Conservation Minnesota

An Ice Fishing Journey

Ice fishing seems to be all the rage lately. Maybe I’m just noticing it because my husband has taken to going a time or two every winter. Articles about ice fishing have been appearing recently in some of the newspapers I read. Last Saturday we had to drive to Roseau from Hallock. Along the route we drove by Lake Bronson. Covering the lake were all kinds of ice houses. When I say all kinds, I mean it. There were houses of all combinations of colors and shapes and sizes. Some had wheels. Some looked like little campers. They were scattered all over the lake with no apparent rhyme or reason.

Ice fishing isn’t like it used to be. For me, ice fishing conjures up thoughts of the movie Grumpy Old Men with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon sitting outside in their lawn chairs on the frozen water fishing in the ice. That isn’t so common any more, at least not in northern Minnesota. People sit in comfort these days while they fish. No freezing for them. Ice houses are heated; many have all the appliances including ovens and refrigerators, beds, televisions, stereos, DVD players, even satellite and other comforts of home. It’s like camping on a frozen lake. Actually, it is more lush than camping ever used to be. It is more like having a smaller version of your home with holes in the floor to fish from on the lake.

Like summertime fishing those who ice fish need a fishing license. Unlike other sport fishing, you are allowed two lines in the water at a time. You must be a resident of Minnesota to obtain a permit to keep an ice house on a Minnesota lake for the winter or overnight. If you only have an ice house on the lake for the day you don’t need a permit.

Until recently I felt that there was something about sitting indoors and fishing that takes the whole point away. I can only imagination what Sigurd Olson would say about what ice fishing has become. Yes, you can still look outside your window and see the beauty of the wilderness around you, but you can hardly claim to be experiencing nature. That said, you’d never get me to sit outside to fish in the middle of winter, but there’s a good chance I’d be willing to spend the day sitting in an ice house with the heat cranked and a fishing rod in my hand.

This past weekend I had the chance to experience ice fishing for myself and my thoughts about it changed. On Thursday my nine year old announced that he would love to go ice fishing. Could we go this weekend? Spurred by his enthusiasm, we decided to head over to the Lake of the Woods to ice fish. We had kid’s basketball games until 7pm Friday night and then again at 3pm on Saturday. While we didn’t have much time, we felt the experience would be worth it. Our close proximity to the Lake of the Woods is definitely one of the pluses of living here. If you’ve never been there, I highly recommend it.

It took about 2 hours for us to make it to a friend’s vacant cabin outside of Baudette late Friday evening. As we drove, the night sky shone bright with the light from the stars. I was curious about what scenery we were missing along the route driving in the dark.

Overcast yet breathtaking, the next morning revealed the beauty of the wilderness where we found ourselves. The cabin was right on the lake. There were other cabins but the area felt very remote. We drove down the road and then took a turn onto a plowed path right onto the lake. This was my first experience driving on a lake. Lake of the Woods is vast and driving on it felt like we were driving on the ocean. Along the sides of the path were reeds and grasses that grew out of the lake. Once we drove a little further we could see all the ice houses — similar to what I’d seen earlier on Lake Bronson, and yet many more. It appeared as if a village had sprung up on the lake, a village in the midst of the wilderness. The sky was huge and the lake looked like it went on forever. To an untrained eye, I imagined this must be what Antarctica is like minus the ice houses.

Our first stop was to our friend Candy’s ice house. Candy’s ice house is like a kitchen on the lake. She makes homemade caramel rolls, bread, buns, cookies and other food. Because Candy can’t get city water and sewer plumbed to the ice house, she can’t get licensed by the state to sell her baked goods. Instead, she takes tips. Business was brisk Saturday morning. Excited customers came and went. Pans of caramel rolls were flying out the door. Candy also delivers. People call in orders and her husband will bring them to the door of their ice house. Now, that’s service. A master at multitasking, Candy was also ice fishing as she was baking and waiting on guests.

After we left Candy’s we drove by The Igloo. The Igloo is a bar and restaurant that looks just like an igloo, but it isn’t made out of snow or ice. I didn’t go in but apparently there are holes in the ice so you can sit in the bar and drink or eat while you fish. Just when I thought I’d heard it all.

From there we went to the little ice house where we would fish. The house belonged to  Candy’s husband, Doug. It wasn’t one of the fancy comforts of home kind of ice houses, but instead a typical out of doors rustic cabin kind of place. There were 4 holes in the floor for fishing, a bench, 2 chairs and a heater. It wasn’t freezing but it certainly wasn’t warm and cozy. I put a line in, as did my husband. My 9 year old commandeered two and took the job of fishing very seriously. At one point he said “Soren (his big brother) doesn’t know what he’s missing out on.”

After awhile Doug showed up with steaming hot breakfast for all of us from Candy. Eggs, pancakes and a caramel roll each. If this was roughing it, I was all for it.

Even though we weren’t catching any fish the time flew and then it was time to go. As we were getting ready to pull up our lines the 9 year old said “I think my line is moving.” My husband told him to slowly reel it up and as he did we could see that there on the end of the line was a walleye. We took some photos and then, because it was too small to keep, we released him down the fishing hole back into the cold water. It was the perfect end to a fun morning.

I realized that I was wrong about ice fishing and the connection with nature. True, it probably would not live up to Sigurd Olson’s standards, but I had definitely felt the draw of nature and the peacefulness that accompanies it. The quiet itself provided a welcome reprieve from everyday life. It is another world up there and I’d readily go back.

Later that evening when we were at home, my husband asked my son if he’d like to go to an ice fishing derby at Lake Bronson the next day. I thought that maybe our little trip would have been enough for him for awhile, but he readily agreed to join my husband. They spent most of the day on Sunday sitting outside fishing Grumpy Old Men-style. While neither they nor any of their companions caught any fish the entire time, my son later told us that it had been the best weekend of his life. And so it appears that an ice fisherman was born this weekend.

Kristin Eggerling is a board member for Conservation Minnesota Voter Center, the mother of two, and a freelance writer in northwestern Minnesota. 

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Denise (Bushman) Kramer says:

I enjoyed reading your story… When I was younger my parents would take my sister and I ice fishing to Lake of the Woods from Illinois for a week each winter. My mother is origionaly from Minnisota so we would always get to spend time with family while there. My sister and I both have so many memories from those trips.