Michael Schweizer, clutching a long fluorescent spear in one hand and snorkel gear in the other, walks along the shore of Salmon Lake and boils down his fixation on spearfishing to this: "It's like fly-fishing—but not boring."
I carry a spear, too, which, even out of the water, I find endows a certain primal potency. I accept his derision of fly-fishing—sacrilege, here in Montana—with a nod. But this will be my first try, and if my spear were to reflect my confidence in actually sticking a northern pike today, it would sag in my hand like a rope.
Schweizer and I arrive at a beach bordering a small, weedy cove on the northeast side of the lake, the spot where he most often comes to hunt piscine prey. "The biggest thing is that you get to see underwater," he explains as he pulls on his shorty wetsuit, and I fidget with mine. "You actually get the physical act of finding the fish, not just hoping it's where you're casting."
Schweizer, 29, an Ohio native who moved to Missoula six years ago to feed his skiing and photography habits, finds that spearfishing, to some small degree, satisfies another of his loves that Montana doesn't well accommodate—scuba diving. He's a dive master who explores reefs in exotic locales around the world every year. A couple of years ago he was shopping for scuba gear in Missoula's Gull Dive Center when he happened upon their stock of spears. He was intrigued enough to buy one. "And since then I've fly-fished way less and spearfished way more," he says.
With wetsuits and flippers on, Schweizer grabs the two six-foot-long spears, called "Hawaiian slings" for the stretchy elastic band on the end that propels the spears slingshot style. One of the spears has a three-pronged tip, called a "paralyzer." The other is double-barbed, designed to keep the fish from flipping off after you impale it. To shoot, you loop the elastic band over the crook of your hand, and then grab far enough up the spear to create tension. The higher up you grab, the more tension, and the faster the spear flies through the water.
"Now, which ones are the pike?" I ask.
"The ones with heads that resemble alligators," he says.
Which makes me think I'd rather be casting for boring ol' trout right about now. But we spit into our masks and rinse, slide the masks over our faces, bite our snorkels, and slip into the cold green water.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) allows spearfishing for northern pike just about anywhere in the Clearwater River drainage, including Salmon Lake, Lake Alva, Lake Inez, Placid Lake and Seeley Lake. Pat Saffel, the fisheries manager for Region 2, will tell you that northern pike, or Esox lucius, is a voracious carnivore in Montana lakes, streams and reservoirs, an ambush predator that can grow to 40 pounds and three feet in length. It's native to Montana only in the Saskatchewan River drainage on the east side of Glacier National Park, and made its unwelcome appearance in the Clearwater drainage in the 1990s.
"Essentially someone decided on their own how to manage a state resource," Saffel says. "That's all I can guess."
Ever since, northern pike have been out-competing native species, killing off trout and wreaking havoc. Because of their gluttonous fish-eating habits, pike can eliminate their food supply in only a few years, leaving a population of terminally stunted "hammer handles," as small pike are sometimes called. It's a fishery manager's nightmare.
The state encourages pike spearing, but few people do it. In fact, Schweizer says that last summer, while spinner fishing off a dock at Salmon Lake, a couple of FWP survey-takers asked if he had been doing any other type of fishing during his visit. "I said I've been spearfishing," Schweizer recalls. "And they said, 'Yes!' These FWP guys were so pumped to be able to check off 'spearfishing' on their sheet. I think one of the guys even gave me a high five."
However uncommon, here we are, gliding from the shore into the murky weeds, where Schweizer says the pike like to loiter.