Ice fishing traditions have never changed.
Theirs was a land of ice . . . through centuries of ice fishing, the traditions have never changed.
When brave fur traders with teams of dogs trampled the snowy west central Minnesota hills in or around 1868, they discovered the unmistakable potential of a river’s rapids in a sleepy little valley, and my hometown was born, not unlike many rural Minnesota villages across the landscape. At that time of year, the frozen river banks bore reflection to the frigid essence of a Minnesota winter. To the north, the same river led them, upstream, to a shallow fishery with the potential to provide substantial sustenance. Through their trek, the traders certainly traveled from the east, to some degree, past vast lands of water, and at that time of year, ice-covered lakes. I imagine them wrapped with fur and wool and protecting themselves and their dogs through closeness to the warmth of fire.
Theirs was a land of ice.
The traders were professionals of the northwoods life. To maintain in these wintery conditions, it was essential for the brave souls to find food and shelter, and they understood that – they had undoubtedly been doing it for years. It was about survival.
One, or maybe all, of them was a proficient logger or woodworker, making the building of simple sleeping shelters a priority and while not particularly easy, something they knew how to do. The surrounding forest-covered hills offered numerous logging and also hunting opportunities, perfect for building and also for finding food. The traders either already knew or quickly learned the almost unlimited potential of the freshwater resources of the rivers and surrounding lakes. When red meat is your staple, the fishy-white flakes of local panfish or walleye are a healthy and welcome addition to dinner.
As you can imagine in a Minnesota January, the difference between finding fish and not finding fish is approximately two feet of ice. With chisels, saws or any other tools that could drive through the dense, frozen water and with blood, sweat and probably some tears, the brave folks made the water appear from under the ice.
With access to the fishery, one, or maybe all, of them were proficient fishermen. Simple windchills make it difficult to sit mid-lake on the icecap, and only a few sunny days each winter offer the opportunity to fish outside without a windbreak.
I imagine the settlers combined their building and fishing talents to utilize the lake’s resources in a more efficient way. Simple, small wood shelters were built over established fishing holes, and with a small fire in the corner, the fishermen peered down through the crystal clear water - either spearing or angling, essentially hunting through the depths. And they found fish.
The ice shack was born.
Ice fishing had been utilized by the American Indians for many generations, but differing stories are told for the actual origination of ice shack fishing in Minnesota. Ice fishing really didn’t become popular until the late 1800s and early 1900s. Whether true or untrue, by some it has been attributed to a gentleman by the name of Sven Stevenson in 1888 when his outhouse slid down a hill onto Lake Minnewaska.
At that time, the ice shack was utilized more for survival than for recreation or leisure, however, I hesitate to think the fishermen didn’t get some enjoyment out of sitting in the shack, warm and simply fishing. The sport of fishing includes an inherent need for patience, for waiting. To be a good fisherman you have to leave any sense of urgency at the door. With the time it takes to “fish”, there is also an inherent need to be a storyteller in my opinion. And oh, how those stories were told, I’m sure. I wish I could have been on a fly on the wall of a Leech Lake ice shack back then.
Since then, the ice shack has certainly evolved in the sense of manufacture and fishing techniques. The modern shacks-on-wheels are a luxury born by technology and are certainly a stark contrast to the old wood shacks of the 19th Century. The spears are now probably more aerodynamic and sharp. The fishing line, rods, reels and lures are more effective than stick and string. Power augers have replaced the axe.
Ice fishing traditions have never changed.
Although technology has changed techniques, I don’t believe it has significantly changed what happens inside the shack, and that is my favorite part of Minnesota ice fishing. From the 1800s until now, the traditions, stories and moments inside the shack remain the same, and that is why ice fishing in Minnesota is such a special experience.
I remember spending hours in the ice shack with my father as a kid, honestly not fishing much but rather playing hockey or making snowmen. In high school, the ice shack was a weekend getaway from reality, a place to be teenagers, enjoy friends a lot and fish some. Now, the ice shack is something different for me, and I think I understand why Sven and the fur traders started embracing the ice shack so much years ago.
I enjoy the feeling of being out on a sheet ice – it is a unique feeling I think only us northerners may understand. I enjoy the idea that a house sits on that ice, in the middle of the lake, warm and waiting for an afternoon of experience. I enjoy opening that door and having my eyeglasses fogged up and being greeted by my grandfather with a handshake or pat on the back. I enjoy sitting on a bucket in the corner for hours just listening to the stories that float around the smoky air of the small structure. I’ve heard those stories a million times and enjoy the new versions just as much as the first. I always wet a line, but it is rarely about the fishing for me anymore.
The ice shack is a place for fishermen, fisherwomen, camaraderie, smart talk, stories, lies, therapy, stress relief, beef jerky, cheese and beverages. The ice shack is a place where we preserve our Minnesota fishing traditions.
Matt Soberg hails from Brainerd, Minnesota and is currently the editor and director of communications for the Ruffed Grouse Society where you can find him missing birds, losing fish and showing his young son the ways of the northwoods from Minnesota to Pennsylvania. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Find more articles at www.mattsoberg.com. Follow on social media @mattsoberg.