Minnesota Ice Fishing Comes in From the Cold

Kuehl is a Denver free-lance writer.

Smug in the sunshine of a balmy November day, Southern Californians can feel glib in the knowledge that ice and snow reports are about to start arriving from relatives freezing in the Midwest. It's a good time to rub on sun block and congratulate yourself on the wisdom of moving west.

Except for one thing. According to my seatmates on a return flight from St. Paul, the greatest of vacation amusements--ice fishing on a lake in deepest freeze--is about to begin in north-central Minnesota.

Fishing on the ice on a windblown lake when the temperature is sliding below zero? When the glacial gusts turn your nose red, your ears blue and your eyes teary? They had to be kidding!

No, they replied knowingly. They had been snug in a fish house, an architectural aberration designed to keep Minnesota fishing fanatics happy in the darkest, coldest days of winter.

You'd have to see a fish house to understand, they said. The 10-by-16-foot cabin they'd rented at Lake Mille Lacs (pronounced Mee-Lax) had all the shirt-sleeve comforts of home, from bunk beds and stove to toilet and TV. The floor was carpeted, curtains hung at the windows and a big table surrounded by chairs was perfect for poker games.

Propane heaters kept things cozy while, because the house is elevated on skids, not changing the all-important consistency of the ice below. Who cared if the wind-chill factor on the ice outside their door made the temperature 65 degrees below zero?

What about the fishing? Oh, fishing is almost incidental to life at the fish house, they said. You drop your line through a hole in the floor into the ice below, attach the other end to a rattle reel attached to the wall.

When the fish takes the bait, it jerks the line, which turns the reel, which makes such a racket that you know you've got a bite. All you have to do is pull up the fish, throw it out the door (the natural refrigeration will keep it preserved until your trip to shore), bait your hook again and go back to your poker game. Or whatever.

Roughing it, Minnesota-style, lost some of its splinters when women started going on winter fishing trips 20 years ago. They were more than happy to sit out on the ice in the middle of a blizzard--but when they got there they wanted a nice warm place for themselves and the kids to watch television . . . or maybe invite friends over for cards. Minnesotans take their fun where they find it.

On my next winter visit to Minnesota, I headed for Lake Mille Lacs, a.k.a. Frostbite Flats, with Dave Gaitley, an outdoors specialist for the Minnesota Office of Tourism. It was a two-hour drive north from Minneapolis to the second-largest of Minnesota's 10,000 lakes.

Gaitley prepared me for what to expect at the end of the line. "In ice fishing, the fishing part is secondary to the camaraderie of the people you're with," he said. "That's why they build houses with four or 10 or even a dozen holes in the ice, with bunks and stoves and everything else. It's the same as going to a cabin in the woods. You all sit around and talk and play cards and drink beer. If somebody catches a fish, well, that's OK, too."

Mille Lacs is famous for its abundance of walleye, a delicate, sweet-flavored game fish that pulls premium prices at the finest restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Every real fisherman dreams of catching a "big one" (walleyes grow as large as 17 pounds), but most have to settle for one- to two-pounders.

Gaitley says the most likely catch is eelpout, the ultimate ugly fish, with the head of a catfish and distended belly of an eel. It's a slimy creature that makes its appearance even more unwelcome by trying to wrap its tail around the fisherman's arm.

The eelpout is unsightly, yes, but it's so abundant that Walker, Minn., on the shores of Lake Leech (honest) stages an annual February Eelpout Festival that draws as many as 10,000 people for a fishing tournament and the Eelpout Peel Out 5K Run. (The 13th annual Eelpout Festival will be Feb. 7-9, 1992; the Peel Out Run is Feb. 8.) Walker restaurants serve eelpout pizza and eelpout chowder to the festival crowd.

When we arrived at the shore of Mille Lacs, we looked out over hundreds of red, blue, lavender, yellow, striped and polka-dotted structures--surrealistic subdivisions of Monopoly houses lined up on a glistening white Boardwalk. In 1990, Frostbite Flats had 4,000 fish houses, which meant it had a bigger population than 95% of Minnesota's towns.

A maze of snow-plowed driveways leading across the ice were marked with street signs. Green and amber reflectors indicated which direction to shoreline. Otherwise, at night--or in a ground blizzard--it would be hard to find your way across that moonscape.

Gaitley says only the foolhardy wander out on the ice without taking precautions. Despite warnings, about 50 cars, trucks or snowmobiles--sometimes a fish house or two--fall through Minnesota lake ice each year. Usually it's people rushing the season, which usually begins in mid-December--not waiting for the official announcement that the ice is ready. Sometimes they pay with their lives. Even if they escape drowning, the bill for retrieving and repairing a sunken vehicle close to shore comes to about $1,500. Moonlight snowmobile rides, especially before the ice has reached a thickness of 25 inches, are definitely not recommended.

Fish houses sit on platform runners and are towed on and off the ice by trucks driven by "Ice Men" who know every inch of the territory and thus avoid cracks, crevasses or thin ice that could lead to disaster.

We watched one of the experienced drivers tow a lavender fish house across a black steel bridge that spanned a rough stretch of puddle-patched ice beginning to crack. Slowly . . . slowly. Then the truck picked up speed as it headed for shore more than a mile away. Its radio left the wail of country music in its wake. Every sound is magnified many times over on the mirror surface of the lake.

When the frosted lakescape was silent again, I could hear the high, lonesome moan that the ice made as it ever-so-slowly shifted underfoot. Some find that eeriness soothing. They seek that cocoon of solitude on the edge of danger. Not me. I was ready to head back to shore. If ice cracks, can a sudden dip in numbing water be far behind? But first I wanted to visit some of the fish houses of many colors that had looked so intriguing from shore. Some structures were deluxe models, complete with wiring for stereophonic sound and fine wood kitchen cabinets that would enhance a far more conventional home.

