commission imported its first stock of carp in 1877. They then shipped successful hatchings to states eager for the miracle fish. Within 15 years, the stocking stopped and Mother Nature took over. Iowa logged its first carp in 1900.
The fish that was considered primo table fare lost its allure due to abundance and association with polluted waters. A bad reputation is the most enduring stigma.
Tonight was a surprisingly mild evening for March 1. The outline of the Sutliff Bridge seemed to also support Orion’s Belt, hovering just above the girders. There was a familiarity of the enterprise to my recollection of deer camp in the Great North Woods. There we waited near the trucks, engaged in eager chit-chat before stepping out into the inky forest, anticipating the dawn. Today it was the anticipation of dusk that had me excited. The boat just returned from the second outing. There was a change of fisherman and then back to the river. My turn awaited the fourth launch.
Uncle Larry joined this forth and final outing. I took my position at the front. With Uncle Larry at the tiller and Joe in my ear, I just knew I’d connect with some fish. Maybe I got too much advice, or maybe I was nervous, but my initial attempts with the spear were fruitless. I had three goals. One, don’t fall in. Two, don’t lose the spear. Three, get a fish for supper.
I’m right handed so I narrowed my focus to the area front and left of the bow. The fish I did see to the starboard would be gone by the time I could pivot to launch my trident. I proved that very thing many times over.
The Cedar River in winter is clear, the lights put a yellow-brown glow in the water from my new vantage point. We puttered upstream. It was slow but for a novice like me it felt fast, like driving over your headlights. We had to have some speed to come up on the fish as a surprise. But any slower and we’d spook the fish too far in advance or lose forward momentum.
As a blind squirrel will eventually find a nut, I had my first fish in the barbed tines. It was a carp and would be the biggest of the two I caught.
I swung the spear to the port side and flipped the fish with spear into the boat. An experienced hand can, with a flick of the wrist, drop the fish into the hull and get right back to the action. I imagine my movements looked like someone was trying to shake off something sticky from their hands. Joe, being a good teacher, knows when to let someone struggle to learn and when to just do it for them. And I, being a good student, gladly accepted his help.
We circled back for another run. I was standing, spear in hand, and scoffing at the danger of the river. I was now one of the Potamoi, and I wanted to fill the boat. No more did the Pisariks try or need to fill the boat with fish. Too few of the old-timers remained who pined for fish, so they limited their haul to their own consumption.
The seasoned spearer lets the weight of the spear do the work, the skill is judging the location of the fish owing to the refraction of the water. As a first-timer, I resorted to brutish thrusts as if I were slaying cetus.
My excessive effort made for miss after miss. An errant thrust on a sandy substrate was only tiring. A miss on the rocks dulled the points or bent them into unusable shapes. More than once Joe had to use the hammer on board to straighten out the tines for me.
Maybe like a new roller coaster, my ride was over before I knew it. Fish were distributed, the boat secured in the bed of a white pickup truck, and I walked up the steep ramp a sweaty — but not wet — successful spearer. I had a fish for Good Friday, a firsthand experience of an ancient art, and a new appreciation for our rough fish.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School and is past president of the Linn County Conservation Board.