Ice fishing tournament lake of the woods
Hayden Sammak

Fear and Ice Fishing on Minnesota's Lake of the Woods

Sometimes, what happens on the ice oughta stay on the ice...

My plane lands in Minnesota and I meet Hawaii Mike—a giant Ukrainian dude with long hair, some fading tattoos, and a round-toothed, kiddish smile. Despite it being 20 degrees outside, he's wearing a custom Hawaiian shirt covered in big Hibiscus flowers and walleye, and suddenly the nickname makes sense.

Hawaii Mike invited me on this trip: A multiple overnight ice fishing excursion he takes with buddies on Lake of the Woods. It's an ice fishing mecca I know little about, but have had on my list for a long time. For a week or so each year, around a dozen of them get together on the ice, run a little self-directed ice fishing tournament, and drink, pretty heavily.

Hawaii Mike tells me the rules of their tournament are many, but I'll hear about them later. The entire time we're talking, he's got that kiddish grin on. It's that kind of smirk that says, "I know what you're getting into, but you don't."

Welcome to Baudette

ice fishing madness

Hayden Sammak

We're about to be picked up and whisked off to the town of Bemidji, where we'll stop for groceries and liquor. From there, we'll continue on to Baudette, and eventually out onto the middle of Lake of the Woods. It's been a mild year and the ice conditions aren't great, but in previous phone calls, Ethan (the ringleader of the trip and ringleader of the operation), has assured me the ice is going to be plenty safe.

Ethan pulls up in a fancy, late-model-year pickup, jumps out, and helps us get our bags in the back. I'm immediately struck by how thin he is. He's bald, bearded, covered in tattoos, with a little stud piercing on the side of his bottom lip.

As we set off for Bimidji, Ethan launches into a series of monologues about fishing, wildlife, Lake of the Woods, and how much he hates Minneapolis. I quickly realize this is not an interactive performance. He makes deliberate, lingering hand gestures and fixes his gaze somewhere in the middle distance as he talks—you get the sense that he wants people to feel as if he has a particular way about him. Despite being in his mid 30s, he talks about how he's "getting old" and how this or that doesn't work like it used to, and keeps referring to guides we're likely to run into as "nice young men," despite them being all just about his age. He's articulate and talks with a curt, level politeness that reminds me of a flight attendant. It makes me a little uneasy.

He vaults from one monologue into another, waxing on everything from ice fishing to the danger presented by black bears, to his parents' multi-building 1,000-acre compound and the sprawling timbered mansion at its center he calls "the lodge." Eventually, he gets to laying out the agenda for the trip, punctuating every event with a precise timestamp, rattling off every detail like the lovechild of a project manager and a machine gun.

"We'll arrive at my parent's property at 7:30 tonight. You guys can get set up in the trailer behind the old garage. Tomorrow morning at 6:30, we'll meet in the new garage for coffee, strudel bites, and cinnamon rolls. We'll leave the property at 7:00 and be at the outfitter by 7:45 to fish from a day house. We'll come back to the property at 6:30, I'll show you around the lodge and you can say hello to my parents until about 8. Tomorrow morning, we'll get everything packed up by 9, have an egg bake with my parents, leave for the outfitter at 11, and meet up with the other folks. I'm in touch with the rest of the party, they'll be leaving by 5 at the latest and will meet us at the bar no later than 12."

As the latest monologue is delivered, I glance in the mirror at Hawaii Mike, who is obviously used to this and completely unfazed. I'm about 20 minutes into a week-long trip, but if there's one thing I know for absolute certain, it's that this is Ethan's ride—deviate at your own peril.

Day House

ice fishing madness

Hayden Sammak

We meet in the new garage at 6:30, and as promised, there's a nice little spread of strudel bites and cinnamon rolls. Hawaii Mike and I are wiping the sleep out of our eyes as Ethan walks around with a kind of bounce that says he's been up for hours. He chain smokes as we eat and at seven on the nuts, we pile into his truck.

