It won’t be long now before leaders of the Park Rapids chapter of the Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association (MDAA) visit Delaney Sports Center to deliver the hottest calendar in town.
“People have been calling for weeks to see if it’s in,” said Kevin Lempola, the bait shop’s co-owner.
The local fishing club’s desktop date keeper isn’t for sale. Rather, it’s kept at Delaney’s checkout counter as the only way area residents, church groups, school children, scouting groups, military vets and caretakers of the disabled can sign up for free time in the club’s cozy, well-equipped Community Fish House.
Now entering it’s ninth season, the heated eight-hole trailer is a vivid example of how fishing brings certain Minnesota towns together over winter. Locally, it’s proven to be a wildly popular community service.
“As soon as it goes up, there isn’t a day goes by when someone isn’t in that fish house,” Lempola said. “And there’s a whole pile of volunteers who make sure it’s open in the morning and closed at night. … It’s truly a community pitching in.”
David East, president of the 40-member Park Rapids MDAA chapter, said the red-sided fish house hosts 400 to 600 ice anglers a year — people who come from all walks of life. The key to attracting a diverse local crowd is requiring users to sign up in person at the bait shop. No phone reservations are accepted and no one can book an angling session more than two weeks out from an appointed date.
“We’ve had people calling from Fargo wanting to reserve it for the weekend and that’s not what it’s for,” said Armin Hawkins, a Community Fish House volunteer and charter member of the Park Rapids MDAA.
People are free to drop money into a donation box inside the structure, but the only requirements for sign up are that the signature user holds a driver’s license and fishing license. Alcohol and tobacco are prohibited and users have their choice between an 8 a.m. to noon session or 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. session.
“It’s kids and grandpas and grandmas out there and lots of disabled people,” East said. “It’s a neat deal.”
Inspired by International Falls
East and Hawkins said their fishing club latched onto the free fishing idea after they were called upon to help an elderly woman with the setup and maintenance of her icehouse. She had been ice fishing on her own for many years but had become frail. The woman’s daughter went to the club for help and members responded.
Later, East introduced the idea of an open-to-all fish house after reading a Star Tribune story about a similar project in International Falls.
East and Hawkins said their club bought the fish house new from a local Ice Castle dealer at the dealer’s cost. Each year they purchase an insurance policy for the shack, sustain it with propane heat at a steady 70 degrees, equip it with a handicap ramp and furnish it with live bait, rattle wheels, other fishing supplies, chairs and a table.
Club volunteers take turns arriving at the shack by 7 a.m. to turn on the heat and open up the fishing holes. Each night, the same volunteers make sure everything’s in order before locking up. Without being asked, various snowplow drivers keep the fish house road wide open.
“You can literally go out there and fish with a can of Coke, tennis shoes and a T-shirt,” East said.
The fishing club doesn’t go door-knocking for contributions. They hold one annual fundraiser anchored by the sale of raffle tickets and small businesses advertise themselves on exterior fish house placards at the rate of $250 per season. Together, and with random donations, the fish house gets by on an annual budget upward of $3,000.
But that’s not all. Delaney’s for instance, donated a Vexilar fish finder and Vexilar itself supplies the fish house with the latest underwater camera setup — a dynamite feature for kids when the fish are congregated beneath the house.
On Tuesday, Lempola said, Fish Hook Lake was covered by less than four inches of ice. MDAA’s shack requires ice at a depth of at least 12 inches. Based on the weather forecast, locals are expecting the Community Fish House to open before Christmas.
“We are working on getting a second house,” East said. “If we had two houses out there they’d be full all the time.’’