Fish houses sit on platform runners, the means by which they're 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 the ice made as it ever-so-slowly shifted underfoot. Some find that eeriness soothing. They seek that cocoon 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 any 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. They told us the sad story of how a Southern gentleman and his wife had poured $9,000 into a "retirement" fish house only to have the woman fall on the ice and break a leg before she ever entered its door.
(Before you can live it up on a deep freeze lake, you have to learn the "Minnesota Shuffle" -- tiny pigeon-toe steps forward with the soles of your boots never leaving the ice.)
Most fish houses we saw were more proletarian fare, 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 and 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 warm -- most important, stationary -- table on land. Maybe we could order walleye at one of the resort restaurants on shore? Mr. Gaitley just grinned. Minnesotans are continually amused by outlanders' naivete.
Mille Lacs' 132,000 acres of surface is divvied up by 80-some fishing 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, 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 Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome Jan. 26 was a prime topic when we were there.)
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, 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.
Mr. Gaitley said some of the eyesore variety fish houses are a cause of discord in the Mille Lacs area. Those who've invested in expensive lake shore 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 juke box 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," Mr. Maddox points out. Population of Garrison: 149.