AAA LIVING MAGAZINE
MINNESOTA Jan/Feb 2007
A combination of hardy Midwestern mentality, a lake lover’s favorite food and jovial tall tales, ice fishing may be the quintessential Minnesota sport. Lately, it’s even gotten more comfortable.
On the surface, the idea sounds as though your brain may be experiencing a cold snap—fishing on ice in the dead of winter. But, then a 10-pound walleye tugs at your line, and things get hot in a hurry. Wait, is the sudden heat due to the rush of blood and adrenaline since you’ve snagged a big one, or did someone turn up the thermostat?
That’s right, ice fishing has evolved from the days when folks sat on stools with wool mufflers wrapped around their necks and transistor radios by their sides. Today’s anglers can sit back in only a T-shirt, watch TV, even sleep in a real bed.
“Ice fishing has come so far so fast. It’s unbelievable the technology that’s used today,” says Brainerd Lakes fishing guide Dan Eigen, better known as “Walleye Dan.” He has guided for 18 years in this fertile fishing region, where anglers catch limits of walleye, perch, northern, crappie and blue gill. When clients want the best fish house money can buy, he rents out his “tricked-out” SnoBear, a high-tech, motorized ice-fishing house.
“It goes 18 mph on two tracks and skis,” Eigen says, “and it’s got the same electronics that I’ve got in my boat.” Just pull it up to your favorite hole, and the house hydraulically lowers down to the ice with six holes for fishing. Add to that the thermostatically controlled propane furnace, stereo/CD player, built-in underwater camera and other fish-finding electronics, and you’ve got the latest in fish house technology.
If you want to spend the night, Eigen even rents sleeper houses with four beds, a furnace and rattle reels that “ding, ding, ding” to awaken you when you’ve caught a fish. “We’ll even bring out a TV and hook it up to the generator for you,” he says. “All you need is your fishing license and food.”
Such luxury is a far cry from the days when Brainerd Lakes resident Don Neumann fished out of his old Model A. “We used to buy these old cars and cut holes in the floor boards,” he remembers. When Neumann met his wife, Joyce, she put her foot down. “I told him it was too cold to fish outside, and I went and bought a wood-paneled ice-fishing house with a heater and curtains on the window.” Suddenly fishing was a lot more fun. They’d have couples over for cribbage and cocktails as their bobbers popped merrily in the holes near their feet.
Ice fishing means different things to different people. Not everyone wants an encampment, where flannel-clad villagers share steaming pots of chili and elect “seasonal” mayors. Eigen, for one, considers fishing a solitary sport in which you park your fish house on your secret spot and cast a mad glare toward any fisherman who pulls up next to you. If that’s your thing, then the thought of sharing the ice with 11,000 other anglers may not seem appealing. But for more than $100,000, maybe you’d sacrifice your bit of fishing heaven.
For 16 years, the Brainerd Lakes Jaycees have awarded the world’s largest cash prizes at their $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza (scheduled this year for Jan. 20). A cannon signals the start of competition, which usually is held on massive Gull Lake. For three hours, anglers from all over the world drop their lines in the icy waters of their own, pre-drilled holes. Men, women and children all compete in this open-air event, where fish houses are banned and only live fish may be weighed and measured.
It’s a scene out of Grumpy Old Men, with folks wearing everything from screaming orange hunting jackets to fur-lined hats with animal tails. And that’s just the women.
The Ice Fishing Extravaganza crowds Gull Lake for only one day, but on 18-mile-wide Mille Lacs Lake, whole villages spring up for the entire season. “There are probably as many as 10,000 houses out there. People pull the 10-by-26-foot houses onto the lake, and they’ve got microwaves, TV’s, refrigerators—even beds,” says Eigen. With those amenities, some folks spend all winter in their ice-fishing house.
Of course, owning an ice-fishing house is not everyone’s idea of a second home. If you’d rather rent, there are dozens of resorts that will set you up in Brainerd Lakes. Cragun’s and Grand View Lodge, two of the bigger resorts in the area, each spread across acres of shorefront on Gull Lake. At Cragun’s, you can rent a four-hole house for $30 for four hours. Minnows cost $2–$4 a scoop. Grand View Lodge uses Eigen as the resort’s outfitter/guide, and he provides the ice-fishing gear, including his upscale digs, and guidance.
Wherever you go, you’ll find anglers have one thing in common: They dream of catching that legendary fish that every Minnesota lake seems to contain. In the Brainerd Lakes region, a 15-pound walleye caught in 1983 holds the record. Eigen, himself, caught a 13 pounder in 1992. But apparently, there are even bigger fish to fry—so to speak.
“In Gull Lake, there’s a fish we call Jingles that’s got so many hooks and spinners hanging off of her that when she swims by you can hear the ‘ting,’ ‘ting,’ ‘ting.’” And what would Eigen do if he caught Jingles? “I’d probably take off a few of her accessories and then put her back—and retire,” he laughs. Sounds like a fitting end to a Minnesota fish tale.
To read the complete article, contact Ginny Prior