On the frozen surface of North Long Lake, Jim Gabrick climbs out of his portable ice shelter, his arms thrown wide, his smile even wider.

The world around him is silver-gray and silent. The heavy clouds above blend into the frost-tipped trees that ring the snowy lake. A few flurries swirl around him. The only sounds are the deep bass twang of the ice sheets shifting below and the occasional mechanical roar as someone nearby fires up an auger and punches a new hole in the ice.

“The solitude. I love the solitude,” said Gabrick, a retired Northwest airline pilot and former Minneapolis police officer who now lives in Baxter.

It’s ice fishing season in Minnesota, at last, after the slowest start that most people around the Brainerd lakes can remember.

For weeks, it was too warm to get out on the ice as December temperatures soared well above freezing. Then a subzero cold snap hit in mid-January and suddenly, it was too cold to stay out and fish.

That unseasonably balmy weather stuck around long enough, however, to create iffy ice conditions that forced the Brainerd Jaycees to postpone this weekend’s 26th annual Ice Fishing Extravaganza tournament. The event, which draws thousands of anglers to Gull Lake each year, has been delayed until Feb. 6.

“It’s been a very, very slow winter. Probably the worst I’ve ever seen,” said Sherree Wicktor, who opened the S & W Bait and Tackle shop with her husband 30 years ago.

For weeks, the weather was too warm and the ice too thin to drive on or to set up the big icehouses, which meant very little shelter for anyone trying to fish in the subzero temperatures that followed.

“It’s a shame, it’s bad. But [better] safe than sorry. You’re dealing with a lot of lives,” Wicktor said, breaking off to scoop bait into bags for a steady trickle of returning customers.

Thousands of people booked hotel rooms for the weekend, and many of them are making the trip to Brainerd anyway. There are still a few soft spots on the ice, people do have to be careful, she said, but conditions — and sales — are improving.

“This whole state revolves around ice,” Wicktor said. “Your hockey, your skating, your fishing.”

The Brainerd Lakes ice fishing season lasts only about six weeks. In a good year, the big houses are on the ice by the first of December. In a really good year — like last year — they’re out there by Thanksgiving.

This year, they barely made it out in time for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Even though Wicktor and her family keep the shop open every day of the year — holidays included — ready whenever their customers are ready to get out on the lake, the Ice Fishing Extravaganza brings in the bulk of their winter sales.

“People who are going fishing are in a good mood. They’re getting away from their problems,” she said. “It’s a good business to get into, it’s just getting harder and harder.”

There are more than 400 lakes within a 25-mile radius of Brainerd, teeming with trout, walleye, bass, Northern pike and panfish. But this time of year, most of the focus is on one — Gull Lake, home to the annual extravaganza. For one weekend, more than 10,000 people stream onto the ice, competing for more than $200,000 in prizes and briefly turning the frozen surface of the lake into the second-largest city in Crow Wing County.

This is only the third time the extravaganza has been postponed in its 26-year history. The contest began as a way to both raise money for local charities and to draw visitors and customers to the region during the slower winter months.

“December was an anxious month,” said extravaganza spokeswoman Angie Nelson. But the January cold snap “puts our spirits back up.”

Now, finally, conditions are right and ice fishing enthusiasts are edging back out into their element. If the weather holds, Feb. 6 should be a beautiful day on the ice.

A little city

At least 50 fish houses dotted the surface of North Long Lake last week, ranging from tent shelters like Gabrick’s to sturdy structures with the amenities and square footage of a studio apartment.

“You build a little city with your friends,” said Scott Lake of Brainerd, who was busy last week setting up the icehouse he’d bought two days earlier.

The shelter boasts fishing space for eight, sleeping space for four, a full kitchen and a flat-screen TV to entertain the grandkids with footage from underwater cameras that will be trained on the fishing lines. Thursday was the first day he felt confident enough in the lake conditions to bring the beauty out on the ice.

Nearby, Randy Kirt aimed a small depth finder at a cleared section of ice, trying to figure how much water was below. He grimaced at the reading. Eight feet. He was hoping for closer to 20, but there were only a few deep sections in this stretch of the lake, and nobody’s going to give you directions to the best fishing spots. He winched up the trailer holding his icehouse and prepared to move a few feet in search of deeper waters and hungrier fish.

“Then,” he said, “we’ll see if all this fuss was worth it for a perch.”

Gabrick’s tiny shelter is just big enough for him, a coffee pot, a portable radio and a cookie.

On this afternoon, he hauls his line out of the hole at his feet to display a wriggling minnow. Nothing’s taken the bait, which is fine with him. Sitting on the ice beats sitting on the couch.

“If the fish want to bite, that’s OK,” he said. “If they don’t, it’s still a wonderful day.”