Growing up Minnesotan, I’ve long had the fresh waters of our 10,000 lakes running through my veins. Summers were spent in lake country reeling in sunfish, perch and the rare walleye. I learned how to cast long before I learned cursive. I squealed with delight when overturned logs revealed fat nightcrawlers, our bait of choice. I basked in the season’s endless sun and the serenity of the still lake.
Never, however, did I brave the chill of winter to partake in open-water fishing’s frigid counterpart. And why would I? Ice-fishing lacks everything I love about the summer sport (namely, the summer). Never one to pass up an opportunity for adventure, however, I enthusiastically accepted when I was challenged to give it a try for the first time last year. But even in that moment of stubborn resolve, my confidence faltered as my mind swirled with questions: How would we stand the cold? Would the ice crack beneath us? Would the fish even bite? What if I had to pee?
If I had to do it, I was going to do it right. Which is why I recruited my friend Travis Frank to show me the ropes. A lifelong outdoorsman, he has long served as a producer for Ron Schara’s award-winning media company (think Minnesota Bound) and is one of the North’s preeminent pro fishing guides (though he’d be the last one to tell you that). Most importantly, he handled my barrage of questions with such ease that I was almost looking forward to my maiden ice-fishing experience. Almost.
The day before we were set to hit the Lake Minnetonka ice, I bought an absurd amount of those little hand warmers and rounded up all the winter garb I could get my hands on. Frank stifled a laugh as he watched me roll out of my car, bundled up like a little kid after the first big snow. We made our way out to one of his secret spots and pulled all the gear from the bed of his pickup. He fired up the auger, narrating as he drilled a hole, then handed it over to me. If I were going to do this, I guess I wasn’t getting the kid-glove treatment.
Settled into the surprisingly snug pop-up, Frank and I fixed our eyes on the underwater-camera screen. He explained that, much like us, fish tend to be sedate come winter, so line movements should be slow. Which was perfectly fine by me, as that was all my bulky gloves would really allow. I was starting to get antsy when I finally caught my first fish — a tiny bluegill, but a fish all the same.
All told, we hooked some 60 fish that day. As the hours passed, I began to understand the appeal of ice-fishing: the cozy cocoon of the pop-up, the quiet solitude of the frozen lake. And as we packed up our gear, I gazed around at the glowing homes sitting along the shoreline, tucked snugly beneath a blanket of stars. Perhaps this ice-fishing thing wasn’t so bad after all.