The Annual Ice Shack City

...by Laura Tutlies

Beyond the Balsam Harbour dock on the east side of Lake Winnipeg lies the new home of every displaced fisherman that ever fished the Red River. From Netley Marsh to the Lockport dam the river has been under assault from the ice cutters and Amphibex dredgers since the end of February. It is not the first battle that has been waged on the surface of this frozen water. All winter long there has been a hoo-ha over the new regulations imposed on those who erect a shelter on the ice so they can spend their leisure hours indulging in their favourite winter sport.

Balsam Harbour at the south end of the South Basin of Lake Winnipeg used to be a peaceful little marina. A few commercial fishermen and some recreational boats and/or fishermen were the most the dock would ever see. It all changed in 2011. These days the little dock is a hub of activity and not just because the marina is being dredged and new docks have been built to replace those destroyed by the weather bomb that exploded in the South Basin in October of 2o10. There is another reason.

For many, many years there have been mini villages created by sport fishermen (and their friends) along the Red River. I think there must be some kind of unofficial contest to see just how close to your neighbours hut you can park yours. Vehicles from the US and Saskatchewan and Ontario could be spotted on any given day at any of these winter villages. Their owners travel far on the chance of using their skill to hook a master angler pickerel or northern pike or perhaps a tasty perch. Whatever! Any old fish feels good when he tugs at your line.

There are four locations on the Red that are particularly popular fishing sites. One is near Sugar Island across from the Selkirk Aviation base just north of Selkirk. Another cluster of huts can be spotted close to the 'Bridge to Nowhere' a.k.a. #4 highway. There must be good fishing there! You can always find a tiny little fishing paradise at the tip of Breezy Point informally dubbed the 'End of Main'. The fourth place is found just south of the Hydro generating plant in East Selkirk at the foot of CIL road.

For a while last year it looked like no shelters were going to be allowed on the Red River. A yearly challenge for environmentalists and for residents along the water has been the mess left behind when a few irresponsible hut inhabitants chose to abandon their entire winter of refuse to the inevitable rush of the river current in Spring. Left behind are plastic containers for salted minnows or sour cream; drink cans and beer bottles; chip bags and tin foil, along with Styrofoam cups - to name but a few of the non biodegradable products that wash up on the shore. Even worse some fisherpersons chose to sacrifice their humble vacation adobe after deciding it was just too much trouble to haul away. The wood and metal and other components of the shacks were subsequently pushed into the River bed or scattered along its shores or out to Lake Winnipeg. It was a mess every year.

In the end the powers-that-be decided to allow fishing on the Red but there was and emphasis put on the regulations. "All ice fishing shelters must clearly display the owner's name and address". As well, the Anglers Guide states that on the Red River "shelters must be removed from the ice no later than March 13th or when requested to do so by the Natural Resource Officer." (Like when the ice excavators get permission to chop up the River in February.) The regulations were intended to prevent the nonsense and the blatant attack on the environment. Identify your shelter or be fined and risk having it confiscated. Most sportspersons complied with the rules. Some didn't and landed on the six o'clock news. However, all winter long the four villages were greatly reduced in size although companies that sell portable huts had a profitable year when many fishermen gave up on their wood or metal shelter for one that could be quickly and easily moved. They also chose to give up fishing on the Red River.

So what became of those homely winter villages? Well, the inhabitants moved north - a good half hour north of Selkirk - to the South Basin of Lake Winnipeg. The once secluded, perhaps exclusive venue at Balsam Harbour is or has been until March 31st a hub of activity. In addition to some dredging at the marina the area has now become the 'little New York" of ice fishing enthusiasts. In years past you could find maybe a dozen permanent shacks in a 2 kilometre radius of the marina whereas since January 2011 there are often between 75 and 100 huts dotted like ants on white sand in the vicinity of Balsam Harbour.

Weather has had little bearing on the number of shelters. Snow or wind or nasty cold didn't stop the sport fishermen. Trucks, quads, snowmobiles and some rigs worth many thousand dollars could be seen either parked on the makeshift lot next to the dock or lined up along the cottage road or out on the lake. Those newly purchased portable huts cover the ice the way mushrooms cover the forest floor after a rain. Where have all the ice shacks gone? They are all at the new metropolis on Balsam Harbour. I hope their owners practice 'catch & release' or the commercial fisherman who make their living at this location won't have any fish to catch!

 

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