Video: Meet Minnesota’s ice fishermen

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msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/10/2011 9:50:21 AM ET 2011-02-10T14:50:21

John Lutgen swears he’s not crazy, not like some of those maniacs who’ll ice fish when it’s really, really, really cold.

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“I usually wait until it warms up to, oh, say, around 5-below zero,” he says. “I won’t be out there fishing when it’s 30-below like some of these guys.”

Welcome to Mille Lacs, the massive 132,000-acre (20-by-15-mile) central Minnesota lake that is to rugged ice fishing what the sunny French Riviera is to posh pampering.

More than a hole in the ice
About 80 miles north of the Twin Cities, Mille Lacs has a seasonal community complete with plowed roads, street signs, pizza delivery, regular trash pickup and homes much like the ones most Americans sleep in every night — except that these portable "fish houses" are parked on three feet of ice.

From about Thanksgiving through the end of February, it’s a veritable Minnesota metropol-ICE. More than 5,000 fish houses sit on the frozen lake, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. When spring comes and the ice starts to thaw, everyone packs up and moves on.

Mike Christensen, co-owner and fishing guide at Hunter Winfield’s Resort in the town of Isle on the lake’s southern shores, says their fish houses rent for $500 for the weekend and have "gas stoves, ovens, PlayStations and flat screens with Direct TV.”

Not to mention holes in the floor.

Slideshow: Vacation homes on ice (on this page)

Inside, the thermostats are set to a comfortable 72 degrees, the walls are paneled like man cave game rooms and the happy occupants are dressed, not in parkas and mukluks, but shorts and T-shirts.

All the comforts of home
They’re watching TV, guzzling beers and enjoying many carefree hours. But at any moment, they're ready to haul a trophy walleye straight through the floor.

The holes are augered into the thick ice. Above each opening and attached to the walls are fishing lines descending as much as 30 feet into the chilly waters below.

Shiny lures and baitfish attract walleye, northern pike and perch. Whenever one hits, the running line triggers a little bell alerting residents it’s time for sporting action.

If the fish aren’t biting, just attach your portable fish house to your pickup and roll a few miles further along the ice and auger in all over again.

Video: Ice fishing with cameras (on this page)

Lutgen, 50, has been ice fishing on Mille Lacs every winter since he was 8. These days, he often brings his grandson, Kaleb, 3.

“A really tasty walleye is about 17-inches long, or about as long as Kaleb’s leg,” he said. “But the measuring’s getting tough because Kaleb won’t stop growing. The other day he told me, “Grandpa, my leg’s getting too long.’ ”

Outside, temperatures can descend to 60 degrees below zero.

Don't call it a shack
The Lutgens spend many otherwise inhospitable winter days resplendent in an $11,000 Ice Castle fish house. It’s perfectly comfortable, but even he admits to some pangs of fish house envy.

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“These days a really nice one can cost as much as $15,000,” he says with a sigh.

And everyone mentions stories of showboaters who have installed saunas and hot tubs, otherworldly amenities that must surely startle any already-dazed fish unfortunate enough to have been hooked.

It’s about what visionary World War II veteran Clark Lyback imagined when, just a few years removed from searing hostilities in the Battle of the Bulge, he and his wife, Phyllis, moved to Wahkon, located on the lake’s southern shores, to build Lybacks, his fishing resort.

“After the war, he was looking for someplace really peaceful,” says his son, Eddie. “He came to Mille Lacs.”

Prior to the 1940s, people who fished on ice did it roughly the same as cavemen. Exposed to the elements, they’d drop a line in a hole and hope.

But with a veteran’s can-do spirit, Lyback attached a plow to a Jeep and started “paving” roads on the ice. Soon, he hammered together some plywood to act as humble windbreaks.

“He died in 1984, but he lived to see how big this got,” Eddie said. “Still, I think even he would be dumbfounded by some of the 12-by-32 footers with LED lighting, solar panels and stuff like that.”

Flying north for the winter
Thrill seekers and lovers of odd experiences from around the world are becoming regular visitors to Mille Lacs. And Lyback says it's becoming increasingly common for reverse snow birds — full-time Southern residents, many of them transplants — to fly their children to Minnesota to enjoy the exotic winters they remember so vividly.

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Many of the houses are owned by resorts and huddle together near the shoreline for party purposes. Others enjoy magnificent isolation that sometimes seems positively lunar.

“To watch the sun come up from way out there in middle of the lake where all you can see is ice and hints of shore is really spectacular,” he says.

Maybe, but such isolation means you can forget about pizza delivery.

Nick Laberstron of the Isle Bowl & Pizza says they deliver pizza out onto the ice most every weekend, mostly to houses with the resorts, “but won’t go way, way out there.”

