The distance between a spear fisherman in Minnesota and a singer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City cannot be measured by time zones, but by singular devotion to the craft.
That’s as good a way as any to describe Minnesota spearsmiths Loren Hjelle and his son Scott. The pair call themselves welders, but that doesn’t quite describe their crafting talents. But first, Met contra alto…
“One day a man came from Sunberg, a recently retired opera singer,” Loren says, leaning back in his chair, surrounded by the soot-covered tools of the metal trade. “This guy had his father’s old spear in his hand, and he wanted to see if he could make one like it. He was out looking for pikes, and he didn’t want to risk losing that piece of heirloom. He was destined to be a hanger wall forever.
“This ancient spear was built from the tines of an ancient pitchfork,” says Loren Hjelle. Hjelle (pronounced JELLY, as in peanut butter and…) took on the task.
After building this spear, pitchforks became Hjelle’s new medium. He began searching for ancient pitchforks, and his distinctive spears began to appear in spear shacks throughout the northern tier of North America. They are used to launch northern pike, an activity that seems to become more popular every winter. Soon, stacks of pitchforks and old silage forks filled a back room, waiting to begin their new life on the ice.
Loren and Scott with some of their recent creations. Mitch Kezar
“The pitchfork teeth,” says Loren, “are not round, they’re elliptical, like an egg. They’re more oblong. We cut the teeth and turn them, so they’re strong and long, and some we make with multiple spikes.” .
Loren recalled a conversation with a fellow pitcher, who marveled at his creation. “How come your teeth are so long?” he asked. “How come you want your teeth to only stick out halfway through a fish?” came Loren’s reply. End of discussion.
The elder Hjelle graduated from welding school in 1971 and was asked by an older friend if he had ever made a spear. He made the first one from some material found in century-old pieces of the railway, when the railway groups welded the rails with gas. After that first effort, a few more friends came begging or exchanging spears. Hjelle was hooked.
He took his first spears to a few lure shows and only sold a couple. Looking at his and Scotts’ modern creations, he laughs: “They were nothing like this. A lot of these [early spears] they were made from garage door springs that we had to straighten and weld. Some of these guys would give our spears names like ‘Widow Maker’, ‘Death Wish’, things like that.’
Old pitchforks ready to be turned into spears. Mitch Kezar
But this is no longer the case, modern Hjelle spears are pure functional art.
Scott, 34, made a few spears as a youth for 4-H projects and for an advanced metal class. Early in his career, he was tasked with straightening garage door jambs for his father. He is now an integral partner in the art of spear-making: a spear-making artist in residence.
Scott put photos of his first efforts on a Facebook page called “Fear the Spear” and that’s when his business took off.
“I joined because I grew up spearing and wanted to see what else I could learn from like-minded athletes,” he says. He put photos of his father’s best spears on the site, which sparked even more interest. Then he made his own Facebook page, and now the Hjelles have as many orders as they can fill, with more than 3,000 followers watching their efforts online.
Loren heats part of a spear. Mitch Kezar
“The number one custom option is the twisted square tines on the silage forks,” says Scott. “These square tines are great for strength and flexibility. They keep stiffness all around, but that’s not why I think people want them. People like our twisted tines, they have to start with a square stock . And our spears are really balanced because, like a throwing dart, they’re very heavy.”
“Some people want special twists, reverse twists,” says Loren. “And all these interesting things take a lot more time.”
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The appearance of the arm, where the main shaft of the spear splits and then rejoins near the business end, is unique to a Hjelle spear. No other manufacturer has this feature.
“I love metal art,” says Loren. “I teach welding at a local college and my students are making a full size German Shepherd in class for the Willmar Police Department. It will be displayed in the lobby as a permanent fixture. This is part of what we like to teach at school: creativity. When welding meets art… well, boy. I’m there, I love that stuff.”
When Scott returned to the business his father started, it changed his life.
Scott sharpens a spear. Mitch Kezar
“This spear-making blew me away. I can use my hands and be creative,” says Scott. “When I was at school, I didn’t know how to paint or draw. The art didn’t register with me. These spears opened up a part of my brain that had never appeared before. Now I learn all these new things. We have a new laser engraver, and right now we can put almost anything you want written or drawn on your spear. It’s going to open up a lot of customization that we never thought possible before.”
Curling up in his chair, Loren says, “The great thing about this spear-making is that unintentionally, Scott can have this business for the rest of his career, and like left-handed making, it can be lucrative if there work. It’s become something I can leave my family with.”
But no good spear story can end without a fish tale, and Loren has plenty of them.
The final product. Mitch Kezar
“So I was way up in a lake in northern Minnesota, and this 24-pound fish, that looked as big as a railroad tie, floated under me, parallel to my bait. I thought, ‘Please spin please!’ And like a battleship, this old fish took forever to turn. Go back in. I had my spear in my hand and he was coming in right under me. I’ve never had big fish fever, but in this one moment I must have had a bad case of big fish fever. I threw that spear so hard – I missed it. Gone! I just couldn’t believe it. I guess I’m a better spear builder than I am a thrower!