Everything but the fish
We’re back from our ice fishing venture on Mille Lacs Lake, a huge Minnesota lake about 100 miles north of Minneapolis, 25 miles east of Brainerd.
We had a great time during our two-day, two-night stay on the ice.
We caught two fish.
The first fish was a walleye, which was what we went for. It was too small to keep — on Mille Lacs Lake, you can keep two walleyes per angler per day, and they have to be between 18 and 20 inches long, unless one of them is over 28 inches, in which case you can keep that one.
Ours was shorter than 18 inches, so it went back in the ice hole.
The other fish was what we learned is commonly called in Minnesota an eelpout.
When we got back, I read up on eelpouts, and learned that what we caught is actually an entirely different species. Eelpouts are not found in Minnesota at all. What we caught was a burbot. More about that below.
The four of us stayed in an ice shack about a mile offshore from the resort through which we made our arrangements.
The shack had two pairs of bunk beds, a two-burner cooktop, a propane furnace beneath the cooktop, an indoor toilet, a folding table, four chairs, eight holes cut through the floor and the ice below, and eight rattle wheels (one for each hole). Three windows and a door rounded out the accommodations.
They are like garden hose reels mounted on the wall, about six inches in diameter, loaded with fishing line.
The angler ties a hook or lure onto the end of the line, squeezes a split shot sinker onto the line about six inches above the lure, and drops the hook and sinker through the hole until it reaches the bottom of the lake (about 24 feet below our shack).
You then reel the line up about a foot or so above the bottom, and attach a bobber to the line at the surface. Walleyes usually feed just above the floor of the lake, so the lure or minnow holds at that depth.
When a fish takes the lure and starts to swim away, the rattle mechanism in the rattle wheel activates and tells the angler that there’s a fish on.
The idea is to give the fish a little slack so that it has a firm hold on the hook, then to set the hook with a firm jerk, and reel the fish in.
You can have two lines per angler. So we baited a line in each hole, rigged the sinkers and bobbers, and sat down to wait. We had brought cards and board games just in case we had a few minutes between fish, so we opened the chairs around the table and dealt a hand.
We played a lot of cards.
We had driven out to the shack about 11 a.m. Wednesday. We heard our first rattle about 4:15 p.m., more than five hours later.
The resort guy who led us out to the shack had told us that the most likely time for walleyes would be about when the sun started to go down. That turned out to be very close to accurate.
We heard the first rattle, then another, then another, then another, all within the space of one minute. A school of walleyes swam through our lures, and each of us leaped to a different line and did our thing.
No success. In winter, fish are often tentative when feeding, and they’re likely to pick up a minnow in their lips, hold it briefly, then let it go. We were unable to set the hook on any of the four.
So we played some more cards. And then some more.
One of the guys brought up our sole walleye about 7 p.m.
Our spouses had loaded our supply packs with what seemed like tons of snack food, so we didn’t go hungry. And Thursday and Friday mornings we drove back to have a big breakfast at the resort cafe. They even had a breakfast that included walleye, so we had some fish to eat after all.
We left the rattle wheels baited all night each of the two nights, figuring the rattles would awaken us.
A rattle woke me up about 5 a.m. Friday, and I quickly unzipped my sleeping bag, leaped out of my bottom bunk and dashed to the ice hole. I waited a few rattles more, then set the hook and pulled the line up hand over hand.
It was definitely not a walleye.
The 16-inch fish appeared to be dressed in camouflage, with a very long dorsal (top) fin and a long ventral (bottom) fin. Its head looked catfish-like with one chin whisker. The tail was rounded.
We figured it was some kind of carp or other rough fish, and we took it off the hook and dropped it back down the hole.
When we got to breakfast at the resort cafe later that morning, I described the fish to the proprietor. She immediately interrupted. “Eelpout.” She explained that it tasted like lobster.
The Minnesota record burbot, caught in February 2012 in Lake of the Woods, weighed 19½ pounds and measured three feet long.
I would have had nightmares long afterward if we had brought up something like that through the ice.
Was the weather cold? You bet — but not in the ice shack.
We had a wall thermostat and had to turn it down from time to time, despite the howling wind and blowing snow outside. The resort had to bring its plow rig out Friday morning so we could make our way to shore because of the drifts.
The bitter weather, generated by a cold front, was responsible for the poor fishing. No one in any of the shacks near us caught anything either.
But the sweatshirt, hoodie, long underwear, etc., that I packed stayed in the pack. We were very comfortable, compatible and relaxed, and I’d go again, for sure.