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Community fish house’s popularity remains high

From left, Mark Harmon, Nate Campbell, Dave East and Harmin Hawkins stand inside the community fish house that is open to any and all members of the community who sign up at Smokey Hills Outdoor Store. (Nick Longworth / Enterprise)

By Nick Longworth

Imagine the beauty of the northern outdoors, the thrill of ice fishing in a frigid Minnesota winter and the relaxation of playing cards around a table.

If you picture it correctly, your mind may draw up images of exactly what the Darkhouse Association Anglers Club - Park Rapids chapter - has already been offering for nearly half a decade now.

On nearby Fish Hook Lake, the Darkhouse Association offers a fully-functioning and completely equipped, ready-for-use, ice house for anyone and everyone in the community.

All you have to do is sign up for a time slot.

“People can sign up for half-day sessions at a time, with time slots from 8-12 and again from 1-5,” said Harmin Hawkins, the fish house manager this winter. He has also been a member of the Darkhouse association since its Park Rapids chapter opened.

“All the equipment you’ll need will be out there when you arrive: fishing rods, propane heating, chairs; you won’t have to bring anything. It’s basically ‘turn-key’ with the exception of maybe having to buy some bait. Although 80 percent of the time there is probably bait in there already from the previous group,” said Mark Harmon, financial manager for Smokey Hills Outdoor Store which houses the sign-up sheet for the ice house.

“Harmin is out every morning opening the fish house and making sure the holes are open and the heat is running. Every night he also has to run out there to close down too. He makes sure it’s always locked up and that there is a road plowed to get to it,” said David East, President of the Darkhouse Angling Club Park Rapids chapter.

“When people come in to the Smokey Hills Outdoor Store there is a waiver to sign and the guys will go over all of the rules with them. The only restrictions are no alcohol, no smoking, and we ask that you maintain the house well. After instructions, people will receive the key to get into the house. It’s not hard, physical labor, but there are a lot of little man-hours that do add up constantly,” East said.

The Darkhouse Association Angling Club began as a haven for like-minded spearing enthusiasts to gather and converse, but since its 1986 inception it has grown in popularity and breadth.

“It started as a spear fishing club, but over the years expanded into angling and anything that has to do with fishing basically. There are about 70 members in Park Rapids and there is no official headquarters, but we meet the fourth Monday of every month at the American Legion,” David East said.

“New members are always welcome and needed. You can stop in anytime to register to be a member by paying the fee of $15 for an adult or $5 for a child,” East said.

The Darkhouse Association itself is a non-profit organization, relying solely on community donations in order to financially support itself, the ice house, its heat and equipment.

“Donations are always greatly appreciated because we are funded solely through the community’s goodwill. Every fall, the third Saturday in November usually, we have a decoy carving show with free admission. The kids can play with decoys; we have a great big tank of them. It’s held at the American Legion. We give away prizes with raffle tickets and also serve good food as well. It ends up being our only serious fundraiser of the year,” East said.

Outside of the annual winter ice house, the association also likes to remain active in other charitable events and donations.

“Outside of the fish house we also do a lot of donations including to food shelves, kids fishing programs. We gave away a $500 scholarship to a Nevis student last year, and other things. We make a lot of donations and also occupy the DNR building on the fairgrounds during the year. Anything that has to do with fishing, or the local community, we typically have some kind of hand in. It seems like we’re always donating something somewhere,” East said.

“We do a lot of odds and ends events. Last week there was a seminar to teach young kids how to fish. About five years ago was when we had the idea to buy a fish house. We wanted to put it on the lake and make it open to the community through a freewill offering. We talked about it for two years or so before we were finally able to do it. We had some real serious fundraisers in the beginning to raise enough for the $15,000 fish house, plus the commitment, plus the liability insurance,” East said.

The demand for the community fish house each year remains continually high. In fact, the house is so highly booked that a second fish house could even be considered.

Although practical because of community demand, the idea would likely be deemed unfeasible though through limited funding.

“Donations are down this year for some reason. We do just the one fundraiser each fall which came up just a little shorter than ordinary this year,” East said.

“The liability insurance has gone up and we heat the house through a propane furnace and that cost went sky high this winter,” Hawkins said.

Cost aside, it is unanimously agreed that the major benefit to the community comes to those who are not typically able to facilitate their own fishing excursions.

“The fish house is ADA accessible with a wheelchair ramp. The Disabled American Citizens group (DAC) was out there today using it too. We’ve started to offer an early sign-up that we coordinate for organizations like Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, Kinship, hockey groups, school districts and other groups. Walk into Smokey Hills Outdoors and we will have a calendar in the fishing department for you to sign-up for a time slot,” Harmon said.

“How does a gentleman in a wheelchair get to go ice fishing? Here he can actually drive right up to the house in his pickup. We designed the house so a wheelchair can fit in every square inch,” East said.

“All the people that are never able to go on a lake now get to go fishing. The other day a mom was out there with four small children, none of them teenagers yet. A mom with four kids out fishing; the smiles on their faces were priceless,” East said.

“There are absolutely no age requirements. How often does a young family like that get a chance to go out, walk into a fish house that is ready and warm, do their thing and go home? Anyone from six-months-old to 90-years-old can be out there,” Hawkins said.

“A member of our club had a grandmother who had fished all of her life in a fish house. One of her favorite hobbies was winter fishing, but it got to the point where she could not handle a fish house by herself. We had a lot of older people who had fished all their life, but now can’t handle a fish house on their own. That’s how it all started. People came to us and asked, “Can you help us out?” From the day it opens up, until the time we take it off the lake it stays busy and filled up,” Hawkins said.

“Down the center beam in the center of the house there are trophy plaques of all the people who have donated to the organization. There is also a guestbook that people can fill out and leave their names; those can be kind of funny too, with people claiming to have caught 250 fish, which you know can’t be true. It’s so nice out there you’ll think its cheating,” Harmon said.

“We get some people from out of state who have never been ice fishing before and it’s their first time out there. For Smokey Hills, it’s anything we can do to get the public involved in sporting. We’re big sponsors of multiple programs and anything outdoors; anything that gets people fishing, hunting and loving the outdoors. The beautiful outdoors is what Northern Minnesota is all about,” Campbell said.

Freewill donations to the Darkhouse Association Anglers Club are accepted anytime at the Smokey Hills Outdoor Store.

To sign up for a time slot at the community fish house you will need to stop into Smokey Hills Outdoor Store. Phone call reservations are not accepted.

Nick Longworth
A graduate from St. Cloud State University, Nick photographs and writes a variety of stories for nearly every section of The Park Rapids Enterprise. His duties also include section layouts and online content submission.
(218) 732-3364