ON LAKE MILLE LACS – Every afternoon about the time that Twin Cities freeways begin to choke with white-knuckle commuters fleeing their daily toils, Dave Engh, Rod Kraus, Frank Ketchmark and Jim Bannick ease onto this large lake, following miles of nearly vehicle-free ice roads.
To these boys, 3 o’clock in the afternoon is like a dinner bell in a mess hall; a siren song beckoning them onto the frozen water. Into their four-wheel-drive trucks they pile, a cribbage board in a back seat, also a deck of cards, some pretzels and chips, and maybe a few cans of Grain Belt, craft beer to Minnesotans of a certain age.
Somewhere also among their supplies will be a handful of fishing rods and a bucket of minnows.
“We fish because it’s too cold to golf,” grinned Jim. “Some of us will shoot 120 rounds a summer.”
As he spoke, the voluminous shelter the four men inhabited was toasty warm, while outside, the weather alternated between midwinter moderate and mid-winter miserable.
Whiteouts came and went, pushed by tempestuous winds, revealing, when visibility returned, a bald eagle not far away, perched on the ice.
Perhaps the big bird with its acute vision was peering through the shelter’s large window to see cards being shuffled and the occasional pop-top opened, all of it at a pace that was decidedly laid-back.
Mille Lacs angling veterans all, Dave, Rod, Frank and Jim on some days catch a half-dozen walleyes, while on others they might pull only a single fish through the ice.
Either way, their cribbage games continue. What effort is needed anyway to listen for a rattle wheel to signal that a walleye in the watery netherworld below has taken a bait?
“I moved up here in 1983,” said Frank, 84. “I worked for Carl Pohlad at the time, and he owned the bank in Isle. I came up to manage it.”
Dave, Rod and Jim also are transplanted Twin Cities residents. Dave, 60, was a fireman and fire inspector until his recent retirement. Rod, 65, worked for International Paper. Jim, 73, managed a printing shop owned by Carlson Companies.
Each day the group benefits by a marriage that occurred years ago between Jim’s daughter, Karen, and Kevin McQuoid. The couple owns Mac’s Twin Bay Resort on Mille Lacs, and in winter they place 35 deluxe rental fish houses on the lake.
The McQuoids allow Jim, Dave, Rod and Frank to hole up for free each winter afternoon in whatever rental house is vacant. The heat is on when the four men arrive and the holes are drilled. They need only to bait their hooks before dropping their minnows 20 feet or so into the clear water.
“There aren’t a lot of retired people who live up here who stay here in the winter,” Dave said. “A lot of them go south. I don’t know why. The last few winters have been so mild.”
On weekdays, most of the thousands of private fish houses on Mille Lacs are unoccupied. But on Friday each week, the throngs arrive, and by sundown the shelters’ yellowed windows stretch from Wahkon to Garrison, Malmo to Wealthwood, suggesting the illuminations either of a big small town, or a small big town.
“Before I moved up here, I had my own fish house on the lake in winter,” Jim said. “Like everyone else, we’d come up for the weekend. You’d get to know people in the other fish houses. You might go to one house in the evening for cocktails, and afterward, another house for a big turkey dinner.”
As might be expected, while cards are dealt, politics is a possible discussion topic. But generally the men steer clear of the heavy stuff, focusing instead on what’s important.
“Which reminds me,” Dave said, “this winter we were supposed to set new rules for our golf games next summer. We haven’t done that yet, either.”
As Dave spoke, Rod stepped away from the table to add a little movement to the minnow swimming on the end of his line, while outside, dusk gathered atop the windblown ice, signaling soon a winding down of the card game.
In the Twin Cities, rush hour would by now be bumper to bumper.
By comparison, Dave, Rod, Frank and Jim would have shorter commutes, and less stressful ones, considering that on their agendas for the rest of February were more cribbage games and more fishing, followed, come summer, by high-stakes golf, played quarter-a-hole.
Before closing the house’s door, the men made sure everything was in order. They likely would be assigned a different shelter the next day, and they wanted to stay in good graces with the landlord and landlady.
Then, soon, the headlights of their trucks bore holes in the early evening dark, following neatly plowed roads to the distant shore.