Crappie Days

One Week in an Ice-Fishing Shack in the Middle of the Middle of Nowhere

The ice road is plowed 30 feet wide, smooth as fresh blacktop, and a hoot to drive on. Hudec is about four miles out on the ice, kicking up an enormous plume of snow with his truck. It hasn't snowed in a couple of days, he tells me, but keeping the road clear remains a constant battle. By Minnesota standards, Red Lake is an enormous body of water--some 289,000 acres in all. Upper Red, which is connected to Lower Red at its southern extreme, stretches 22 miles from east to the west, and across such an expanse that in summertime a moderate breeze can whip up three- or four-foot waves, earning the lake a reputation for hazardous conditions. In winter those same winds blow loose snow into the plowed road. Left untended, the accumulation will pack rock-hard in a matter of days. "It can drift over in a hurry," my host says with a shrug as we cruise, plow down,through the maze of roads he has made on the lake, plow down.

We drop off a 30-gallon tank of liquid propane at one of Hudec's unoccupied shacks. It's getting cold, and he wants to keep it above freezing so he won't have to redrill the 12 holes in the floor of the shack come morning. When the ice is four feet thick, as it is this time of year, drilling an eight-inch-diameter hole is a chore, even with a gas-powered auger.

A former two-way college football player, Hudec still walks with a bit of a jock's swagger at the age of 38. He's not heavy so much as thickly built. Dressed as usual in a lightweight jacket, wraparound sunglasses, and baseball cap, he seems entirely unaffected by the cold. Hudec grew up in Waskish, then left for college and the jobs that came after. He trained in aviation mechanics, was employed as a contractor and car salesman. In the end, though, he always knew he'd return to Waskish. His grandfather, Joseph Hudec, had come to the area around the turn of the century. Like many in the first wave of white settlers, the elder Hudec, a Bohemian immigrant by way of Illinois, figured he could make a living farming in the area and acquired a chunk of bog land north of Waskish. "In Europe peat land was often used for farming. Where he was from, it worked," Hudec explains. "But the problem was, it's so flat around here, nothing drains worth a shit." In 1938 the elder Hudec abandoned his agricultural ambitions and opened the fishing resort his grandson now operates.

Owing to its remoteness, Hudec's never attracted as many customers as the fishing meccas at Mille Lacs and Leech Lake. But the lake's reputation for producing hefty stringers of walleye attracted enough hardcore anglers to keep the concern afloat over the decades. Customers came from all over: the Twin Cities, Chicago, and the smaller towns and cities of northern Minnesota. But by the early Seventies, the catches on the lake had begun to decline, and along with them the resort businesses. Young Hudec--who spent his childhood summers cleaning fish for ten cents a fillet--watched as rival operations started to close shop.

But on this night about 300 fishermen are out on the ice. The crappie bite has been picking up, and word is spreading. Some of the fishermen, Hudec says, have been catching "slabbers"--slang for crappies weighing two pounds or more. Others have been coming in with their daily limit of 15 crappies. But the best is yet to come, Hudec imparts: "It should really start turning on in March. That's when the crappies start to form the really big schools."

 

Like most fishing shanties, mine (kindly supplied by Hudec) is a homemade job, cobbled together from plywood and two-by-fours. It's surprisingly comfortable, though, with gray wall-to-wall carpeting, faux-oak paneling, a pair of sliding-glass windows on opposite walls that afford views of sunrise and sunset, four fold-down bunks, a card table, six fishing holes, and, most important of all, a propane wall heater. The shack has been used regularly this winter, and a stink fills the air as it warms up. It is a peculiar smell, a mix of human hygienic failure and dead minnow. Within a few days I'll hardly notice it.

I haul in my stuff. A cook stove for coffee and soup. A sleeping bag. Two ice-fishing rods (identical to a standard outfit but only two feet long). A couple of scoops of fathead minnows, the locally favored crappie bait. A stack of magazines and a portable radio. The radio proves useless. In daylight hours I can pick up only the faintest of AM signals. FM provides a choice between contemporary country and a public-radio pledge drive. Thank God for the magazines.

I spend the morning and afternoon with my two lines in the water, experimenting with different hooks and jigs, tipped with minnows. Since childhood, I've liked to fish, but in the summertime. That's when you're supposed to fish. When you can float around in a boat, watch water lap up against shore, maybe reel in the occasional lunker. But as much as I've learned to adjust to the customs of my adopted state in the decade I've lived here, ice fishing has remained a conundrum to me. I've tried my hand at it a few times, generally with dismal results. It has always seemed to me that ice fishing is somehow the opposite of "regular" fishing: a harsh, static, uncomfortable experience bereft of the transcendent-communion-with-the-natural-world virtues of its unfrozen counterpart.

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