The lure of the fish house
When writer Greg Breining and photographer Layne Kennedy set out to create a book about ice fishing, they couldn't help but see the absurdity of one of the Northland's truly unique hallmarks.
This is how Breining puts it in the opening of his book, A Hard Water World: Ice Fishing and Why We Do It, "If you didn't grow up in northern climes, ice fishing may seem improbable, wacky, and perhaps a bit dangerous."
That perception isn't entirely wrong. In a presentation Thursday at the Lake Agassiz Regional Library LINK site in Frazee, Breining talked about how a friend of his was so eager start ice fishing each winter that he could still see moving water when he got out on the ice for the first time.
Some of his "warm weather" friends who love to fish in the spring and summer say they'd like to try ice fishing -- but can't quite warm up to the idea of driving, or even walking, out on the ice.
"Every winter, it seems, you hear stories about people going through the ice," Breining said.
"It's kind of an inherently funny sport," he added. "It seems absurd to some people."
And yet, the sport remains as popular as ever. Breining talked about some of the reasons for that in his presentation Thursday.
For some, it's the chance to get out there on pristine ice, which is a unique and beautiful phenomenon in itself.
"One of the really magical times to go ice fishing is when the ice is first formed on lakes," he said.
To illustrate this, Breining read an excerpt from his book, "First Ice," which described how all the natural stresses at work on a newly formed sheet of lake ice can create sounds that "ring like music."
"To Henry David Thoreau, encamped in rural Massachusetts, the singing and booming were known as the 'thundering of the pond,'" Breining read aloud.
In another excerpt, Breining described one of his own experiences walking out on a sheet of new ice in front of his lake cabin.
"We shuffled along the surface, as clear as window glass," he read. "Our boots passed over sand and snails and the remnants of waterweeds as though the ice didn't exist, and we walked on water ... We stood on nothing, just the black void of space."
Other ice fishing enthusiasts aren't drawn by the prospect of fishing at all -- it's a chance to get away from it all for a few weekends every winter.
These days, people build their "ice palaces" with every conceivable amenity, from working gas stoves to big screen TVs, Breining noted.
And the actual fishing gear has become more advanced too, he said.
In a book excerpt called "Gearing Up," Breining described how the sport had evolved from the early days.
Just a half century ago, ice fishermen didn't use rods and reels at all -- they used wooden "jigging sticks" with lines, hooks and bait attached, a metal scoop for ladling out slush and a "spud," or sharp pick for digging a hole in the ice.
These days, however, ice fishermen use everything from GPS trackers to gas-powered ice augers, underwater cameras, walkie talkies and cell phones.
While many lament the loss of the true sport in ice fishing, Breining said that one thing all the "gadgets and contraptions" have brought to ice fishing is a better understanding of what actually goes on under the surface of the ice.
"But of all the gear that has come into use ... the mainstay is still the ice house," he said. "It has a lot of uses."
He talked about a man nicknamed "Bullet," whose icehouse didn't have a hole in the ice at all -- just a lot of beer cans strewn across the floor.
"In his case, it was a retreat -- from family, friends and the world at large," Breining said.
He went on to describe the biggest icehouse he had ever seen, 28-foot by 12-foot, which had a full kitchen with a working oven and wood stove, "indoor outhouse," and a cathedral ceiling, along with two large, flat screen televisions.
One of the televisions was hooked up to satellite service, while the other was hooked up to an underwater camera that had been sunk down one of the ice holes, so people could watch the fish swim by from the comfort of the ice house.
"No less than the Minnesota Supreme Court has confirmed that 'no single word describes the simplicity or complexity, the amount of space or the lack of space, or the presence of amenities or the lack of amenities that may exist in a fish house," Breining said, reading from another book excerpt called "A Home of Their Own."
He described the case of a man known as Marvin Larsen, who was sitting in his fish house one day a few years back "when a conservation officer knocked, bellowed his presence, and jerked open the door, a seamless effort the court characterized as 'barging in.'"
Even though the officer found Larsen using an illegal third line for fishing and rolling "marijuana doobies," the court later overturned his conviction on the grounds that the bust was illegal.
"The range of legitimate activities that can take place in a fish house which people could expect to be private is greater than the range of activities that can reasonably be done privately in a car," the justices ruled.
"In other words, ruled the court, a man's ice shack is indeed his castle," Breining said.