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.
We kick our fins gently and then float over the weeds, our bodies still, and scan for our big-jawed targets, which also tend to lie still, scanning for their own unsuspecting prey. The circumstance is altogether different from hunting in the woods, but nonetheless, it brings a similar adrenaline rush: my eyes widen, my senses are piqued, my heart rate quickens. This, I think to myself, is fun.
I'm a little unsure, though, about how to actually spear a fish—and how it might feel. It seems prudent to shadow Schweizer, who is only a few feet away and appears to have a pike in his sights. I watch as he hovers silently, slowly extending his arm and pointing the spear, cocked in his right arm, in the direction of something. I can't see what.
He releases, triggering a flash of movement. A cloud of sediment covers the scene. It dissipates, only to reveal his fishless spear. He missed. We make eye contact and move along.
Schweizer spots another. He inches closer this time, perhaps only two feet away from a smallish, motionless pike. He points just behind its gills and releases, skewering the poor fish like a hotdog over a campfire. Schweizer raises his spear out of the water, and we watch as the fish's shimmering green body flails futilely and dies quickly.
"I would have an issue with killing these fish if they weren't an invasive species," Schweizer would explain later. "All the reports from FWP say that they are definitely a voracious predator just killing all the trout and all the other game fish that we're used to catching in the lakes and rivers around here."
We swim to shore and Schweizer slides the slippery pike off the spear. He usually fillets them, he says, but this one is so puny—about 14 inches at most, compared to the 30-inchers he's caught in the past—it's probably not worth the trouble. He takes a few photos and tosses it into the brush.
The heat of the September sun is welcome after the cold of the water. We'd only been in the lake for about 10 minutes and we're both shivering. I face the sun for a few moments to warm back up, and Schweizer slips off the top of his wetsuit, content to watch from the shore when I go back in for another try.
Turns out, I probably needed a full-length wetsuit this time of year instead of the shorty I'm wearing, as Tim Wagoner, the manager of Gull Dive Center, tells me. For pike spearing, "most folks wear at least a 3-millimeter wetsuit just because you're not very active," he explains. "Also, the wetsuit gives you a little bit of buoyancy, making it easier to tread water, and obviously keeps you warm. And if it's hot it keeps you from getting your back sunburned."
Gear-deficient or not, I return to the weeds determined to impale a pike. I find one quickly, but when I try to get a good angle I turn my body so clumsily that the fish easily darts away. I move along, see another, take a careless shot and miss badly. Shivering again, I head back to the shore.
Schweizer tells me to get within a foot or two of the fish before releasing the spear. I soak in the sun for a moment, then wade in for one last try.
Back in the weeds I'm stunned to come across a massive pike, three feet long or so, hovering like a blimp, utterly motionless, and somehow unaware of the conspicuous black blob above it. I breathe slowly, paddle awkwardly with one hand so I'm perpendicular to my prey, and inch the spear to within two feet of its gills. I pause, and release.
A furious whirl of commotion ends with my spear skewering nothing but my own short-lived hope. The pike is gone. I sidestroke back to shore, too cold yet to consider what my miss will surely mean—not for that unsuspecting pike, but for unsuspecting little trout.