Outside Mackenthun’s fish house, which is one of the nicest on Mille Lacs, a generator was running in an enormous cardboard box on the snow, and a thick yellow extension cord snaked its way toward an outlet on the side of the house. The temperature was 7 or 8 below zero, and the wind was beginning to rise. Inside Mackenthun’s fish house, five young men were fishing in bare feet. The temperature was probably 70 degrees at floor level and 90 degrees at the ceiling, despite the fan whirring overhead. At either end of the fish house, which is 10 by 22, stood a pair of bunks. At one end was a small galley-a stove and a carbon-monoxide detector and at the other a small closet. A couch had been placed against one of the long walls and a table had been placed against the other wall. A radio on the table was tuned to a country station. The interior had been wainscoted with beadboard and wallpapered in a pattern of trout flies. The floor was carpeted and eight holes had been cut in it, over five of which groggy, unshaven faces were now poised, staring down into the indecipherable green.
A fishing hole next to the bed
Jim Mackenthun, who built this ice house himself last summer, occupied the master bunk. He was able to fish from bed.
“You know,” said Mackenthun, “when you say you’re going up to Mille Lacs and you’re sleeping in a fish house, a lot of people don’t understand.”
“They think it’s a sawdust floor and a bunch of guys smoking cigars and spitting on the floor,” said Mackenthun’s friend and fellow farmer, Rick Rehmann.
That morning, the Mackenthun fish house was a soporific place. It had been a long night. Much pepper water had been drunk, and as one of the anglers remarked, “There was a snaggletoothed bullfrog in here last night.” With the morning light, Mackenthun and his friends had opened their first beers and baited their first hooks. Conversation sloped away until Al Artmann, who owns Al’s Sports Bar in Glencoe, hooked a tiny perch. “He’s a killer. He’s a killer,” said one of his buddies. “He’s a banana,” said another. “He’ll fill up the corners of a round pan,” said a third. Artmann unhooked the perch and released it, making sure it slithered back down through the ice hole.
The next fish was a tullibee.
“The Cisco Kid strikes again.”
“Grab him by the ears there, Rick.”
“Now he’s going outside,” said Rick Rehmann. “Hitting the deep freeze. Ready for the smoker. Just gut ’em and smoke ’em. You don’t put ’em on the carpet, that’s for sure. They stink.”
The door opened and the tullibee flew into the punishing light.
Four of the five anglers were fishing mostly by feel, partly by sight, looking down their lines until they faded out in the depths below. Rick Rehmann was using a depth finder, which sat on the ice below the raised floor of the fish house. A transducer hung in the water just beneath his hole. The depth finder has a dial mounted on a square housing, and the dial translates the lake bottom, the angler’s lure, and the passing fish into trembling green and red dashes. “See that green mark that’s coming up right there?” Rehmann asked me. “That’s my jig.” Fishing with a depth finder looked to me like trying to navigate around town by staring at your speedometer.
You hear a lot of jokes about ice fishing, which non-anglers sometimes call “ice drinking.” I had heard a story, perhaps fictitious, about two men who drove out onto the ice before the big January snowstorm, knowing they would be stranded for days. When the plow finally reached them, their only words were, “More minnows and more beer.” From Jim Mackenthun and his friends I heard a true story about a spear fisherman who fell through the spear hole he had cut in the ice on a lake near Glencoe and drowned. “He was lit, though,” Al Artmann said. “They found him 20 yards away from the hole. The hole was 2 by 3, so he had to hit it just right.”
But everywhere I went on Mille Lacs, including the Mackenthun fish house, people were fishing earnestly, whether they were drinking root-beer schnapps or black coffee. Many of them were fishing so intently that they seemed to have succumbed to a kind of ice-house hypnosis, to have dived down a private ice hole in their minds. When they looked up to talk to me, they had a long-distance stare that came from trying too intently to focus on something that wouldn’t come into focus, some indeterminate depth in the water beneath them where their fishing line trailed off into oblivion. Somewhere down there, over the mud flats, swam the walleye of their dreams, the eelpout of their nightmares.
The largest concentration of ice anglers I saw was on Gull Lake, just a few miles northwest of Brainerd, perhaps 30 miles from Mille Lacs Lake. It was the Saturday morning after the big storm, the day of the sixth annual $100,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza. The low the night before was minus 30, and the high that afternoon would be plus 5 degrees. Fahrenheit. Since daylight, a parade of anglers and their friends had lumbered onto the ice, their movements hindered by heavy clothing. They arrived from the parking area along the east side of Gull Lake in bus loads, and as they trudged across the ice-heading toward two enormous inflatable beer cans-they dragged behind them plastic toboggans full of gear: depth finders, rods, propane heaters, thermoses, five-gallon plastic buckets, perforated dippers for spooning ice from their fishing holes. They brought bait: shiners, rainbows, fatheads, wax worms.
By the time noon had come, and with it the official start of the contest, nearly 6,000 people had crowded onto the section of Gull Lake that fell within the judges’ ken, where, on Friday, the Brainerd Jaycees had drilled 10,000 holes. To keep things fair, no one was allowed shelter of any kind. Luckily, there was not a breath of wind. Some anglers chose holes where the water might reach 65 feet deep-eelpout country. Others preferred the shallows. You could win by catching the biggest fish, but the first 100 anglers with any fish larger than eight ounces would win a five-gallon plastic bucket full of tackle. The angler who caught the hundredth-largest fish would win a new pickup.
As the clock edged toward starting time, the PA system blared out oldies broadcast by a local radio station. Some of the crowd, the serious contestants, dipped the ice from their holes once again and rechecked what anglers like to call their “terminal tackle.” But the rest of the crowd, wearing snowmobile suits and blaze orange hunting coveralls, started dancing to “Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People. At noon a shotgun blast went off, and the contest began. Anglers dropped their lines into the water, and within moments one fisherman near me stood up and began to run over the drifted snow toward the weigh-in tent. Soon there would be a line of men, women and children waiting to weigh their fish.
As for me, I tried to imagine the scene from the walleye point of view. It was unusually dark below the ice because of all the snow that had fallen the week before. There was a strange rumble overhead, and then there were those ten thousand points of light penetrating the unaccustomed dimness. Suddenly, down every luminescent column there came a hook, flashing silver, gold, chartreuse. The water was threaded vertically in every direction, and one was suddenly surrounded by the scent of wax worms, by the odor of shiners, rainbows, fatheads. It was beautiful, at first, but then, at last, it was all too sadly irresistible.