We grew up close to Mille Lacs lake in Minnesota, and as a family spent a lot of time on Mille Lacs. We swam and water skied and fished in the summer. We had a ski and fishing boat, and
would bring our Winnebago to camp at Father Hennepin State Park. Winter was even more fun when it came to fishing. It was an event and special time with my dad and grandpa.
We were only about twenty minutes from Mille Lacs, and my dad and grandpa loved to go ice fishing. I remember one fall the two of them gathered scrap lumber from around the farm, and built themselves two ice houses.
Grandpa was really good at building stuff and so was dad. As father and son they were a good team. They built hard sided, dark houses which were needed for spearing. We watched as they worked for days in the large farm machine shed, with its wall full of tools and piles of salvaged parts neatly stacked under the work benches and around the outer walls. We marveled at all of the old treasures and how easily Grandpa could make old parts fit and work together to make something new.
We walked around the shed and looked at all of the old things. Sometimes we had to ask what they were. He had old parts from horse harnesses, from an era gone by and even square nails and triangular barn hinges. They saved small windows and wheels of all sizes. Grandpa was very good at saving things. He had weathered the depression and still saved everything.
It was a good attitude that more of us could be better at in today’s world. We so easily throw things away that are perfectly good. We buy too much and we waste even more. My grandma even saved bread bags and bread bag ties and the old metal band aide boxes. They learned to waste nothing and on that day of building fish houses, all the parts and saving they had done came in handy. They did not have to go into town for anything.
The houses each had a wood burning stove in it with a proper smoke stack protruding out of the roof. They built the wood stove by welding old metal together in a small box shape, the size of a large bread box. It had a small hinged door on the end to add the sticks of wood, to keep the house warm and it worked really well. As a matter of fact, its problem was sometimes too much heat and then we had to open the door to vent it out. It was very warm and snuggly in there even on very cold days. The top of the stove was flat and so many times my mom would send cans of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup along and we would open those cans and heat the soup on the stove. It made a perfect lunch, especially since she sent along bologna sandwiches made with white squishy bread. It tasted best if actually dipped into the noodle soup.
After the houses were fully constructed and painted a light green sea foam color, a paint left from past projects, they had to be taken with the pickup, one at a time to Mille Lacs. A lot of discussion always occurred between Dad and Grandpa over the decision about where to put the houses. Should the houses be placed over the shallows, fifteen or more feet, or the deep waters? Knowing where the fish would be was a decision based upon years of fishing knowledge.
The houses were built on skids to make pulling them easier on the lake. They were considered seasonal houses and so they stayed on the lake all winter, but could be moved around by Grandpa and Dad if they wanted to try a new spot. Once set onto the lake, we could go whenever we wanted to fish. As a truck driver, Dad was laid off in the winter and there was not much farm work in the winter either. Grandpa was retired so they could go fishing anytime they wanted.
When we were not in school we could go along. We would leave with Grandpa and Dad before sunrise with our lunch in the black hinged top, old fashioned lunch pail. We usually had rice krispie bars along with our soup and sandwiches and some peanuts or other snacks for mid-afternoon. We took the pickup truck drove onto the ice along makeshift roads plowed right on the ice of Mille Lacs.
We pulled up to the fish houses and file into them. The first thing Dad and Grandpa had to do was to cut the large square holes, and then they lowered a big minnow into the hole. The minnow was held low in the hole by a loop of string around its gills, like a leash and the other end was attached to the ceiling of the fish house. This allowed the minnow to swim around in the hole, but not get away.
The person fishing had the fishing spear attached to their wrist and standing against the side of the inside of the house ready to grab if they saw a fish go after the minnow. We sat on the wood bench built into the fish house, our gaze fixed on the hole. We traded off sitting with Grandpa and Dad, and a lot of good conversation took place during these outings. This is a sport that takes lots of patience. They would let us have the spear and fish too. We did not have the talent they had, but I actually remember spearing two fish over the years. One was a small Northern and the other a rough fish that is called an Eelpout. It is an ugly fish with skin. When Grandpa saw I speared it, he laughed and said “lets get that ugly thing off of our good spear.”
Sometimes during casual conversation the minnow would get jittery and start trying to swim away, and it was then that you knew there was something big coming. My Dad would grab the spear and wait. Sometimes the large Northern would swim into view, and stop to look at the minnow. Those were easier to spear, but other times you just saw the large fish dart through while going after the minnow, and sometimes there was a chance for a shot. They may came back into the hole for another pass, or other times they grabbed the minnow and they were gone.
It was mostly a slow relaxed sport, except for those few minutes of extreme excitement and elation if they actually speared the fish and successfully got it out of the hole. Many of the fish were of average size, but there were those very large Northerns sometimes, that made you think there were monster Northern Pike in that lake. Fortunately, we have pictures to prove that my memories were correct. They caught some really large fish, but more importantly we had some really special times with my dad and grandpa.
Fishing was a special event with Dad and Grandpa, but it was so much more. We did not know it at the time, but they were teaching us many lessons. We learned that my dad and grandpa were really talented at building things and resourceful. They taught us how to fish, but they also taught us patience, and the joy of appreciating our environment and the beauty of our lakes.
They were the best dad and grandpa kids could ask for. They left us with great memories of our times together and taught us lifelong skills. They taught us to work together as a team, to relax and have fun, and to save and not be wasteful, and by their great parenting, I feel they taught us to be good parents and to include our kids in the things we did and teach them lifelong skills. Fishing with Dad and Grandpa is not only a beautiful memory, but the age old process of passing down from one generation to another the many skills needed for a full, fun and successful life.