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Mainstreet Radio’s Leif Enger visits Mille Lacs, and reports on the perplexing nature of ice fishing.

Thousands of people are bundling up for one of the largest ice fishing contests in the country, held north of Brainerd. Ice fishing, of course, is routine on our frozen lakes; but the sport has popped up in some highly visible places. National Geographic and Smithsonian magazines have done photo spreads, movies have taken note, and playwrights/poets/novelists have mined the barrens of Mille Lacs.

None of this changes the unique experience and language that makes up ice-fishing.


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SPEAKER 1; First place is a '97 Ford F-150 4x4. 100th place is $12,500 cash. And that prize usually goes to a fish weighing less than a pound. Scattered in between 1st and 100th place, we have a lot of large prizes Arctic Cat snowmobiles, Polaris ATVs.

LEIF ENGER: Seven years, the Brainerd Jaycees have held this contest and Bob Slaybaugh is talking record turnout. Slaybaugh is an exuberant Jaycee sitting in rented office space. Old pizza boxes on the floor, no pop left in the fridge. Picture 10,000 holes on Gull Lake, he says, anglers bumping elbows.

BOB SLAYBAUGH: And we stagger our prizes so that you don't have to catch the biggest fish to win the biggest prize.

LEIF ENGER: It's like playing bingo.

BOB SLAYBAUGH: It's like playing bingo.


We've had it described as a crapshoot also.

LEIF ENGER: Publicity is never a problem for events like these, but the Jaycees caught a fine break this time around when Smithsonian Magazine featured ice fishing and this event specifically in the December issue. In fact, ice fishing has been popping up everywhere lately in sophisticated culture magazines, in Kevin Kling plays, in Fargo.

SPEAKER 2: Hey, Norm, I thought you was gone ice fishing up at Mille Lacs.

SPEAKER 3: Yeah, after lunch.

LEIF ENGER: Wayne Gudmundson is a Red River Valley photographer who's seen a lot of Mille Lacs. Two winters ago, 30 below zero, he and 13 former students took their cameras onto the ice and didn't come off for three long days.

WAYNE GUDMUNDSON (ON PHONE): That was our baptism, our frozen baptism. We stayed there, and got up in the morning, and went out, and photographed and tried to find the answer to the two questions that I posed to them, which were, who are these people and why do they do it?

LEIF ENGER: They found no definitive answers, Gudmundson says, but they did hear a lot of stories. Mostly old favorites about the black lab who goes down a hole in one shack, then comes bursting out in the neighbors, producing coronaries, or about the notorious and illusory pink ice house often sought but never found. Duluth poet Bart Sutter writes that despite all hot rumors--

BART SUTTER (ON PHONE): The truth is disappointing, dull. There are no mermaids anywhere in this world or the other. And this is a man's world. Each black shack, a throwback to the clubhouse that wore the words. No girls.

LEIF ENGER: The ice is a man's world it's commonly believed. An escape, one angler said, from wives and other good influences. A woman who will go with you on the ice is one you don't need to escape from anyway. Jim Doherty, a Wisconsin native, remembers growing to manhood on Lake Nagawicka sitting on a bit of cardboard, jigging minnows, drinking depth charges.

JIM DOHERTY (ON PHONE): I don't know what you call them in Minnesota, but we call them depth charges. And that's when you take a minnow, pop it into a can of beer and drink the whole thing. And that's basically what the purpose of ice fishing was in my youth.

LEIF ENGER: Doherty doesn't ice fish much now. He works out east at Smithsonian Magazine. But aside from drink and folklore, technology is often credited for the ice fishing boom. 10 years ago, Dennis Clark began marketing a fold-up portable shelter called The Clam.

Now he sells 25,000 of them a year, a lot of clams. New, ever cheaper electronics guide you to hot spots so easily, one angler says, the average farm animal could take up fishing. And at the Brainerd office of In-Fisherman Magazine, editor Matt Straw demonstrates a contraption designed to catch your fish for you if you're really absorbed in that cribbage game.

MATT STRAW: It's called the slammer, and it's kind of a tip up. You get your rod in the rod holder in the back end of it and you bend your rod down so it's under tension. Get your bait down there on the bottom, of course. If a fish moves your line or your bait, that guide is going to move and slip off this split ring and it's going to slam down. And that's why they call it the slammer.

LEIF ENGER: There will likely be a few slammers out on Gull Lake this weekend. Also, probably some depth charges and a lot of stories. Remember Wayne Gudmundson's two questions-- who are these people and why do they do it?

If this contest is like past ones, look for a bunch of TV journalists to be on hand trying to get the answers. They don't have a prayer. Leif Enger, Main Street Radio, Brainerd.


Digitization made possible by the State of Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, approved by voters in 2008.

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