MINNEAPOLIS — Smug in the sunshine of a balmy November day, Southern Californians can feel glib in the knowledge that ice and snow reports are about to start arriving from relatives freezing in the Midwest. It's a good time to rub on sun block and congratulate yourself on the wisdom of moving west.
Except for one thing. According to my seatmates on a return flight from St. Paul, the greatest of vacation amusements--ice fishing on a lake in deepest freeze--is about to begin in north-central Minnesota.
Fishing on the ice on a windblown lake when the temperature is sliding below zero? When the glacial gusts turn your nose red, your ears blue and your eyes teary? They had to be kidding!
No, they replied knowingly. They had been 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 all the shirt-sleeve 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.
Propane heaters kept things cozy while, because the house is elevated on skids, not changing the all-important consistency of the ice below. Who cared if the wind-chill factor on the ice outside their door made the temperature 65 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 into the ice below, attach the other end to a rattle reel attached to the wall.
When the fish takes the bait, it jerks the line, which turns the reel, which makes such a racket that you know you've got a bite. All you have to do is pull up the fish, throw it out the door (the natural refrigeration will keep it preserved until your trip to shore), bait your hook again and go back to your poker game. Or whatever.
Roughing it, Minnesota-style, lost some of its splinters when women started going on winter fishing trips 20 years ago. They were more than happy to sit 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 television . . . 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, a.k.a. Frostbite Flats, with Dave Gaitley, an outdoors specialist for the Minnesota Office of Tourism. It was a two-hour drive north from Minneapolis to the second-largest of Minnesota's 10,000 lakes.
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," he said. "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 famous for its abundance of walleye, a delicate, sweet-flavored game fish that pulls premium prices at the finest restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Every real fisherman dreams of catching a "big one" (walleyes grow as large as 17 pounds), but most have to settle for one- to two-pounders.
Gaitley says the most likely catch is eelpout, the ultimate ugly fish, with the head of a catfish and 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.
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 as many as 10,000 people for a fishing tournament and the Eelpout Peel Out 5K Run. (The 13th annual Eelpout Festival will be Feb. 7-9, 1992; the Peel Out Run is Feb. 8.) Walker 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, striped and polka-dotted structures--surrealistic subdivisions of Monopoly houses lined up on a glistening white Boardwalk. In 1990, Frostbite Flats had 4,000 fish houses, which meant it had a bigger population than 95% of Minnesota's 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.