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Tattered shack or home away from home? The architecture of the frozen lake
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Scott Neubert of St. Cloud, who is a very good sport, holds up the whopper of a perch he happened to catch while a reporter was nearby. (MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)
When cold weather hits, many Minnesotans head for their second homes. Some are warm, southern getaways. But many are sparsely furnished, cheaply made, and about the size of a prison cell.

On Gull Lake, Minn. — Minnesotans take their ice fishing seriously, and the habitat of the ice angler runs the gamut from spartan to posh. The ultimate fish house is, ultimately, in the eye of the beholder. Maybe you treasure mobility. Maybe you need sunlight streaming in to bring some cheer to the silent, frozen isolation out on the lake. Maybe you want two stories and all the amenities it takes to throw a ritzy house-party every night.

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Image Chillin' in a tent

Earlier this winter, when 50-degree days were making ice fishing an extreme sport, the ultimate fish house might have come equipped with paddles and a floatation device. But now that the weather has returned to comfortable sub-zero ranges, we can bundle up and focus on the fishing.

The walls protecting Gary Feldmann and Bill Zetchy flap in the breeze out on Gull Lake north of Brainerd. They're over from Wisconsin, huddling in the most utilitarian of ice dwellings: one heater, one bench, two holes, and two guys under a canvas shack.

"It's cold enough to have one out, that's all I can say," Feldman said.

Zetchy's approach to fish houses is bare-bones: "Heat and windows, that's all you need."

These guys have seen the more expensive houses. Zetchy says he doesn't have that kind of money to burn.

"Plus you're only gonna use it a few months out of the year," he said, "and you don't want to have a $4,000 dollar shed sticking out in your yard. I guess if they're gonna do that, they may as well make it floats so you take the sides off and use it as a boat in summer."

The floating fish house idea again. Aspiring ice shack architects take note.

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Image Walleye Dan, the Walleye Man

Down the lake a ways, in a typical multicolored, makeshift ice village, I get a sample of the high-life with Dan Eigen, better known around here as "Walleye Dan" because, he says, "I guess I know where the walleyes are most of the time."

Walleye Dan is a fishing guide from Lakeshore. He's a tall guy in overalls, striding into his 8 by 16 foot house for a tour. "It's got four bunks, a three burner cooking stove, backup gas lights, it runs on a 12-volt deep cycle battery for the regular lights, and it's got a radio built in, speakers, rattle rails in each corner, lights over each hole for at night." There's also a direct-vent gas furnace, a retractable table, and removable swivel chairs that can be posted at each of four holes.

Despite the bells and whistles, Walleye Dan's house still has a certain rustic, lived-in flair. To get rid of that, we have to head on-shore, to the Brainerd Ace Hardware parking lot, where the Mid-Minnesota Builders Association has called on local carpenters to build the ultimate fish house for a yearly contest.

"These aren't wimpy little houses. These are the Cadillac of fish houses that I've been in before," said MMBA Executive Officer Colleen Fraack as she introduces the best of the best.

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Image "Cadillac of fish houses"

"This one has about 80 manhours in it. The uniqueness of this one I think are the cottage-type windows, the lights, there's a table that's coming right now they're just finishing the staining on it, has the cabinet up above, two different types of paneling and the tongue and groove."

Add aluminum roofs, indoor-outdoor carpeting, and decorative faux-brick accents. There's only one thing these guys forgot.

"Holes," said Fraack. "Holes for the access to the fishing." Indeed, the floors are solid through and through.

You do kind of need the holes if you plan on catching anything. Without a hole, Scott Neubert would be nothing but a cold man standing next to a truck. Back out on Gull Lake, the St. Cloud resident says the best house is no house at all.

"Sitting in a house is like being at home," he said. "So I'd rather be out on the ice and moving around at all times."

When one spot doesn't work, Neubert hops in his truck and moves on. Neubert does own some shacks for when he brings friends along. But he's out here for one purpose, and that's reeling 'em in.

Neubert grunts as a perch snags his hook and attempts a getaway. I ask if he's "got a good one."

"Naw," he says. "They're so small today, that's the problem."

And sadly it's a problem no fish house can fix.

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