Published February 09, 2012, 08:04 AM

Out on the ice: The ice fishing culture

There are several ice fishing shantytowns spread out around the Cedar Lake most days. When they are on the ice, anglers can be found inside and outside trying their luck.

By: By Tom Lindfors, New Richmond News

There are several ice fishing shantytowns spread out around the Cedar Lake most days. When they are on the ice, anglers can be found inside and outside trying their luck.

A whipping wind is a frequent part of ice fishing, so anglers either dress properly or bring a shanty.

Nathan Maier and his dad, Larry, are of the former type — hardy, no shanty. They’ve been out since 7:30 a.m. Nathan wears a black Frabill snowmobile-type suit topped off by a green and gold knit Packers hat, no gloves and a good pair of snow-encrusted boots. Larry’s attired in multiple layers of shirts and sweatshirts covered by a fleece lined coat, jeans, a pair of snow-encrusted boots, hands in pockets, no gloves. Nathan lives in New Richmond and his dad picked him up on his way in from Thorp.

The first question is obvious. “Why do you do it, sit out here on a five gallon plastic bucket, in the teeth of a ripping north wind, staring into a tiny eight-inch hole cut through the ice for hours on end?”

Nathan doesn’t hesitate with his answer.

“I just like being outdoors in the winter,” he said. “There’s nothing better than the crisp air in the morning. Get out on the lake, nice fresh snow cover. There’s just nothing like it.”

Nathan is surrounded by what appears to be equipment essential to the ice fishing experience.

“Depending on what you are fishing for, all you really need is a jig pole for crappies and bluegills,” Nathan said. “We’ve also got some tip-ups out. If some walleyes or northerns come around we’ll catch those too. Got shiners on those.”

As he sits on his orange bucket, Nathan keeps one eye on his Vexilar sonar wrapped in its all-weather hood and resting just a foot from the hole.

“It shows you if there are any fish down there,” he said. “What it doesn’t tell you is if they are going to bite or how they’re going to bite.”

Nathan explained that they picked this spot because they’ve had luck here before, although on this particular day they’ve caught just single crappie. Then right on cue, there’s a bite and Larry gently grabs the line to feel for the fish. He sets the hook and a minute later a small walleye is pulled through the hole.

Nathan and his dad agree, as a general rule of thumb, more fish are caught early and late in the day. In the middle of the day, “That’s when you pull out the grill and grill your brats. It’s always nice to have a hot meal.”

Smoke is pouring out of the open door of Jarod Lockwood’s custom shanty while his partner, Chris Kupczak, tinkers with the metal chimney elbowing up out of the back of the converted pop-up camper.

Lockwood, from Somerset, says he’s been fishing since he was a kid, “It’s something to do in the winter. It’s fishing.”

All of the various shantytowns have their own distinctive character consisting of a wide variety of shanties ranging from the lowly particle board box to brilliantly colored pop-up tents, to smartly sided aluminum tool sheds with sliding windows and satellite dishes.

“We made it out of an old pop-up camper,” Lockwood explains. “We got it for free. I’m a construction worker; so most of the stuff that’s on it is free, garbage leftover from job sites. A couple gallons of paint and she looks pretty good.”

Inside through the smoke from the wood-burning stove, at least three holes are drilled through the faded linoleum floor providing access directly to the water from inside the shanty.

“We’re sitting on some cribs, so there should be some decent crappies and sunnies down there,” Lockwood said.

The fish crib project on Cedar Lake has proven to be a good thing, according to Lockwood.

“They are absolutely improving the fishing,” he said. “Lot more places for the fish to live because there’s really no structure around the lake.”

At the red high-tech Eskimo tent, Ryan and Mallory Kunz of White Bear Lake, Minn. are fishing on Cedar Lake for the first time.

Ryan, a carpenter, and Mallory, a stay-at-home mom and graphic designer, bask in 50-degree warmth thanks to a propane heater.

“Home away from home,” Mallory said.

“It’s easy to get out,” Ryan added. “You can bring the family and you don’t need a boat. It takes about 30 seconds to set up, but a little longer in the wind.”

Mallory, who grew up fishing, says, “We try to get out every weekend, but it’s a little harder with two young kids (Jack, 3, and June, 5 months). We can never find a sitter.”

Ryan heard through the fishing grapevine that fishing on Cedar Lake’s been hot for ice fishing, so they thought they’d give it a try.

Between the ice fishing couple are a pile of additional poles each one set up differently to save time and enable flexibility to see what other options might work better.

“I never ice fished until I was older,” Mallory said. “Addicting once you start catching fish. You start thinking about that hole. There’s just something about setting up and being in one spot all day. It’s kind of like our little getaway, a little cabin on the ice.”

Asked if they’d gotten any good advice, Ryan said, “If anyone has good advice, they don’t want to share it,” he said. “That’s fishing for you.”

Dave Weyandt of West St. Paul, Minn. and Chase Dankers of New Brighton, Minn. are fishing nearby. They report that only a couple weeks ago you couldn’t miss — the fishing was hot everywhere. Not so much today. They attribute it to the strange weather this season.

“The winter was so delayed coming in, the fish started in their early patterns only a few weeks ago,” Weyandt speculated.

“You couldn’t even drive safely on the ice until a week maybe 10 days ago,” Dankers added. “It’s definitely backwards this year. I don’t think anybody knows what to expect at this point.”

The quest for ice fishing understanding finally arrives at a shack with obvious family history. The head of this ice fishing clan prefers to remain anonymous and describes himself only as “The Fish Finder.” He confirms his prowess proclaiming, “Women want me, fish fear me.”

The two women in his party identified only as sister Alison and friend Kim confirm that fishing and beer drinking are the two main attractions to spending time on the ice and not necessarily in that order.

The Finder has to pause for a minute when asked about the biggest fish he’s ever landed, obviously riffling through a number of potential candidates, and then he says; “a 22-inch small mouth caught just this past December on Secret Lake.”

Inside the smartly appointed trailer are all the comforts of home including mandatory five gallon pails, propane heater, built-in set of drawers, flip down counter top for cards, assorted benches, radio, wall clock, insulated foam cup holders, overhead storage, propane lantern, fan and a marine battery sprouting a variety of wires leading to various outlets and appliances.

Like they say, it’s fishing not catching for the most part. You can bet almost every person out there freezing their fannies off has had at least one glorious memorable moment in their fishing careers where it all came together, where they had the right bait in the right place at the right moment and fish were everywhere for the taking.

On the strength of that singular experience they fish season after season, year after year, with grandpas and dads, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, neighbors and best friends. Admittedly ice fishing may not be for everybody, but those who do embrace this mid-winter sport, seem sincerely hooked and would to a soul, fish or no fish, rather be out on the ice than anywhere else.