We arrive at the lodge as guides with clipboards are loading the other stragglers into the cattle cars—plywood paddy wagons with porthole windows and two benches on either side of a retrofitted gas heater. The doors open inward, so if the cart falls through the ice, the water pressure won't keep you from being able to escape.

After a half-hour ride across presumably decent ice, we get dropped off at an icehouse with eight pre-drilled holes, a few white gas lamps, and a running heater. We unload our gear on the ice in front of the ice house, which consists of a cooler full of beers, some sandwiches, three flashers (fish finders with a transducer deployed meant to be deployed beneath the ice), our tackle boxes, and our rods. We're handed a coffee can full of bait, the guide wishes us luck, and then he leaves to go grab another group of sports waiting for him back at the outfit.

We've each got two rods, and we're all fishing them more or less the same way. On our active rods, we've got little tungsten teardrops tipped with minnow heads, which we jig in a steady rhythm: pop-pop-pop-POP, pop-pop-pop-POP. Our deadsticks—the live bait rods that sit, spool-open, beside the holes—all have tiny fathead minnows weighted with a split shot hanging some 20 feet beneath foam bobbers. The bobbers move around the hole idly as the minnows swim circles in the inky dark, waiting to be inhaled by some unknown leviathan.

If you think about that errand long enough, you start to feel pretty bad for the little minnows. You figure the terror in a situation like that doesn't lie so much in being eaten as it does in the waiting to be eaten. Fortunately, the minnows don't have to wait long. Almost immediately, we start crushing fish.

Fish after fish after fish materializes through the ice. From about nine in the morning to four in the afternoon, it feels like someone either has something on or is about to. It's miraculous. You imagine the bottom covered in fish, milling around like cars in city traffic. The fish are all more or less clones of each other: 13-inch saugers and walleyes, all healthy and firm.

Around noon, Ethan sets into a fish that puts a heavy bend in his rod. He thinks it's a burbot or pike until he sees a flash of color in the hole. Hawaii Mike pulls Ethan's transducer out of the hole and moves his flasher to the side. After a little more fighting, the walleye comes to hand. It'll be the biggest of the trip, taping out at 27 ¾ inches. We take a few pictures as Ethan, pleased with himself, guides the fish back into the hole and releases it.


ice fishing madness

Hayden Sammak

It's around noon when we all meet in the bar of the lodge and wait for the guides to pick us up.

The day before was just some pre-fishing. Today marks the first official day of the tournament. As we all eat lunch and catch a little buzz, Ethan stands at the head of the table drinking an energy drink and goes over the rules, as follows:

Any fish is worth 1 point.
Any fish over 12" is worth 2 points.
Any missed hookset or lost fish subtracts a point.
The tally is cumulative for the trip, and the winner is declared at 10:30 a.m. on the final day of fishing.

Shortly after, the guides come get us. As we're loading our shit into the cattle cars, Ethan directs my attention to Alice, the only woman attending the trip.

"That young lady right there is a real fine angler."
"Oh yeah?"
"Yes, probably the best one here."

I like Alice. She's shy and stoned and goofy, and as I find out later, really can fish. I get to talking with her fiance as we're shuttled out to the ice, and I like him too. He talks with me about the finer points of french cooking and I tell him about some wild game experiments I've been conducting, and we bond over our mutual admiration for burbot, a freshwater cod that eats almost as good as anything from the salt. I make a note to try to fish with the two of them at least a few times during the trip.


ice fishing madness

Hayden Sammak

It's -22 at 10 a.m. on day 3 and I'm on my fifth drink of the morning. The room is full of cigarette smoke and the polyphonic, whistling overtones of Mongolian throat singing. The "cops" are on drugs.

"Hehe... we got a whole sandwich bag full of mushrooms."
"Yeah hehe you know we can't do much, but they can't test for these."

The self-proclaimed cops—two strangers who wandered over from one of the other thousand ice shacks that surround us—knocked on the door and opened it without waiting for anyone to answer. They hovered weirdly in the doorway making small talk with wind and snow blowing in behind them until someone invited them inside. One posts himself up over the shoulder of Max. It's annoying him.

