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.
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.''
Other houses are more ostentatious. The biggest ones (10 by 24 feet) have eight fishing holes in the floor and amenities such as chemical toilets, refrigerators, wood paneling, and triple-glazed windows with shutters.
A few have hot and cold running water systems adapted from trailers and run with battery-powered pumps. One man owns what he calls a ''condominium fish house'' - one with a loft.
''In the last 10 years, the creature comforts have gone berserk,'' says Bob Weston of Garrison Sports, a bait-and-tackle shop here. ''It's not uncommon to have $6,000 (invested) in a fish house.''
There are also some camper trailers on the lake, which, like the houses, have holes in the floor. A few others notch holes in the bottom of their cars and angle for walleye from the front seat - with the radio running.
More humble but still popular are portable fish houses, tentlike huts that fold up small enough to pop in a trunk. What these and other small houses lack in comfort they make up for in mobility - no small consideration on Mille Lacs. Those not familiar with the best ''fishing holes'' can use a portable house to sidle up to someone having more success. Because walleye swim in loose schools, serious fishermen move from reef to reef over the winter to improve their position. The big houses are pulled about on runners, but small ones can be packed in a pickup.
''Twenty feet can make all the difference,'' says Wayne Blaske, who has a house near his brother Larry. Wayne knows something about mobility. He recently caught a 10-pound walleye - big enough that a local resort took a picture of it. People read his name in print and found his location. Soon houses sprouted all around.
''It was like a wagon train around here,'' says Mark Lutgen, Wayne's fishing buddy.
The two of them moved their house a couple miles away to ''decoy'' others. Many followed; now they are back to their original reef.
Since much of the angling is done at night, when fish often feed, the ice-fishers have devised ways to ensure that they don't sleep through a fish ''strike.'' Chris Tucker works at Tutt's Bait & Tackle shop in Garrison, one of the supply-depot towns on the lake. Strutting past a hissing tank of minnows, he picks up a ''rattle reel'' - one with bells that jingle when a fish tugs on the line. Other reels beep, buzz, or light up when the bobber bobs.
You don't walk to your fish house on Mille Lacs; some are 10 miles out. Instead, you drive. Which means roads have to be plowed. The lake has its own unofficial public-utility system to deal with the snow. Resorts in the area clear highways out onto the gelid lake, where side streets branch off to cul-de-sacs of houses. Resort owners charge fees for anyone using the throughways. Some streets even bear names (Walleye Way, Perch Pass). In the past , fishermen have gotten together and elected mayors of local ice-house ''neighborhoods.''
That makes it sound a bit more stable than it really is, however. During sharp temperature changes, the ice may expand or contract several feet in one day. Result: either wide fissures opening up (sometimes leaving three feet of open water) or huge pressure ridges develop, producing slabs of ice that buckle and pile and create Berlin Walls of frozen debris.
Few people get hurt in the havoc, but it does create annoyances. Resort owners often have to build wooden bridges over the ridges so people can still drive to their houses. Danny Vickerman, a local fisherman, used to park his snowmobile over the two-foot cracks that opened in the ice and drop a line down. No need to auger his own hole. But one day a seam slammed shut before he could even pull his bobber up. ''That really scared me,'' he says. ''It could have opened instead of closed. I'd have been gone.''
At night these shifting ice crusts - Mille Lacs' version of plate tectonics - often create thunderous groans. Bob Weston of Garrison Sports remembers when his neighbors moved to the area. On their first night they called and wanted to know ''what's going on out there?''