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Every fish house tells a story

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The Whitefish Invitational spearing competition on Saturday, Jan. 12, brought around 28 spear fishermen to the area to compete for bragging rights. With them came rather unique spear houses.

“This is my plasma-screen TV,” said Thayne Johnson as he watched his spearing hole. Johnson, a spear fisherman from the Twin Cities, was on Cross Lake for the invitational.

Thayne gazes into a large square cut out of roughly foot-thick ice where two hand-carved decoys are suspended in the water. His fish house is deemed “The Taj Mahal” by his spearing competitors. They say it weighs about as much as the Taj Mahal, too.

Johnson built the two-man fish house with his late father-in-law, Edward Whalen. Whalen was a master carpenter, and passed away about six months after the spearing house was built.

Johnson pointed to the seams where the walls meet the roof; it all lines up perfectly. The shack features a brass beer holder, exit sign over the door, wrought iron rod holder and reels hanging from the ceiling to control the decoys.

He says his house is very finely crafted, as his father-in-law’s work was featured in Architectural Digest magazine.

Incidentally, Johnson is owner of C.M. Wiggle Bait Company. He makes decoys, most of them without fins. Instead of gliding through the water in a circle, like most decoys, C.M. Wiggle decoys do just what their name suggests — they wiggle.

The Whitefish Invitational has one rule: Each fishermen can only fish with decoys of their own making. Most competitors met at an annual decoy competition in Perham. Because that competition didn’t test the decoys by fishing with them, the invitational was started.

Fishing near Johnson on Cross Lake was area resident Dave Guenther. Guenther was fishing from his father’s house, a peeling green fish house.

Though the paint is peeling, faint images remain from where Guenther painted decoys typical of their artists, with each artist’s name below.

Kelly Larson was also out on the ice. He was spearing from a portable dark house from the 1950s, the same as what his grandfather had used. Its wood frame and sides are covered in thick canvas.

Larson not only makes his own decoys but also his own spears.

“There’s nothing more rewarding that getting fish on everything you made yourself,” Larson said.

He designs spears, buys the steel, then does the welding to bring it all together. Once made, the spears need to be fine-tuned so they glide straight through the water.

He likened the decoy he jigged up and down to a puppet show as he waited for fish to swim in.

Larson wished to point out the “look and release” side of spearing. Spear fishermen are able to look at the size of a fish before they take it, and can let a fish swim away without touching it.

Kirk Schnitker, who vacations on Cross Lake, is the Whitefish Invitational coordinator. He’s owner of perhaps the most interesting house on the ice — what the competitors call the “tin can.”

Schnitker is a Hamm’s Beer fan, and the dark house is shaped as just that, a beer can. Painted on the outside is the Hamm’s Bear. Schnitker won the house in a raffle. He didn’t say just how many raffle tickets he purchased, but he did say it was quite a few.

Schnitker had two other houses on the ice as well. On the walls of one, several decoys were hung in a row (not far from the speared fish), all hanging off handmade rods.

Each competitor’s house out on the ice was unique Jan. 12, as were the decoys. Some simple, some elaborate, some plain and some brightly colored. Each had its own individual story.

Do you have or know someone who has an interesting fish house? Contact Kate Perkins at or 218-855-5858.

Denton (Denny) Newman Jr.
I've worked at the Brainerd Dispatch with various duties since Dec. 7, 1983. Starting off as an Ad Designer and currently Director of Audience Development. The Dispatch has been an interesting and challenging place to work. I'm fortunate to have made many friends, both co-workers and customers.
(218) 855-5889