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