I doubt there is a fuller way to experience winter than on an ice fishing trip to Northern Minnesota.
Proper ice fishing is done on a wide, windswept expanse of a frozen lake that glistens in the sun and howls with the wind. It is a harsh place, sometimes miles away from shore, and fully exposed to the elements. Complementing this scheme is a comfortable abode, sitting in the middle of the ice and offering warmth, shelter and potential for catching your own food. This combination of wild, frozen outdoors surrounding a warmly protected refuge has a primeval appeal that is hard to explain.
It all starts with the location. Lake Mille Lacs in Northern Minnesota is ground zero for ice fishing in the U.S. Imagine a lake that is about 30 miles long and 20 miles wide, covered completely with three feet of ice. There are about 5,000 ice fishing houses on Lake Mille Lacs during winter and they are all connected via a network of ice roads, with plowed surfaces and temporary road signs. The entire lake basically transforms into a sizable town of little homes, ranging from tiny tents to ice fishing resorts. Most of the homes are about 2x6 meters and are highly mobile. Ice fishermen use pick-up trucks to drag these structures on ice and transport them from one fishing spot to another. Before the advent of diesel augurs, drilling holes was quite hard and allowed for only several holes a day. Today, the augurs allow for drilling over a 100 holes a day and it is not uncommon to move the entire house to several new locations a day in pursuit of better catch.
Our day started early in the morning on a crisp January Saturday. We arrived at our guide's house/lakefront resort in a town of Isle, MN on the southern shore of Lake Mille Lacs. Just a week later the town of Isle registered -35 F with -50 F windchill, but our trip took place in a positively balmy +10 F. Our guide for the day was Tim Chapman of Chapman Resorts, a small resort on the southern tip of the lake. The shores of Lake Mille Lacs are virtually lined with resorts and the key is to find a dedicated owner operator who will guide you with a sense of pride and dedication not usually found among the larger corporate providers. Tim was an excellent guide and less than a minute from the introductory handshake, we found ourselves driving our unsuspecting Honda Coupe straight off the boating ramp onto the ice. The ice we drove onto was 2.5 feet thick and it did not even heave under our weight. Before long we were driving at 30 miles an hour, which is not advisable on icy pavement, but is somehow possible on pure ice. For all its expanse, the surface of the lake is far from flat; rather, it receives many inches of snow, which gets sculpted by the wind and becomes quite undriveable. Most trucks on the lake have plows to make way from the main road to the desired fishing spots and Tim's truck was thus equipped. Here we were, ready to fish.
Step out onto a frozen lake, register the miles of glistening snow around you, take a deep breath, and you will understand the wonder of winter. With the blue sky above us and the crunching of ice under our boots, we explored the site and watched Tim clear the snow around the house to benefit the underwater cameras. As we walked towards the house, I noticed smoke coming out of the chimney and felt like a 16th century trapper coming home to a warm hut. Turns out, Tim had it preheated for us and ready to roll with four ice holes in the corners. The house was simple and cozy. It had two bunk beds for overnight stays, a row of ice fishing poles on the wall, a heater and a small table. It was just big enough for three guys and turned out to be a perfect base for the whole day.
There are two fundamentally different ways to ice fish. The traditionalists dress in waterproof coverals, don water resistant snow boots, drill a hole and spend their day sitting or standing by it for hours. Majority of ice fishermen prefer the modern way of the ice house, where they sit comfortably in their shelter, drink beer and watch the fish dance on the underwater cameras. Kostas, being Greek, was difficult to convince to come outside and spent most of the day in the warm hut, fascinated by the underwater fauna of Lake Mille Lacs. The camera system is quite simple. Our house had four ice holes in the floor, one in each corner. Tim would drop a camera in one hole and point it towards the other hole, getting a great view of the water surrounding our bait. The camera gave us some great insights. It took us an hour to catch our first fish and without the camera, we'd think there were no fish under us. The camera, however, clearly showed dozens of perch all around our bait, just unwilling to bite. We used fresh minnow heads for bait and were quite puzzled why they were not biting, but Tim attributed it to the day’s high atmospheric pressure somehow affecting the biting habits of fish under the ice. With the full view of the fish, Kostas learned to literally tease them with minnows and finally convinced several specimens to bite. He caught a bunch of perch this way, throwing most of them back for being below the limit of 7 inches. He spent hours looking intently into the screen and I just could not get him out to taste the outdoors.
While Kostas was inside staring at schools of perch ignoring his minnow heads, I spent the time with Tim fishing the holes outside. As any great guide, Tim was full of local stories and practical advice. He'd tell me stories of rich guys from the South (i.e. Minneapolis) flying in their small planes and landing them on the ice roads. The planes would have special heated tents attached to their wings, so the guys just fished from underneath their own wings. He told me how most of the houses stood empty this season due to the economic downturn and how he sold his bigger resort just in time. He also pointed to a small tent next to our spot and told me that his brother was fishing there. I met his brother later, and realized these men have true love for this sport. Here was Tim, working as a guide and earning money, but really just doing what he loved and what he would have probably been doing if we were not there. The man has it figured out.
We spent a full day on the lake. We drilled some holes, played with snow and drove around to explore the network of ice roads. It was a photographic paradise for me and I spent as much time lying on ice in pursuit of some good angles as I did fishing. I did catch two fish from one of my own holes, as many as Kostas did from inside the house. Towards the evening, we considered renting the house for the night and try some night fishing, but decided to go for dinner in a nearby casino instead. Now I regret we had not stayed. I'd love to step out of that house in the middle of the night and listen to silence of a frozen lake. Maybe next time.
Where: Town of Isle, MN, on the southern shore of Lake Mille Lacs.
When: January or February.
Guide: Tim Chapman
Chapman's Mille Lacs Lake Resort
P.O. Box 121
Isle, MN 56342