Minneapolis -- It started when I was returning from a Christmas vacation in St. Paul. My seatmates on the Northwest flight wouldn't stop talking about the great time they had had ice fishing on a lake in deep-freeze north-central Minnesota.
Fishing on the ice on a wind-blown lake when the temperature was slippy-sliding below zero? When the glacial gusts turned your nose red, your ears blue and your eyes teary? They had to be out of their minds!
No, they replied knowingly. They had to be 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 had all the shirtsleeve 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. Who cared if the wind-chill factor on the ice outside their door made the temperature 60 to 70 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 (over a hole in the ice below), attach the other ent to a rattle reel attached to the wall. When the fish bites, it jerks the line, which turns the reel which makes such a racket you know you've got a catch. All you have to do is pull the fish, throw it out the door (the natural refrigeration will keep it safe until your trip to shore), bait your hook again and go back to your poker game. Or whatever.
Roughing it, Minnesota-style, lost a lot of its splinters when women started going along on winter fishing trips 20 years ago. You bet they'd follow their macho men 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 TV -- 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, aka Frostbite Flats, with Dave Gaitley, an outdoors specialist for the Minnesota Tourism Office. It was a two-hour drive north from Minneapolis to the second largest of Minnesota's 10,000 lakes.
Mr. 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. 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 famed for its abundance of walleye, a delicate, sweet-flavored game fish that pulls premium prices at the Twin Cities' fine restaurants. Every fisherman dreams of catching a "big one" -- walleyes grow as large as 17 pounds -- but most have to settle for 1- to 2-pounders.
Mr. Gaitley says the most likely catch is eelpout, the ultimate ugly fish with the head of a catfish and the 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. Yuk!
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 8,000 to 10,000 people for a fishing tournament and the Eelpout Peel Out 5K Run. (The 13th annual Eelpout Festival will be held Feb. 7-9; Peel Out Run, Feb. 8). 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, even striped and polka-dotted structures -- surrealistic subdivisions of Monopoly houses lined up on glistening white Boardwalks. In 1990, Frostbite Flats had 4,000 fish houses, which meant it had a bigger population than 95 percent of Minnesota 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 without reference points.
Mr. Gaitley says only the foolhardy wander out on the ice without taking precautions. Still, 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, not ready to wait for the official announcement 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 costs about $1,500. Moonlight snowmobile rides, especially before the ice has reached thickness of 20 to 30 inches, are definitely not recommended.