"You got a mark, buddy."
"You see it?"
"It's all over you!"

Max extends his arms overhead and the reel zips as the hook buries itself into the weight of the fish 26 feet beneath the ice. Someone grabs the transducer and pulls it out of the hole as the line darts around its perimeter. There's a brown flash in the hole's black iris, then another, then the flash goes green-gold, and again, and the water rises and lowers in the hole, and all at once a sauger is born, teeth first.

Max drops the rod and grabs the line, pulling it hand over hand, delivering the fish. Its eyes are milky pearls and it dangles from the pink spotted spoon still buried in its lip. It doesn't wriggle or thrash, but just hangs there spinning slowly as the line works out a twist.

"Nice fish!"
"You gonna keep him?"
"It's a good one! A perfect eater!"

Max pops the hook out of the sauger's bony lip and lets the spoon fall to his feet, then walks across the room and presses the fish flat against a ruler nailed to the door. 13 inches. He sidesteps, swings the door open, orients the fish like a football in his hand, and spikes it into the ice. Its gill plates and dorsal flare; the whole thing quivers and stiffens, then bleeds. Max picks it up and lobs it into a pile of identical 13-inch sauger slowly freezing in a snow bank by the door.

Cold Fronts

ice fishing madness

Hayden Sammak

It's day four. A cold snap has driven the mercury through the bottom of the thermometer; the local weather stations are reporting temperatures of -40 after factoring for windchill. Four of us are sitting in the icehouse and no one is catching fish. No one is seeing fish. Occasionally, one of the other seven fishermen (there are 11 of us in total), comes by, and each time they invariably say the same thing:

"WHOOO it's fuckin' cold! You guys seeing anything?"

No one is actually curious. There's so little action that even in these temperatures, we're all electing to take little walks between the ice shacks, just to break it up. It's unbearable. Max is blaring bad nu metal (all nu metal is bad) from the little bluetooth speaker in the center of the room, but it looks like he's enjoying it, so I don't say anything.

"Crawling in my skin..."

Me too, man. Me too.

Kyle takes a big wad of chew from his lip and drops it in my hole. It appears as a slow, evenly descending red streak on my sonar display. It's the first mark I've seen in hours. I'm edgy. Everyone's edgy. Cabin fever. There's nothing to do but wait and drink and hope something changes. It doesn't.

Eventually, we end up shooting dice and hanging out at the little table in the middle of the shack. Someone from another house comes by and gets too drunk. No one gets a bite.

Rod-rod and Rodney

ice fishing tournament madness

Hayden Sammak

They've been arguing for days about what they call the Rod-Rod—a pink rod blank inserted into the end of a 9" rubber penis. According to the rules of the tournament, the worst fisherman from the day before must fish with it. For whatever reason, this is very important to some people, even though their median age is well over 30.

It's day five. After the fourth day, I am the current last-place fisherman, and so I'm introduced to the Rod-rod. I use the suction cup at its base to attach it to the window, set it up like a dead stick and try to forget about it. It makes me deeply uncomfortable, but I'm trying to be a sport about it. It's their deal, and as a one-time participant, I'm not invested enough in this whole operation to try to make any changes to how it's being run. Is it my sense of humor? No. Do I think the whole thing is pretty fucking weird for people who are no longer minors by a factor of two? Yes. Still, you know, whatever. Don't rock the boat.

Over the course of the next few hours, I hit a couple fish on my jigging stick, but the whole day goes by without a hit on the Rod-rod, and that's when they tell me: there's another dick rod, "Rodney," and since I couldn't catch a fish on the first dick rod, I'm going to have to use the second dick rod as well.

Look, I tried to play along.

"Tomorrow you gotta fish with Rodney, too!"
"I'm not doing that."
"But you didn't catch one on the Rod-rod!"
"I'm not fishing with that one either."

