Crappie Days

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

My car still functions, anyway. I pay a visit to the Take 5, Waskish's lone convenience store. The Take 5 used to be a bar called the Sunset Lodge, but like most of the businesses in the area, it went belly-up after the walleye crash. Now it's owned by the Red Lake Indian Nation, which, owing to a tribal policy that prohibits alcohol sales, has converted the building into a convenience store. I learn all this from the 18-year-old kid working the counter, a Waskish native named Matt Pula. When the walleyes disappeared, Pula was in school. The school bus to Kelliher used to pick up 30 kids in Waskish, he tells me; by the time he graduated, that number had dropped to fewer than a dozen.

Like everyone else in Waskish, Pula knows all about the crappies. He too has heard the story about the pilot's spotting. But while the fish have breathed new life into the local economy, Pula says he'd rather spear suckers or fish northern pike than mess around with pan fish. There may even be some sturgeon out there, too, he says: "I heard somebody found a sturgeon skull on the shore, and it weighed 35 pounds."

 

A little after 10:00 a.m. the next day, I'm bellied up to the bar at Hudec's listening to a fishing guide from Lake of the Woods tell a story about the most recent episode of ice-house debauchery there. Seems a local wild girl has been stripping for some of the fishermen in their shacks. When I press him for details, he cocks an eye at me. "You don't want to put that in the paper, do you?"

Thus rebuffed, I introduce myself to another patron, a stringy 49-year-old named Mark Vicha who's nursing a Miller and inveighing against clean living: "The doctor told me if I quit smoking and drinking, I'd live longer. I don't think so. I think it'll just seem longer." He flashes a gap-toothed smile. When I explain that I'm spending the rest of the week in a shack, he tells me he'll come by around dusk.

Vicha arrives in his blue Fifth Avenue just as the sun is setting, toting the classic old-school ice-fishing gear: a pair of wooden stick poles, each about two feet long. There are no reels on the poles; instead the line is wrapped on two pegs. If we were fishing in water 30 or 40 feet deep, this might be a hassle. But on a shallow lake like Upper Red, Vicha says, simple gear works just as well as the fancy stuff. Scooping the ice out of his holes with a plastic spoon, he tips his jig with a fathead and drops a few peanuts down the hole for good luck. "Chumming," he quips.

He then proceeds to catch one crappie after the next, hoisting the line hand-over-hand in a herky-jerky motion. The secret, he says, is to keep the jig about three feet off of the bottom.

That, and the peanuts.

Between fish, Vicha sketches out his story. A carpenter for most of his life, he grew up in Anoka. About 15 years ago he bought 160 acres and a log cabin not far from Red Lake. It's a simple place, heated with wood and without plumbing. But Vicha fell under the spell of the rural life. "First time most people come to my cabin, they'll be sitting on my back deck, and they'll say, 'What's that I hear?' And I say, 'It's nothing,'" he imparts. "You hear nothing. But when you're used to living in the city, you get so used to background noise that complete silence sounds strange."

For years Vicha went ice fishing once or twice a season. But this winter he quit his regular job, and though he still returns to Anoka to work on a freelance basis--"There just isn't enough to do up here"--he has spent the past month in his cabin. To make a few bucks, he has been building ice houses for Donnie Hudec and helping out with maintenance.

Vicha and I fish together the next couple of nights, with mixed results. When the crappie bite stops, usually around 11:00, he rolls back toward shore. I fold down my bunk and leave a minnow and jig in my hole. Each morning when I wake up, the jig is bare and I imagine that the four-pound crappie was the thief in the night.

 

On my second-to-last-day, two women pull into Hudec's lot in a pickup truck, and it occurs to me that I haven't seen more than a handful of women all week. The few I've seen are accompanied by men--husbands, boyfriends, or fathers.

Cheri is a cheerful sales rep for a Twin Cities company that manufactures underwater cameras. Joann is a city housing inspector, more reserved. They met a few years ago and discovered they shared an interest in fishing, though Joann hadn't fished much in recent years. "I got to take her out shopping for gear, and we spent $500 just like that," Cheri says. A devoted reader of outdoors publications, Cheri fished most of the winter on Mille Lacs, where she keeps an ice house. "I went out the last five weekends in a row. It's just a good mental break," she tells me. She has known about the crappie bite on Red Lake for a while, but this is her first trip up. She timed it so she could get in a couple of days of practice before the big Upper Red Lake Crappie Contest, which is scheduled for the weekend.

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