Sound policy. Vehicles breaking through the ice used to be common, as were associated fatalities. Lyback says today’s emphasis is on safety, and no one’s been hurt this year.

Fun for the whole family
Still, everyone involved stresses there will always be an aspect about being on the ice that is truly crazy, truly dangerous — even for families accustomed to life on the ice.

Families like the Christensens. Mike’s wife, Margie, said she is looking forward to their first family night nestled in the homey ice cabin some night soon.

“Claire’s 2 and Max is 3 months old,” she said. “I can’t wait for us all to get out there. We play games and tell stories. It’s such a great family thing to do.”

But she’s not sure how much fishing she’ll be doing.

“My job will be to keep the 2-year-old from falling in one of the ice holes. There’s lots of stories of someone snatching a child or a dog an instant before they fall in the ice. I don’t want that to happen to Claire.”

Yes, in times when trophy walleye are caught and mounted each and every day, that kind of save will always merit catch of the day honors at magnificent Mille Lacs.

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Photos: 'Roughing it' in Mille Lacs fish houses

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  1. Modern ice fishing

    Steve Mattson's fish house is in the town of Isle on Mille Lacs, Minn. In the winter, more than 5,000 portable homes dot the frozen lake. At left is a heated outhouse. (John Makely / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. All the comforts of home

    Steve Mattson, right, and his cousin Scott Daniels stand in the 10-by-20-foot fish house they built. The fish house has a skylight, ceiling fan, stove, microwave, stereo and a wood floor made of cypress, Brazillian cherry and tiger maple. (John Makely / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Throw it back

    Mattson pulls a perch out of the water. It was too small to eat, so it went back into the lake. Most anglers fish for walleye, northern pike and perch in the lake. (John Makely / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Portable homes

    Sean Lutgen's fish house is 8 feet by 21 feet with a single axle and costs around $12,000. "We move to find the fish," he said. "Sometimes we have move three or four times and sometimes it sits in the same place for weeks." (John Makely / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Grilling in the middle of winter

    Sean Lutgen readies a pile of kabobs for the grill Jan. 28, 2011, inside a friend's fish house. (John Makely / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A night on the ice

    Mike Mondloch stands in the doorway of Sean Lutgen's fish house before checking on the status of the Weber grill as they spend the night on the ice on Mille Lacs. (John Makely / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A hole in the ice

    Luke Frantesl puts his gloves back on after setting a tip-up fishing line outside his fish house on Mille Lacs. (John Makely / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Waiting for a bite

    Luke Frantesl keeps an eye on his Vexilar fish locator as he tries to tempt the perch to bite 30 feet below the frozen surface of Mille Lacs. (John Makely / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. 'Thin Ice'

    In the old days, all fish houses were named like the Inbergs fish house, so you could tell them apart. Today the names have been replaced with impersonal registration numbers. (John Makely / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A family tradition

    Three generations enjoy a day fishing Jan. 28 in the family fish house on Mille Lacs. From left are Arthur Ingberg, his grandson Andrew Doeksen, 11, and Scott Ingberg. While their cabin is small at 8 feet by 20 feet, it holds all the necessities such as a heater, beds and a cookstove. At right is a photograph from 1979 that shows a large crack in the ice that developed overnight right beneath their fish house on Mille Lacs. (John Makely / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Living in style

    Dennis McGowan says goodbye to visitors outside of his fish house on Mille Lacs. Though average in size, his house features Direct TV, a stereo, 12-volt lighting, large windows and a custom designed holder for a case of beer right outside the door. (John Makely / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Room with a view

    Dennis McGowan sits next to a large window in his fish house looking out over Mille Lacs. (John Makely / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Fishing in pajamas

    On a cold winter's day, there's nowhere else Dillon Duffy would rather be than fishing with his dad out on the frozen lake. He doesn't even have to leave bed to do it. (John Makely / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Eight fishing holes

    Steve Jennings with his son, Joe Jennings, 17, in their newly built fish house. Jennings decided to keep the space open by not building bunks. The fish house also has eight fishing holes, for maximum flexibility. (John Makely / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A fishing resort

    Eddy Lyback, who owns Lyback's Ice Fishing on Mille Lacs, has more than 20 fish houses, which are spread out over several miles on the lake. (John Makely / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Vacation on a frozen lake

    Lyback stands inside one of his biggest rental houses. The VIP is about 10 feet by 20 feet, sleeps four, is heated and has a cookstove. Rates for the deluxe rentals start at $400 for the weekend. (John Makely / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Love of the sport

    Kent Hrbek, former first baseman for the Minnesota Twins, stands outside the fish house of his friend, Whitey Mogren, on Mille Lacs. Hrbek has been coming to the lake as long as he can remember. (John Makely / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
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