ON FISH LAKE, Minn. -- It looked as if a new community had sprung up overnight in Fredenberg Township. On the second Saturday in January, at least 30 fishing shelters were clustered on the ice of Minnesota's Fish Lake near the public landing at the Fish Lake dam.
If this piscatorial population had a name, it might have been Crappietown.
Most of the anglers had come to catch Fish Lake crappies. Action had been decent the previous evening, several anglers said, but the bite hadn't taken off on this 28-degree morning.
Addison Narloch wasn't complaining. Addison, age 7, was walking around with a 2-pound northern pike clutched in her pink-and-black gloves. Her dad, Bradey Narloch of Hermantown, had caught the fish earlier. Addison's brother Hunter, 10, also was along. The Narlochs were fishing with Bradey's friend Dennis Thiel, also of Hermantown.
"Last weekend, we got eight crappies in 20 feet of water," Thiel said, sitting in the open next to his pickup.
But all he had managed so far on this day were some tiny perch in 13 feet of water. As if to verify that, he set the hook and pulled up another 4-incher. Back it went.
Festival on the ice
Music played on radios from inside some fishing shelters. Laughter and soft conversations drifted over the ice. Three anglers were outside, grilling sausages for breakfast. It was a festival atmosphere, without sponsors, without competition, with nothing for sale. Just your regular anglers, trying to put some crappie fillets in the frying pan.
If ice conditions were better, these anglers probably would have been spread out across the lake. But with widespread slush atop the ice since a heavy snowfall early in the season, anglers haven't been able to travel the lake in vehicles.
"We'd like to be on the other side of the lake," said Adam Osiecki of Duluth, sipping a beer with a couple of buddies as they watched their lines.
They had pulled a small camper out on the ice and already had been there for two nights.
"We're doing great," said Osiecki's friend Aaron Whitaker of Chaska, Minn. "But the fish aren't doing anything."
Prospects for traveling on Fish Lake would improve by Tuesday of this past week. Tim Wagner at Hi-Banks Resort on Fish Lake had plowed an ice road from his resort about 1.7 miles out to Birch Island. That will help anglers get to more of the water they want to fish.
Wagner asked that anglers park on the ice road and drill their fishing holes at least 40 to 50 feet off the road. An area of slush remains atop the ice and under the snow in about a four-acre portion of the main lake, Wagner said.
Good times at Proctor High
In the heart of Crappietown, lively conversation and outbursts of laughter could be traced to a Clam Big Foot temporary ice shelter. Inside, an iPhone or iPod wired to a speaker filled the tent with the music of British folk-rock singer Passenger.
Inside sat four Proctor High School students, most wearing school colors. Clockwise around the tent, each jigging for crappies, sat Blake Lanthier, Brad Morberg, Colton Adams and Steven Fremling, all juniors at the school.
Three of the four had a Proctor High School basketball game to play that evening, so they were saving their legs while dunking minnows and waxworms. So far, they had had no luck.
Passenger gave way to the rap artist Flo Rida on the speaker. These guys were happy, fish or no fish. Nobody had a smart phone out, checking messages, at least at the moment. In a time when fewer young people are getting into fishing and hunting, this crew was defying the odds.
Nearby, Bruce Yankowiak of Rice Lake Township and Doug Michog of Duluth were fishing from a small trailer that Yankowiak had converted to a fishing shack. It was decorated with vintage rods and a black-and-white photo of his dad ice fishing near Mora long ago.
"Last night, my son and grandson got seven crappies here," Yankowiak said.
He and Michog had yet to score in the morning. But they had '60s oldies on the radio and, like nearly all of the anglers in Crappietown, they seemed content. Ice fishing, when you get down to it, is sort of like going to coffee with your best buddies, shooting the breeze, recalling good times -- all with the imminent possibility that you'll catch something you can eat.
"Here comes one now," Yankowiak said, watching his flasher.
But, like the other crappies he had marked, this one wasn't interested.
"There are fish all over," he said, watching the flasher.
"They just won't bite," Michog said.
Moving around, I knocked on the door of the fanciest ice-fishing rig in the village, an Ice Castle fish house parked behind a pickup. The Ice Castle is a tow-behind shelter that cranks down to the ice. Complete with bunks, it's a classy and comfortable way to chase crappies.
Chris Stanek of Eau Claire, Wis., was fishing alone, but a friend from Duluth, Brad Bergslien, had joined him the night before and they had caught seven nice crappies. Several crappies were lying in a plastic pail just outside the shelter.
Stanek, 29, is an ardent angler. Despite being a paraplegic, with no use of his legs as a result of spina bifida, he gets out regularly. He had come to Duluth to visit Bergslien and spend some time on the ice.
Stanek sat on a cushion near his two ice-fishing holes, watching an orange bar flicker on his Vexilar flasher. The pulsating bar of color indicated a fish near his tiny Tungsten jig tipped with a couple of Gulp Alive pink waxworms. Stanek had figured out that the crappies were suspended at about 12 feet over 20 feet of water.
"I'm not slaying 'em today," he said.
He had been marking fish regularly on the Vexilar, but so far, they hadn't been willing to bite.
"There's one," he said.
Stanek cranked up a frisky 10-inch crappie. He would catch five more crappies by midday.
Stanek said he hopes to become a professional ice angler. He has learned out how to work around his disability to do what he wants to do. When he gets to the lake to fish, he hops in a sled and uses his arms to propel him to his Ice Castle and get it set up. Fishing without the use of his legs can be difficult, he said.
"It's more of a challenge, but it's more of a reward," Stanek said. "When I get that fish I'm going to mount, I had to work for it."
More anglers continued to arrive. Ice augers roared to life. Propane heaters were fired up. A young couple popped up a shelter.
Crappietown's population was on the rise.
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