ON LAKE MINNETONKA — Last week, Matt Peters was making a living at 20 degrees below zero, moving fish houses on this expansive west metro lake, drilling holes and looking for sunnies, crappies and walleyes.

Cold, yes, but still a good day, Matt said as he swung the door open to one of his fish houses occupied by friends Chris Mizuhata of Minnetrista and Chuck Schmitz of Waconia.

"What have you caught?" Matt asked, peering into a bucket that held an oversized crappie.

"That's the one we've kept so far," Mizuhata said. "The others have been pretty small."

Strange world, Lake Minnetonka in winter.

Home to flotillas of fish houses -- some sitting amid vast expanses of empty ice and others huddled together in tight knots --Minnetonka is at once a lake treasured by winter anglers familiar with it and ignored by those who aren't.

Matt, 29, is among the former.

"I spent 20 nights sleeping on the ice in December," he said. "Two nights were in one of my fish houses on Lake Waconia. The other 18 were on Minnetonka."

Growing up on Lake Waconia, Matt took his first guiding job when he was 15. "I guided for bait, not money," he said. Today, he's still guiding (www.fishwithmatt.com).

In May and early June he and his clients hunt for walleyes, then move to bass in later June and July until muskie action heats up in August and September.

None of which involves fishing in 20-degrees-below-zero temperatures.

"I got into winter guiding and the fish-house-rental business beginning in 2000," he said. "At the time, Upper Red Lake was going strong for crappies, and I fished a lot with clients up there. About the same time I started to do a lot of corporate trips in winter on Waconia and Minnetonka."

During some recent winters, when lake ice was weak in and around the Twin Cities, Matt headed north, fishing as far away as Lake of the Woods on some trips and Mille Lacs on others.

Wednesday evening, he was on the familiar frozen waters of Minnetonka, and after checking on Mizuhata and Schmitz, he bounced atop the ice in his pickup toward a bigger, 20-foot-long house 400 yards distant.

There, buddies Gunnar Miesen of St. Paul, Rodney McCormick of Excelsior and Tim Dingwall of Waconia were holed up in an ice-fishing home-away-from-home.

Accoutrements of their "shack" included electric lights, fine cabinetry, comfortable beds, cooking facilities and a flat-screen TV.

But unlike Mizuhata and Schmitz, who were fishing for crappies in 24 feet of water, Miesen, McCormick and Dingwall were fishing deeper, about 30 feet down, looking for walleyes.

"Nothing yet," Miesen said.

Minnetonka walleye fishing this winter has been either fair or good, depending on whether anglers are looking for numbers of fish -- or size, said Matt.

"We've caught six walleyes over 28 inches, and two of them were over 31 inches," he said. "But the bite has been a bit unpredictable. I haven't been able to pattern them very well, which makes it more work."

Northland Buckshot spoons are a favorite of Matt's for panfish, rigged with minnow heads. Those baits are jigged. He favors rattle wheels for walleyes, using small jigs baited with fathead minnows.

"We'd rather have shiners, but we can't get them anywhere," he said.

Matt will jig for walleyes in early evening, say between 5 and 7 p.m. After that, rattle wheels seem to produce better, he said, because they allow finicky walleyes to inhale the bait and run with it.

"We'll wait up to two minutes before we set a hook," he said.

Moving houses for a fee

Not all of Matt's winter clients rent fish houses from him. Some have mini-ice palaces of their own but don't have time to move them to find fish. And many who do have time don't know where best to locate their houses.

"I'm constantly in touch with what's going on with the lake, so I'll move houses for my customers, drill the holes and have them ready when they're ready to fish," he said.

All of which is quite far afield from the initial fishing interests of the kid who grew up on Lake Waconia. Bass fishing was his first love, then competitive bass fishing, many times on Minnetonka but sometimes as far away as Rainy Lake.

"I don't fish as many tournaments in summer now as I once did," he said, "I'm guiding too much to do that. But this summer I'll probably still fish six tournaments or so."

Matt's business plan calls for adding to his corporate fishing clientele. Even in a struggling economy, he said, Twin Cities companies ask him to entertain out-of-town guests and customers.

"In summer a lot of these people are taken golfing, but what's there to do with them in winter?" he said. "People who aren't from here get a kick out of driving onto a lake and fishing through the ice. I think there is a lot more of this business available, if I look for it."

But all of that for another day.

By 8 p.m. Wednesday, Matt was settled in on Lake Minnetonka. The TV picture in his fish house was as sharp as any in a showroom. The heat was on. And a few pizzas were ready to slide into the oven.

A beer might even be opened between walleye bites.

"Minnetonka isn't Lake of the Woods when it comes to walleye fishing, but it's still in my top three walleye lakes in the state, especially in winter," Matt said. "It's close to home, and it has a lot of big fish."

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com