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'A Prairie Home Companion': Tourists discover Keillor, ice fishing

Tom Van Winkle, left, of Honolulu, Hawaii, shows off a catch with guide Tony Mariotti Saturday on Lake Bemidji. Van Winkle and his wife, Pat, were among 75 people who went ice fishing as part of a travel package centered around the "Prairie Home Companion" show. Pioneer Photo/Laurie Swenson

Saturday was a perfect day for "A Prairie Home Companion" to do its radio show in Bemidji, especially for the 75 fans who chose to travel here, not only for the show, but also to experience ice fishing.

With temperatures in the high 30s, the tourists, many from warm climates, wore light jackets, even sweaters, just days after Bemidji had below-zero temperatures.

"We have people from Hawaii, St. Louis, Arkansas, San Diego, Oklahoma," said Matthew Breuer of Northcountry Guide Service. "They're from everywhere. I've only touched hands with two people from Minnesota."

Northcountry Guide Service organized the ice fishing part of the "Prairie Home Companion" trip, which was sponsored by Vanguard Travel Unlimited. The guide service, which has three rental fish houses, also used five from Big Boy Fish Rentals and another five clamshell portable houses for a total of 13 structures.

"I don't think people knew what to expect," Breuer said, adding that one woman said it was extremely cold.

"For us, this is jeans and T-shirt weather," he joked.

Some people chose to fish outside.

"We hadn't planned on it, but it's such a nice day and they're asking to do it," said guide Trent Eineichner.

One of those hardy anglers was Yana Pennisi, who has lived in San Francisco, Calif., for 10 years, but grew up in Bulgaria.

"It's a great experience to see how they drill the holes," she said. "I like to do the real, original thing."

Pennisi had not experienced winter in 10 years.

"I love it," she said. "The air is really fresh."

She said she was grateful to be in Bemidji experiencing something that people have done for many years.

"It makes you appreciate the simple things in life," she said.

Pennisi also had her first taste of s'mores Friday night at a bonfire with Garrison Keillor and the rest of the travelers at the waterfront.

"It was delicious," she said, adding that the bonfire was very nice. "I like that togetherness among people."

Her husband, Martino, has lived all over the world.

"I lived in Asia for 15 years," he said. "I had an office in Bulgaria in the import-export business."

He joked that he was "cured" of winter when he spent two winters working in Alaska, but made the trip to Bemidji for his wife.

Several other travelers were originally from outside the United States, including Evan Strandbygaard of Maine, who came from Denmark.

"I've lived in Maine for 10 years and I've never gone ice fishing," said Strandbygaard, who was traveling with his wife, Joan. "It is an education."

Strandbygaard came to the United States through Boeing, which hired him out of college. He had distant family in the United States.

"'Prairie Home Companion,' we enjoy that every Saturday," he said, adding that they booked the trip on the spur of the moment when they heard there were just a few spots left.

"We like (Keillor). He's one of our favorites. We are part of his groupies, so to speak."

Singing around the bonfire with Keillor and travelers of like minds was a great experience, Strandbygaard said.

Stephan Dilchert, originally from Germany, came to Minnesota 10 years ago to attend the University of Minnesota.

"I came to Minnesota not knowing how cold it was," he said, explaining that he chose the U of M based on ranking. "I arrived without a jacket."

Dilchert received his doctorate in industrial psychology from the U of M and has lived in New York for four years.

Alison Chang, who is originally from Taiwan, traveled from Houston, Texas, but is no stranger to Minnesota. She previously lived in Woodbury and is co-owner and manager of a hotel in Eagan.

"I think we are lucky," she said. "This is beautiful, very nice. I always wanted to come to Bemidji. I think Bemidji may represent the heart of American midstream Midwest."

Chang wanted to practice tai chi sword exercise, which she said dates back 1,000 years, and found a way to do it "Bemidji style" with a minnow scoop, which likely had never been used for something so graceful.

Most travelers came from some distance, particularly Tom and Pat Van Winkle of Honolulu, Hawaii.

"We were prepared (for frigid weather) with full Darth Vader masks," Pat said, "but we didn't need it."

Everyone in their fish house had caught a fish by 11 a.m., an hour after the four-hour outing began. The Van Winkles were fishing with Bill and Eldonna Ruddock of Okemos, Mich.

"We live on a lake but we've never gone ice fishing," Bill said.

Eldonna was the first in the group to catch a fish. "I caught a small perch," she said.

The ice fishing was done on a catch-and-release basis, but some fish did not survive the trip up from the depths, and those were to be eaten, even the very small ones.

"I've got buddies that can fillet a shadow," said guide Tony Mariotti.

"Tony is probably the greatest fishing guide on earth," Tom said.

"We really appreciate the hospitality of Bemidji," Eldonna added.

Pat said she has been in cold before, but never on ice. "It's a totally new experience - it's really fun."

The Van Winkles have lived in Hawaii for 45 years, moving there from the West Coast.

"We listen every week to Garrison Keillor," Pat said. "We got an e-mail about this. We thought it would be something really fun to do."

"My dad used to listen to the show back in the '70s when it was just starting," Tom said.

Tennyson Silkes, 17, of Sarasota, Fla., asked to have her picture taken with a 2-pound walleye caught by Fred Fuller of Des Moines, Iowa, an experienced ice fisherman.

Silkes said she has been to New York but had never walked on a lake before. She was walking around in unmatched boots because she had tripped and stepped into one of the ice fishing holes.

"It was shocking," she said, but added that the ice fishing experience is "is pretty neat" and called ice fishing a "once-in-a-lifetime chance."

Maybe for a Floridian.

Silkes said that back home, "I love fishing. I fish all the time."

"It's a perfect day," said Danielle Hilliard of VisitBemidji, who helped arrange the weekend activities for the group. "We've been working on it since Dec. 20. We just kind of threw out some ideas."

A spur-of-the-moment plan was for her husband, Randy, to land his Piper Pacer four-seater plane on the ice. Randy Hilliard had tried to fly to Lake of the Woods, but the visibility was not good enough to land there, so he turned around and stopped on Lake Bemidji to give the travelers a look at a plane landing on a frozen lake.

Ice fishing was Keillor's idea, Danielle Hilliard said.

David O'Neill, marketing director for "A Prairie Home Companion," said people often ask if the ice fishing stories Keillor tells on the show are really true.

The travel package sold out within a week, he said.

The group will have breakfast and enjoy some morning activities at Buena Vista Ski Area today and then head back to Minneapolis. Keillor will ride back with the travelers, who are in two buses. He will ride halfway on one bus and then switch to the other.