From left: In Minnesota, where the lakes are full of pike, trout, walleye, and bass, fishing is a year-round sport; a northern pike ice-fishing catch.
Ashley Camper

In Minnesota lake territory, ice fishing can be many things: a convivial tradition, a centuries-old sport, and, if you’re lucky, the beginning of a beautiful meal.

Peter Kaminsky
November 28, 2018

I have fished with the Tsimané in the Amazon with a bow and arrow. I have cast my line just 700 miles from Antarctica in the teeth of Force 5 gales. I have accidentally bounced a fly off an ancient statue at Udaipur’s Lake Palace. But ice fishing? Sitting around on a frozen lake always seemed like nothing more than an excuse to drink beer while staring at a hole. It had never really appealed to my angling instincts.

Until now. On a recent trip to Minnesota, I explored the frozen waterways around Lake Minnetonka, just west of the Twin Cities — where I discovered there is actually an active, exciting side to ice fishing, one that involves not rods and reels but spears. Ice spearfishing is a tradition first practiced in the Midwest by the indigenous Ojibwa, who have fished here for millennia. Tenting themselves under thick blankets, they would hack a large hole in the ice and lie in wait for northern pike, trout, walleye, or bass. Today, you can still see anglers spearfishing on many of Minnesota’s more than 10,000 frozen lakes, sheltered from the cold in the shantytowns of ice huts that have replaced the traditional Ojibwa mats.

There was another draw in the area, I must admit. Gavin Kaysen, a local chef whose food I had eaten in New York, recently opened Bellecour, a French bistro and bakery in the town of Wayzata — once a bucolic Lake Minnetonka getaway for well-heeled Minneapolitans, now a fashionable suburb of the Twin Cities. Here, he enjoys a well-deserved reputation for reverent updates of French seafood classics, from hearty bouillabaisse to a refined Minnesota trout Véronique with champagne beurre blanc.

“You catch them and I’ll cook them,” Kaysen told me. “After I take my kids ice-skating.” Typical. Here, locals don’t see winter as an excuse to hibernate and get all hygge by the fireplace. Whether they are ice-skating or ice boating, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, Minnesotans consider getting outdoors when the temperature nosedives to be a civic virtue.

The next morning, I rendezvoused with Luke Swanson, a boundlessly enthusiastic fishing guide from the local outfitter Livin’ the Dream, at a smaller lake not far from Lake Minnetonka (one that I’ve promised him I will not name). We drove across the icebound surface to one of the shacks that he rents out to fishers each winter: a low-ceilinged hut that looks like a toolshed has lost its way and wandered onto the ice. Inside, a foldout bench, some fishing tackle, a set of spears (each reminiscent of a weaponized hay rake), and — bless Luke’s soul! — a space heater.

And then the magical part: Swanson had sawed a rectangle in the middle of the ice floor. It was like a picture window opening onto a dream-haunted realm. The shack was kept dark so that meandering fish could not see us, but the underwater scene was illuminated by the even, white light of the sun shining on the lake through two feet of ice. Scattered clamshells and tree branches were clearly visible along the pale lake bottom, through 10 feet of gin-clear water.

Swanson took a live sucker, a bottom-feeding baitfish, and secured it with a metal clip tethered to an eight-foot line. He hoped that it would catch the attention of a pike: a fearsome-looking predator with a face straight out of a Jurassic nightmare. As a further come-on, he dipped in a second line holding a fish-shaped decoy with bright red fins.

And there we sat, swimming the wooden decoy in lazy circles and occasionally pulling the live bait back into the center of the window. Nothing moved below us save our offerings. I was growing sleepy...very sleepy.

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Then, a yell from Swanson. “There’s a big one coming!” I awoke to the sight of a huge pike fastened onto our sucker. In one motion, Swanson picked up his spear and pierced the fish. He lifted it from the water — an impressive 38-incher. “I’ll keep this guy for myself,” he said. “Great fish, but the smaller ones make better eating.” We didn’t catch anything else that day, but an angler in a neighboring hut generously obliged us with a smaller pike that we took, hungrily, to Kaysen’s home.

The first thing anyone will tell you about pike: they are extremely bony. It’s a drag to tweeze out each slender splinter. But Kaysen has the knife skills of a master, perfected during his years working under Daniel Boulud. He deftly skinned the fillets and called for his young sons. “Feel how fresh this is,” he said. “The muscle still moves when you touch it.” And, yes, when I pressed on the fillet I could feel the slightest tremor in the flesh.

Kaysen cooked the pike simply, with only melted butter, lemon, garlic, and a bay leaf. After just a few minutes, it was ready, garnished with deep green chervil alongside a winter salad of shaved fennel, wafer-thin slices of celery, and radishes dressed with garlic-laced yogurt and dill.

We gathered around the counter, forks at the ready. In the afternoon light of the bright, uncluttered kitchen, I was struck by the green of the herbs, the white flesh of the pike. Outside, the snow-covered backyard and the fir trees that ringed it were in harmony with our kitchen tableau. The warm, buttery fish, snatched from winter’s grip on a frozen lake, was a plateful of proof that the outdoor lifestyle in icy Minnesota has its own delicious rewards.

Minnesota Trip Planner:

Rent a car for the 30-minute drive to Wayzata from the Minneapolis−St. Paul airport; it will be useful for lake-hopping.

One of the town’s more recent lakeside attractions is the 92-room Hotel Landing (doubles from $199), its first new hotel in 50 years. Comfy Scandinavian-inflected suites make it a perfect home base after a day outdoors.

At Bellecour (entrées $25–$33), chef Gavin Kaysen’s menu rotates through hall-of-fame French seafood dishes like moules frites and a classic fruits de mer.

There is no shortage of ice-fishing guide services, but I opted for the expertise of Luke Swanson at Livin’ the Dream (from $85, including equipment rental).

You’ll need a valid Minnesota fishing license (from $14) as well as one for “dark house spearing” ($17) if you want to try your hand at spearfishing.   

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