Ice fishing is a bizarre sport, but it is popular in the Mille Lacs Lake region of Minnesota. Ice anglers use Global Positioning System gear to install shanties the size of small houses and drill holes in the ice with power augers.
Seriously. Take plenty of bait, don’t forget your bucket and stay warm. You might catch a walleye. You could even win a prize
Winter comes, the ice thickens in the long, bitter nights, and soon the ice-fishing houses are towed out of the storage yards and onto the lake. In a good year, there are, all told, perhaps a dozen weekends of fishing between the onset of deep ice and the end of February, when the houses must be towed off the lake again. But 1996 has not been a good year. It has been a freak year, the kind of winter, where Minnesota anglers are concerned, that comes only once every decade or so. In mid-January, a storm dropped a foot of new snow in the north-central part of the state. Brutal cold they’re used to here, near Brainerd, two hours north of the Twin Cities: highs in the low teens, lows so low you hope the weatherman means Celsius. But this much snow at once is unusual. And east of Brainerd on Mille Lacs Lake-the second largest lake in a state full of lakes the resort owners are pulling ice houses ashore as fast as they can only midway through the season, during a week when the high will barely exceed zero.
Here’s the problem. All across Mille Lacs, which is 200 square miles, the ice is three feet thick. That adds up to some 17 billion cubic feet of ice. A cubic foot of freshwater ice weighs about 50 pounds, which means that the ice on Mille Lacs weighs roughly 850 billion pounds. In large-mammal units, that is the equivalent of a herd of 53 million mature African bull elephants. Though the ice forms a thin sheet compared with the lake’s surface area, all of that weight is pressing down on the dark body of water beneath, as it does in any normal winter.
Now add snow, a total of two feet by 200 square miles. Because the moisture content of snow varies widely, it’s hard to say how much that much snow weighs. Call it a lot, perhaps as much as 348 billion pounds. Imagine 22 million elephants walking onto the lake. The snow presses down on the ice, which is already burdened with more than 5,000 ice houses and with anglers and their vehicles, mostly pickups and snowmobiles. Don’t forget the beer and schnapps they bring, and the food and tackle and generators and extra socks, not to mention the fish they’ve caught, now lying stiff and dry-eyed in the snow. If you drill through the ice under these extraordinary conditions, water will flood upward out of the hole and onto the surface. And so it happens that out here, where the ice is a yard thick and the temperature two nights ago was well below zero, there are shanties flooding with water.
More snow is forecast. There is a real danger of the ice failing under the load from another storm. Already a major crack parallels the western shoreline along St. Albin’s Bay. All this is very strange, and it grows stranger the more you think about it. That’s how you know you’re in walleye world. That’s how you know you’re ice fishing.
“This is a behavior that’s unique,” says Bob Michael, who is standing with his wife and young daughter on a pressure ridge nearly three miles out from the east shore of Mille Lacs Lake. They are looking at their fish house. The wind is cutting, the afternoon is growing long, and this house, a simple box about 10 feet wide by 20 feet long, looks as though it began to sink then changed its mind.
“The house is high-centered,” Michael says. “There’s probably 20 inches of ice now above the original surface from flooding. Wouldn’t be a big deal, but we got five weekends of walleye fishing left.” Last winter, Michael, who comes from Princeton, Minnesota, and until recently wrote mortgages for a living, looked out the window of his fish house in the night and saw a neighbor’s fish house burning down. Last winter, his wife drove their pickup across a 12-inch crack in the ice. These are just some of the things he means by “behavior.”
“It’s a suburb of shanties”
Ice fishing may be a bizarre sport, but many of those who enjoy it go to great lengths to make it seem ordinary. Bob Michael’s high-centered house, teetering on its fulcrum of ice, stands at the end of a cul-de-sac in a neatly organized subdivision of ice-fishing houses, each with the name and address of the owner painted on its side. It’s a suburb of shanties. And yet the word “shanties” is misleading, at least on Mille Lacs, for there are houses in this subdivision on which Bob Michael might well have written a mortgage, so elaborately are they furnished and appointed.
Looking westward from where we stand, there’s almost nothing in sight, only the dim arctic glowering of gray cloud on dull snow. It’s easy to pretend that the top of the world lies somewhere out there in all that blankness. But looking toward the dark line of the near shore, I can see dozens, perhaps hundreds, of houses, each with a driveway plowed out of the snow, each with a hollow behind it, a wind-shadow where snow did not drift in the recent storm.
Above the thin roar of the wind, I can hear the sound of a pickup truck, one of a crazed, half-derelict fleet that work the winter season on the ice. The truck is towing a fish house onto the broad, plowed road that leads to shore and to the safety of the storage yard behind the Lakeside Resort. Where packed snow covers the road, the chain between truck and fish house stays taut. But when the driver reaches glare ice, the house suddenly accelerates, slips sideways on its skids, seemingly intent on passing the vehicle that is pulling it.
Driving out onto the lake that afternoon along a glass-hard, the nearly frictionless freeway of ice, I found myself imagining the summer world of Mille Lacs: no ice, no fish houses, just open water, a low hum on the breeze-the sound of outboards in the distance-the oily warmth of a Midwestern lake summer. I remembered ice fishing as a boy in a frail, tar-paper shack that seemed to have been designed to keep the light out and the cold in. There was barely room for two adults, a boy, and their tackle. That shack stood on a small Iowa lake, and the fishermen there had grouped their shelters haphazardly, with little sense of territoriality, just an unexpressed yearning to keep each other in sight should the ice groan or the beer or coffee run low.
Driving past the rows of fish houses on Mille Lacs, I found myself thinking, too, about Henry David Thoreau. With borrowed ax and the boards from an Irishman’s shanty, he built a house that measured 10 by 15, smaller than many a Mille Lacs fish house. If Walden Pond hadn’t been shorn of its ice by “Hyperborean” ice-cutters every winter, Thoreau might have towed that house out onto the pond, cut a hole with his borrowed ax through what he called the skin of Walden, and fished in splendid isolation for the pickerel of his fancy. He might have written truly of his ice hole, as he did of his root cellar, that “the house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.”
But no one cuts ice holes with axes anymore. Most Mille Lacs anglers use a power auger, a giant corkscrew with a lawn-mower engine mounted on top. It takes only a few minutes to bore an eight-inch-wide hole in three feet of ice, and when the auger breaks through there’s an uprush of water. And though splendid isolation can be found on Mille Lacs, especially during the middle of the week and in the day or two after a major snowstorm, getting access to it is more highly structured than a casual observer would ever guess.