The growth of ice fishing has mirrored the RV boom, bolstered by the rise of new ice houses (aka fish houses)—specialized RVs built to sit on ice and facilitate this chilliest of pastimes. These ice houses are stripped down, ultralight RVs with holes cut in the floor. Corresponding holes are then cut into the ice, and fishing lines are dropped. If it all sounds a bit crazy, talk to rabid ice fishers like Jake Kline and … it doesn’t get less crazy. But it does sound like a little more fun.
Ten-year-old ice fisherman Jake Kline was anything but pampered. He remembers fishing out of his grandpa’s first hard-sided fish house. “It was just a plywood box with an old barrel stove in there.” Like many fishermen, he has one season he’ll never forget. It was the Winter of 1989, and the lake by his grandpa’s house couldn’t stop spitting out perch.
“It’s called Egert Lake, but most know it as Jirak’s lake. I shouldn’t even call it a lake—it’s that little. Maybe a half a mile across, if that, and super shallow. I can remember grandpa taking me back there, and we just whaled on those perch. I think the limit was 100 a piece.” The townsfolk took notice, and suddenly, the little lake was all the rage. “I remember it still to this day. [As more people heard about the fish we were pulling in] there were eventually six or seven fish houses out there, which was a ton of houses for that lake. There’s never been another year since that there’s ever been people out there like that.”
Jake talks about ice fishing the way people in Colorado talk about hiking 14ers, folks in Nashville talk about spotting Kid Rock singing karaoke, or locals in Fort Myers talk about the perfect sunset. It’s extraordinary. But not outside the norm. Here, it’s just something that happens.
Ice fishing isn’t the only thing he’s dedicated his life to. You’d have to call it a side passion, really, if only because he only gets three months of the year to do it. But he spends his days year-round as a hunting dog trainer in the region. He’s highly sought-after and has trained over 1,000 dogs out of his JK Pine Creek Kennels. Back in 2000, his own dog, Drake, was the U.S. Open puppy flusher champion, a top national bird dog honor.
But Jake’s heart is never far from fishing. In January, the average temperature in Jake’s Minnesotan hometown is three degrees. Three. But he’s rarely deterred. “A lot of days through the week, the family isn’t able to come out. But I’m spending four to five nights out there on the lake myself,” he says.
Unlike his childhood surrounded by plywood, today Jake spends those four to five nights in relative luxury. “Grandpa’s fish house you had to take the wheels off one by one to set it down on the ice. Then, my dad’s was kind of a crank system to crank it down. It wasn’t so much work, and that one had a radio, a couple bunk beds, and a heater. Then I started buying my own, and each one got a little nicer.”
His is a 21-foot unit from the RV line of a quality manufacturer called Legend Outdoors. The ice houses feel more like stripped down toy haulers than anything swanky. Like all ice houses, there are also several holes in the floor that can be opened to access the ice directly—along with their weight, this feature is one that distinguishes an ice house from a regular RV. And like all fish houses, it’s built to be dropped low. “Mine is on hydraulics and takes about five seconds to drop.” They’re dropped onto the ice because if you just cut a hole in the floor of a regular RV, you’d have two-degree wind tickling your toes. Dropping to the ice keeps you insulated from wind.
In Summer, the house doubles as a regular RV. He and his wife Angie, 16-year-old daughter Tayla, and 10-year-old son Croix use it for typical Summer activities. “Mine has an awning on it and an AC unit, so we camp out of it like a regular camper. It’s kind of killing two birds with one stone, because you can use it all year long. If you buy a regular camper, you can’t use it in the Winter, and a camper made just to fish, you can’t use in the Summer.”
Whether they’re parking in a Summer forest or a dense sheet of frozen ice, it’s a family affair. “We bring the ice skates, and the kids can just be kids out there on the ice. And my wife—luckily enough—really enjoys fishing. She grew up in a fishing family. All her family fishes. And she loves the tug at the end of the line just as much as me.”
Ice fishing has grown in popularity, not just as a family activity but as a community social one. “There are times on the weekends where it looks like a little town out on the lakes. There are hundreds of houses. And kids are out there driving around, making all this noise on the ice.”
For the real hardened fishermen like Jake, the middle of the night is where a lot of the catching happens. The kids are finally in bed. The teenagers with their noisy cars have finally tucked themselves in. Eventually it’s just man, line, and ice hole.
“There are times on the weekends where it looks like a little town on the lakes. There are hundreds of houses.”
“The feel of the tug is indescribable. You set that hook, and you can tell if it’s a big one—it feels like you got hooked on a log. And that fish might just sit there. But eventually you can feel them shaking their head, trying to get that hook out of their mouths. Then you can feel them thrashing around, and you’re afraid you’re going to lose them. Sometimes they take off away from you, and you hear that ‘whizzzz’ from your line. They’re all a little different. Sometimes [when you’ve reeled them in] they come up flat, and you can see them lying flat against the ice, and you got to try to get that head into that six-inch, eight-inch hole, which isn’t easy. But fish don’t have a reverse, so once you do that, they’re pretty much done.”
Anyone who’s felt that tug knows there’s something programmed into people. It awakens at that first line wiggle, even for the most novice of angler. It’s some primal urge that recognizes and honors the struggle on both ends of the line. Like most outdoorsmen, Jake and his buddies release most of the fish they catch, preferring that this particular struggle between man and nature doesn’t have life or death consequences.
Jake has spent every Winter for nearly his whole life staring at eight-inch ice holes, just like his father and his father’s father. Grandpa Kline passed away two years ago. He had spent nearly a century fighting with nature, winning more than he lost. “He made it to 94,” says Jake, “And he was fishing until dang near when he passed.”
About twenty years ago, Jake bought Grandpa Kline’s property. Today he can see Jirak’s Lake out his window. The perch haven’t stopped calling to him. Small chance they ever will.