On a mild December evening, warm light spills from the windows of two fishing shacks on Pontoon Bay of Fish Lake near Duluth.
It’s early in the ice-fishing season. Just 10 inches of ice cover this cove where Mike Kylmala and Rick Siegle — each in his own Ice Castle fishing house — are on the hunt for crappies.
They had towed the wheeled houses out on the ice with four-wheelers on Dec. 16, cranked the houses down to near ice level and started fishing. They’re out here almost every day and sometimes stay overnight as well. They fish in well-appointed luxury. The shacks feature flat-screen televisions, ovens and ranges, twin fish finders and underwater cameras.
If you want to know how far ice-fishing has evolved from a guy hunched over a hole out in the elements, step inside one of these living rooms on wheels.
On Wednesday evening, Kylmala, 69, is watching “Wheel of Fortune” as he jigs. For Siegle, 64, it’s “The Andy Griffith Show.” Generators hum outside, providing power and light to the shacks.
“We love ’em,” Siegle says. “It’s just to get away. … When you retire, you don’t want to sit around the house and get fat, so you come to the fish house to sit around and get fat.”
He lets a good belly laugh roll but glances at his Marcum fish finder and sees, by way of an orange line quivering near a red band, that a crappie is in the vicinity.
“Oh, got one coming in,” he says.
He pulls his ice-fishing rod from its rest and readies himself to set the hook. But the fish will not play the game.
A high-pitched beeping suddenly shatters the peace of the castle. It’s the smoke alarm.
“Oh — my pizza,” Siegle says, hustling across the shack to retrieve his supper from the oven.
There appears to be no smoke in the shack.
“That thing’s real sensitive,” Siegle says.
He lets the pizza cool and gets back to fishing from his swivel office chair.
The evening is young, but already he has four crappies in a plastic bag, including an 11-incher and a couple of 10 1/2 -inchers. A couple of modest northern pike lie stiff and frosted on the ice outside the shack. Siegle and Kylmala each have caught one of them.
Next door, where Vanna White is flipping letter squares on “Wheel of Fortune,” Kylmala has a couple of crappies in a pail of water for his afternoon’s efforts. Fishing has been slow this past week, the two men say, but it was good a week earlier when they were fishing from portable shelters. And it will get good again sometime.
Every angler prefers good fishing to slow fishing, but for Kylmala and Siegle, it isn’t a hardship to endure less-than-fast fishing in the kind of comfort to which they’ve become accustomed.
Kylmala evolved to his Castle, he says. He started with a pop-up fishing shelter, then a flip-over shelter, then an old tent trailer he converted to a fishing shack. Then he found a deal on this Ice Castle. He and Siegle will keep their Castles on Pontoon Bay until the main body of Fish Lake is safe for travel. They they'll move their living rooms out there.
How many days a week are they out here?
“It would probably be easier to say how many days I’m home,” Kylmala says with a smile. “I’m out here at least five days a week.”
His wife comes out to visit a couple of times during the winter. With two bunks in his Castle, Kylmala has room for sleep-overs, and his grandson sometimes comes out to stay with him.
His shelter could be a model home of ice shelters. The walls are tongue-and-groove cedar. He built a small wooden cupboard for one wall, and he has mounted three rod racks on other walls. Eleven ice rods rest on the racks, rigged and ready for action. His Aqua Vu underwater camera sits ready on one bunk, and its flat-screen display screen is mounted below the television.
Drop-down fishing shelters like these Ice Castles come in a range of sizes, some of them large enough for several anglers. The ones Kylmala and Siegle have are modest 14- and 16-footers. That’s by design, so they can get them out soon after safe ice forms each winter.
The evening passes peacefully. Outside, a west wind is blowing down the lake from Hi-Banks Resort to Pontoon Bay. Several other shelters sit on the ice near those of Kylmala and Siegle, but all of them are dark on Thursday evening.
The two generators purr. Two four-wheelers sit on the ice near Siegle and Kylmala’s shiny houses. Rich yellow light glows from within the shelters, where two contented ice anglers wait for the next school of crappies to come in.