We visited one 20-foot diameter "igloo" party house, where a couple of laid-back bachelors serve up good wine and venison stew at dinner parties for six. Most fish houses we saw were more proletarian, as uniform in their rainbow diversity as the fishing license number painted over the door. Rental "four-holers" ($8 to $12 per hole per night) had bunks, carpeting, stove, table, chairs and often a TV set brought from home, along with a generator for power.

True, they were as comfortable and infinitely warmer than a tent or recreational vehicle; OK for the outdoorsy crowd. But if I were going to chill out at 40 below at Mille Lacs, I'd hold out for one of those privately owned ice palaces with a handsome chef serving caviar by candlelight.

I tried my luck at fishing through a hole in the floor. No luck. All in all, I preferred my fish grilled and served on a plate with a glass of dry white wine at a dry, warm and, most important, stationary table on land. Maybe we could order walleye at one of the resort restaurants on shore. Gaitley just grinned. Minnesotans are continually amused by the naivete of others.

Mille Lacs' 132,000 acres of shoreside is divvied up among 80-some resorts, about half of which offer fish house accommodations. Resort in Minnesota lake country is a long way from what resort suggests elsewhere in the United States. The prevailing ambience at Mille Lacs is part-1940 motel and part-fish bait shop/greasy spoon restaurant. The only walleye you're likely to see is a trophy nailed to the wall.

But each resort has its own character, passable hamburgers, an unlimited supply of strong coffee and genuinely nice people who like to talk ice fishing and football. (Minneapolis' hosting of the Super Bowl at the Metrodome on Jan. 26, 1992, was already a prime conversation topic when we were there last January. Baseball, no doubt, would be on the minds of the folks now, what with the Minnesota Twins winning the World Series last week.)

At Karpen's Sunset Bay Resort, on the east side of the lake, the accent is on safety. A large map of the lake on the wall has pegs indicating the whereabouts of each fish house. The color of the card on the peg lets those on shore know which houses are occupied and when the occupant last checked in at the restaurant--good things to know if a bad storm hits or an emergency phone call comes in.

A display of fish house real estate photos hangs on another wall at Karpen's, offering everything from what looks like a make-do refrigerator packing case to a cabinet maker's $4,000 carved-wood delight that should come equipped with a cuckoo clock.

Gaitley said some of the eyesore-variety fish houses are a cause of discord in the Mille Lacs area. Those who have invested in expensive lakeshore property don't appreciate the view, especially when the shacks are stored on shore in summer. On the other hand, fishing is the major source of income for the locals, who look at fish houses in the yard as money in the bank. Ron Maddox's Wigwam Bay Resort & Rainbow Inn on the west side of Mille Lacs is a social gathering spot, offering everything from a jukebox to video games, billiards to "foozball," with gambling rules posted on the wall. A gambling casino on the nearby Chippewa Indian reservation adds to the action.

"If people really get bored, they can go dancing in Garrison," Maddox points out. Population of Garrison: 149.

Both resorts--and most of their competitors--have short-order restaurants where the biggest business is in hearty breakfasts. Ham, sausage or bacon, plus eggs, hash brown potatoes, toast and coffee go for about $5 at the Wigwam; three pancakes and two eggs are $2.75 at Karpen's.

"We're full as soon as we open at 7 a.m. and we go through a lot of carbohydrates when our customers have been sitting on the ice all night," one busy cook reported. She said it's not legal for a restaurant to cook your catch, but allowed as how "cooking rights" could be arranged fairly easily.

It's not as simple to get around the other ice fishing restrictions. Game wardens patrol the lake, checking the fish houses to see that fishermen are licensed and observing the limits--one fishing hole and one large walleye per day, per license. (A nonresident fishing license costs $7.50 for 24 hours.)

As we drove back to Minneapolis, I asked Gaitley the secret of the fish house phenomenon. He said it ties in with everything from women's rights to quality time with the kids to affordable vacations for families. When women started working at jobs outside the home, they valued their weekends as much as the men, but they weren't going to settle for substandard vacation living conditions.

Solution: comfort-oriented fish houses on lakes within easy driving distance of the city. A budget-priced escape with appeal to the imagination.


Minnesota Ice Fishing

Getting there: From Los Angeles, fly nonstop to Minneapolis on Northwest for an advance-purchase, round-trip weekday coach fare of $398.

Mille Lacs Lake, less than 100 miles north of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, can be reached by excellent, well-maintained four-lane highways. Rental cars are available at the airport. For highway conditions, call (800) 542-0220 or (612) 296-3076.

Minnesota's ice fishing season runs from mid-December to mid-February, when the season closes on walleye fishing. Fish houses must be removed from the ice by March 15. Best fishing is December through early January before the water has become so cold that the fish become dormant. Fishing licenses are required. Fees for nonresidents are $7.50 for 24 hours, $15 for three days.

For more information: Contact the Minnesota Office of Tourism, 375 Jackson St., 250 Skyway Level, St. Paul, Minn. 55101, (800) 657-3700.

Other winter events in the area:

St. Paul's famed Winter Carnival runs Jan. 22 to Feb. 2, 1992. The Super Bowl is Jan. 26 at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. The Eelpout Festival at Watkins, in northwest Minnesota, will be Feb. 7-9, with the Eelpout Peel Out 5K Run set for Feb. 8. For more information, call the Leech Lake Chamber of Commerce, (800) 833-1118.

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