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Hook a walleye through the living room floor!

By Scott ArmstrongStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 21, 1984



Garrison, Minn.

LARRY Blaske spends most of his free time in the winter pulling walleye into his living room. Mr. Blaske is an avid fisherman, and his ''living room'' is a small fish house two miles out on a frozen lake here.

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Yes, living room.

His 6-by-10-foot house on Mille Lacs Lake has wall-to-wall carpeting, a two-burner gas stove, bunk beds, a television, a heater able to create saunalike conditions, and several holes in the floor to fish through.

All the comforts of home, in other words - which is what it is for Blaske and his family on most weekends from December through February.

''The kids like to watch TV when the fish aren't biting,'' says Blaske, slumped on his bunk with a wisp of fish line dangling down a hole nearby. ''This sure beats fishing outside.''

Others in this part of the country think so, too. In fact, Mille Lacs Lake, a huge frozen thumbprint in the center of Minnesota, is the site for one of the most unusual winter phenomena in the United States.

Each year, from mid-December through the end of February, a small city springs up on the wind-swept, 18-by-22-mile lake.

Ice fishing, of course, is common throughout much of the Northern US. But perhaps nowhere is it practiced as it is on Mille Lacs (locally pronounced mul-LACKS). Here, it's not so much sport fishing as it is winter living and winter culture - a whole village on ice.

This year 3,800 houses are on the lake, huddled in ''communities'' of 100 or so houses strung out over the rocky reefs and mud flats where the walleye congregate. Friends rent fish houses near each other. They barbecue steaks. They hold potluck dinners. Volleyball and softball games break out. Horseshoes are pitched.

Indoors, in between watching bobbers, there's poker and cribbage. One group that rented houses on the lake this past New Year's brought old home movies. It ended up, popcorn on the stove, showing them to 40 other people fishing the same reef.

Three years ago a man stayed in his fish house 47 straight days. He called in on a CB radio when he needed food, or minnows for bait. No ''Guinness Book of World Records'' in mind here: He just wanted to fish and relax.

There's good reason for the annual ritual. Mille Lacs is the self-proclaimed ''walleye capital of the world.'' Spawning reefs and feeder streams around the lake make it a natural fish factory. Each year, 11 billion eggs are deposited on the lake bottom. Fishermen annually pull out 250 tons of walleye (a tasty member of the perch family), not to mention some crappie and northern pike.

The lake is also popular because of its location, less than 100 miles from Minneapolis and St. Paul. Many winter fishermen come up from the Twin Cities, though others journey from Iowa, Wisconsin, and beyond. They usually inhabit fish houses for a day or weekend, but a few vacation on the ice.

Ice fishing is typically a roughing-it activity. The chief tools are an auger or chisel to cut a hole in the ice, a short pole to fish with, bait (minnows are popular), and immunity to long periods of cold. Many of the 10 million people who ice fish each year in the US do so alfresco - out in the open, bundled in goose down. But here the more popular way is from a fish house.

Most houses are made of simple plywood or Masonite and are heated with a wood stove or gas burner - enough warmth to allow fishermen to angle in T-shirts, but not enough to bother the three feet of ice below. Rustic, yes. But on Mille Lacs the comforts often go beyond that.

Take Mr. Blaske and his family. They have been journeying up from Sauk Rapids , about an hour away, most winter weekends for the past 10 years. He has jerry-rigged a car battery to keep the television and overhead lights glowing in the hut. From his bunk, he can reach over in a leisurely way and pull up a fish when his bobber disappears.

''You get spoiled fishing like this,'' says Blaske, who runs a construction firm. ''It's something to do in the winter. The wife and kids like to come. We often bring friends along.''