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Brooks Big John

Ojibwe Fish Decoys
Lac du Flambeau, WI

Brooks Big John. Photo by Bob Rashid.The Ojibwe have been in the Lac du Flambeau area for hundreds of years. Tourists come to fish mostly during the warmer months, but the Ojibwe people of Lac du Flambeau keep fishing all year round. They’ve developed a technique of spearing fish through the ice so they can enjoy fresh fish even when the lake’s surface is frozen.

Brooks’ dad taught him how to ice fish when he was a boy, so he has a lot of experience. First Brooks packs all his fishing gear on a sled. Then he scouts out a good location where muskies or pike are likely to be prowling for smaller fish to eat. They like to hide in weed beds near the shore and dart out to catch unwary prey.

After he finds a good spot, Brooks clears the snow off the ice in the shape of a big circle. The first big job is to make a round hole in the ice. The old way of doing this is to use an ice chisel mounted on a long handle of heavy pipe. This can be a lot of work. Often the ice is 16 or 18 inches thick. Today, Brooks may use a power ice auger.

After Brooks drills the hole, he lays down pine boughs on the ice around the hole and covers them with a tarp. The pine boughs create insulation between Brooks’ body and the ice. He doesn’t want his body heat to melt the ice and get his clothes wet.

Brooks uses tobacco to give thanks in advance of catching a fish. He sprinkles a little into the hole to show his appreciation for all the good things and the help the Creator gives to him. Brooks offers a prayer of gratitude too while he sprinkles the tobacco as a gift. 

Wooden framework. Photo by Rick March.Next, Brooks puts up the wooden framework of his ice fishing teepee. It is about three or four feet high. He drapes tarps, blankets or old sleeping bags over the frame. They have to be thick enough to block the sunlight from getting through.

Brooks crawls inside the dark teepee. He lays on his chest, so he can see clearly through the hole into the water. Sunrays that hit the iced lake illuminate the water. Brooks says the hole in the ice is like “a window into another world.”

Three-pronged spear. Photo by Rick March.Now Brooks has to get his fishing equipment ready. He has a three-pronged spear made from a pitchfork. Barbs on the ends of the spear’s points will hold the fish on the spear. The pipe handle had melted lead poured into it so that it is heavy and will thrust quickly into the water.

Brooks ties the cord attached to the spear’s handle to the frame of the teepee. He gets out a fishing decoy and jigs for fish. Watch out, muskies! 

Making wooden decoys and setting up spear fishing teepees is an Ojibwe art and tradition.Talk icon

Listen to Big John talk about how he ice fishes. You can read along by clicking here.

Learn More!

The six Ojibwe tribes in Wisconsin all spear fish. To find out more about each tribe and their location, go to Resources for Students and click on the Great Lake’s Intertribal Council link. Really into fish? You can find Wisconsin fish profiles and more about the history of Ojibwe ice fishing on the resources page too. 

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“We have a twelve by twelve square mile reservation in Lac du Flambeau and 126 lakes on our reservation, so fishing was only natural.”

– Brooks Big John

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