And so the debate begins. The group quickly becomes divided into two camps: those who are very adamant that imposing the Rod-rod on someone is critical to the spirit of the tournament, and those who are a little embarrassed about the whole thing. Hawaii Mike, very drunk but coming to my defense, keeps making jokes about how he's staging an "anti Rod-rod insurrection" (while missing the obvious  -urrection/erection joke). One or two folks keep questioning what the punishment—there has to be a punishment—should be instead. At one point, they call someone named Trevor, who's apparently central to the group but couldn't make the trip this year. He is adamant that I fish with the penises.

That night the debate is tabled as dinner is served and I try to get some writing done.

The next day, it continues behind closed doors; I'm largely insulated from this amending process. Every now and then, someone from one of the houses where they're discussing potential rule change comes by with an update. They're getting rid of it. You only have to use it if you want to and get a bonus for catching a fish on it. They're changing it to a "green hornet" jig stick a la Grumpy Old Men and the best fisherman of the previous day will have to use it. They're keeping it, they're not. For days, it's been going on like this: a raging debate between a group of middle-aged adults about rods mounted in dildos and who has to fish with them.


ice fishing madness

Hayden Sammak

It's the final day on the ice. By 7:30, everyone is up and fishing. Tournament hours are from 7:30 to 10:30, at which point we'll pack it up, clean the shacks, and get ready for the cattle cars to come grab us. Ethan and Alice are the only ones in contention to win the tournament, and the fishing is just as slow as it's been for the last three days. No one is catching anything, but Alice is ahead, and as long as everything stays the same, she'll win.

As it's been going for the last couple days, no one catches much, and at 10:30, Alice is declared the winner.

And then, nothing. We cheer a little bit in our shack and I take a few pictures of Alice smiling. Other than that, no one comes over, cracks a beer, no weird traditions, no celebration—nothing. Everyone just starts cleaning up their space and getting ready to head home. After all of that, no one really gives a shit who won.

A few hours later, the owner-operator's husband, Don, shows up towing a cattle cart behind what looks like a soviet-era Honda. He and I talk about the hat he's wearing—real otter—and trapping and how Canada Goose has fucked up the fur market by giving in and banning virgin fur from their production line. Tanked the price of western coyotes overnight. I make a joke about how the geese must be giving their down away for all the puffy jackets they make, and he laughs and tells me he's going to steal that one.

On the way out, we grab lunch at the lodge. I start drinking to warm up for the 4-hour car ride out to somewhere in North Dakota, where I'll be staying until I catch my plane the following day. Having caught both the smallest fish of the trip and the biggest bit of the burbot, I win two pools I forgot about. I use the cash and order a bunch of appetizers for the table, then spot a pulltabs machine. With the alcohol and the promise of a ride home in the next 24 hours, I'm starting to feel very good, and I get carried away and start using the rest of the prize money to buy pulltabs, handing them out to the table. At some point, I realize I've miscalculated and have spent too much.

About then I look down at my hands and see the tab I was mindlessly pulling is a $100 dollar winner. Drunk luck. I give the bartender my ID and she gives me cash and the whole thing works out just about to the cent.

Epilogue: Goodbyes

ice fishing madness

Hayden Sammak

A day later, after an overnight stay at Ethan's house in Henry, North Dakota, we're finally on our way to the airport in Fargo. We stop at the bar Ethan works at for lunch and Hawaii Mike and I flirt with the bartender and play some darts and everyone has a good time. The wings are good and beers are cold. Home is on the horizon. The bartender turns a blind eye as I pour the neat Jameson I ordered into an empty travel-sized mouthwash bottle and pop it into my carry on so I don't have to buy the overpriced booze at the airport. I'm in a good mood.

We pull up to the terminal and as I'm grabbing my shit out of the car, I find myself telling Hawaii Mike and Ethan to let me know if they ever get out to Bozeman and that they've got a place to stay if they do. Yeah, the whole fucking thing was weird, but they're good people who invited me on a trip, and I feel like I've been through something with them, whatever it was.

We shake hands, they pull away from the curb, and I'm by myself for the first time in a week. A warty clerk checks my bag and tells me my plane is late. He thinks I'll miss my connector, but offers to book me on another flight that should get me home around 2 a.m. Thanks, whatever, it's alright, I'll take it. I don't care. Fargo feels like freedom.

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