Little Fish House on the Prairie
by Bill Mitzel
Ice fishing can be a hard game if you go primitive.
Many years ago, dad was one of the first ice anglers to purchase a motorized ice auger. In fact, he was the object of attention and soon got many requests to drill other anglers’ holes he had to start charging them. Fifty cents a hole was the going rate. And with ice as thick as three feet, he had no trouble getting his price.
Amidst having little else in the way of modern gadgetry, the auger was a convenience he insisted on having.
Before he bought that auger, we holes through the ice mostly with a heavy bar, sometimes with an axe. Now that was silly. But, we were young and strong and we were crazy about ice fishing. It was a lot work most days, but we lived with it just for the sake of watching a small bobber disappear into an ice hole.
Early on, dad decided he was going to be comfortable as possible out there. He built a sectioned 8×8 foot fish house, one he hauled on to of his vehicle, a borrowed pickup, in a trailer or any other way he could get it there. It had curtains on the windows, carpet on the floor, calendar, pictures, shelves and plenty of (cheap) insulation, mostly cardboard. It was heated with a wood stove he found and dug out of the ground one day while hunting.
Once it was setup, it was pretty much there to stay. It was heavy, bulky and putting it together was time consuming. By the time the 12 sections were bolted and screwed together , we were tired. And we didn’t want to go through it again. It was my philosophy that you put that house in the right place the first time.
There was a lot of pinochle played in that fish house. Thousands of hours worth. I’d often drive up from home later in the morning, only to enter the house and see three or four bobbers well into the ice holes. That was always the first thing I’d check, for I knew full well those guys couldn’t have cared less about it. I’m surprised they even bother to put lines in most days. They were there for the sake of being there… playing cards and drinking beer. Hell with the fish.
Most times we did pretty well. But it was a big lake and in those days 4-wheel drives weren’t common. In fact, they were a real luxury. Even so, as I’ve said before, when it came to ice fishing, dad had a 4-wheel heart with a 2-wheel car. Many times we’d drive tot he edge of the lake only to see a heavy snow drift at the edge of the ice filling up the trail well, thank you. We sat in his small Ford Pinto and stared at it.
“I think we can make,” dad would say.
“Are you kidding me?” I’d respond. “That stuff is three feet deep. There no was this thing will get through that!”
“Ah, hell, we’ve gone through bigger snow drifts than that?”
“Yeah, after I shoveled us out!”
Didn’t matter much what I said. He’d back up, put that little blue son-of-a-gun to the floor and hit that 75-foot drift at about 35 mph, just enough to get us good and solid smack dab in the middle of it. Too far to go back… too far to go forward.
Where’s the dam shovel?
Sometimes we’d actually make it to the fish house. But not only did we have trouble getting in, we often had to shovel our way out. That took time, which usually got us home late. Like the saying goes, when Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
Snow was the least of the obstacles dad was concerned with. Such faith the man had. He knew, somewhere, somehow, someone would be there to help him get in (or out). Either that or he just didn’t care. When I think of all those years, many times we’d venture out there alone… he survived it all… cracking ice, heavy snow, slush, blizzards, darkness. He always had a gunny sack of wood and plenty of food. He might get stuck for a month, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to freeze or starve to death.
In the early years when I was still a pup, mom would give him explicit instructions when he’d plan a trip onto frozen water, especially if I or brother Jim was along. After awhile, though, she gave up on that. She new he wasn’t listening anyway.
The interesting thing was, that while ice fishing, the good fishing was often at least a mile, sometimes up to two miles off the boat ramp where we drove onto the ice.
That’s a long way driving across frozen water, and it always made me nervous, even into the late season when I knew the ice was thick, and I always kept the window cracked and one hand on the door handle.
I often couldn’t believe the stuff that man could get into that little Pinto. A gunny sack (or two) of wood chips, ice auger, ice bar, lunch bucket, at least one 5-gallon pail, a couple chairs, minnow bucket and accessories which included a radio, lantern, beer, broom, more tape, nails and the house, and, of course, the required clothing.
Aside from that auger, which was a lifesaver in itself, the rest of our equipment was pretty primitive. Homemade stuff, most of it, consisting of broom-handle rods, cheap hooks and small bobbers. Turn on the radio, put a minnow on the hook, and sit back and wait. A real luxury was to put your ham sandwich on the wood stove and make it into toast.
I remember well, the first time I took my wife Bobbie ice fishing in the early weeks of our marriage. We were going to fish all night for crappies, just after the holidays. Success had been good and I was looking forward to it. Bobbi was somewhat skeptical about driving on a frozen lake, but she went along with it. I felt her tense up in the passanger’s seat when we slid and I confirmed, that we were, indeed, driving on the water.
She gained steady confidence with the situation throughout the evening, with the comfort of a warm shack, coffee and snacks on the stove, music on the radio. Then things changed.
Somewhere around 10 p.m., the ice, in its effort to thicken, began to crack as it expanded. Some cracks actually resembled thunder at times, as you heard them develop from afar and gain momentum as they jiggled their way toward us. One lour crack in particular I remember, ran underneath the the center of the fish house at lightning speed, sending us both tip-toeing around the shack for several seconds. It was a long time before Bobbi regained any interest in ice fishing.
And so it went. Years of struggling just to make it to that square shack in the middle of barren, ice-covered lake, only to sit down and stare at a bobber for several hours. On those rare occasions when we made it to the fish house, there was a profound peace after the holes were opened and the stove was fired up, just sitting there in the morning hours with sunlight coming through the window. It was a wonderful place to be.
The best times for me involved fishing at night, with walleyes getting active in late afternoon, followed by crappies into the early evening. And they were nice eyes, too. That little house represented life itself under the stars. Stepping outside for the call, you gazed at millions of stars, felt the night chill quickly slide through your cheap shirt, then the crunch of snow and ice chips as you clogged back to the shack. Inside it was warm, friendly and social.
You were safe and comfortable once again.
Lots of things have changed since those early ice fishing times. Today’s special ice fishing rods, portable depth finders, scoops, lures, portable heaters and ice houses have made winter much more enjoyable. But one thing about ice fishing hasn’t changed, and that’s the joy of watching a small bobber dissapear down an ice hole. •