Dennis Anderson
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Sitting atop 16 inches of ice the other evening on Lake Minnetonka, Frank Trcka was fooling one bluegill after another. His nephew, Dan Auel, also was reeling in the odd keeper, as was John Tebockhorst, Trcka’s son-in-law.

The trio hadn’t come to Minnesota to visit the Mall of America, see the Timberwolves play or eat in a fancy restaurant in downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul.

Instead, for the third year running, Trcka and Tebockhorst made a five-hour pilgrimage from their homes in southeast Iowa to Minnetonka, where last week, along with Auel, of Mankato, they bunked in a sleeper fish house for three nights — hooking, reeling and smiling, 24/7.

“At home, we’ve got some ice, but we’re not driving on it,” Trcka said. “And I wouldn’t be sleeping on it.”

As Trcka spoke, his ice-fishing rod nearly doubled over, bent by the weight of a hand-size bluegill. The fish had been fooled by a tiny jig baited with a waxworm, and in Trcka’s right hand, the rig had been in constant motion, looking for takers.

The anglers found their ice-supported home-away-from-home by cruising the internet and landing on Set the Hook Fishing Guide Service, a Lake Minnetonka-based operation owned by Todd Stauffer, who lives a half-hour or so from the lake.

Begun a dozen years ago to supplement his summer guiding business, Stauffer’s cold-weather operation features a small subdivision of deluxe houses on Minnetonka, arranged in a tidy group over a pretty good fishing hole 22 feet deep.

“I get a lot of individual groups but also quite a bit of corporate business,” Stauffer said. “I’ve had people on the ice from Singapore, Brussels, pretty much everywhere. For some people, it’s totally foreign to be on a lake in winter, fishing.’’

The fish house that Trcka, Auel and Tebockhorst rented from Stauffer featured three beds, a color TV and, most importantly, heat. Rattle wheels were part of the operation as well, allowing them to fish even while they slept.

Within fish-tossing distance of the three anglers was a bluegill-stuffed bucket that attested to their skill. This was about 6 p.m. Tuesday, and as darkness settled over the 14,000-acre lake, the fish would be filleted and cooked outside in a portable fryer.

“Our first year up here we cooked the fish inside,’’ Tebockhorst said. “Now we just plug the fryer in and set it outside. It works better.’’

Come morning, the three men chow down on frozen breakfast pizzas, Auel said, adding they want “no muss, no fuss’’ cooking while on the ice.

Overnight, the bluegill action usually falls dormant, replaced by an on-again-off-again crappie bite. The odd northern pike would show up as well, its toothy grin broadcast by Auel’s underwater camera to the house’s TV.

“I got one pretty good northern,’’ Tebockhorst said, hoisting a plump pike into view.

Most years, Stauffer’s fish-house rental season runs eight weeks. In December, when a solid 8 inches of ice covers the bays he wants to fish, he pulls his houses onto the lake using an ATV.

As the ice thickens, he drives his pickup onto the frozen water to service his clients’ needs. Sometimes he brings bait. Other times he’s pouring gas into generators that power the many conveniences his houses offer.

“Usually in the morning I’ll get on the ice about 7,’’ Stauffer said. “Depending how many houses are being used, I might not get home until 9 at night.’’

Wednesday evening, in addition to Trcka, Auel and Tebockhorst, Stauffer had a corporate party of 29 people occupying five of his houses.

“Usually when groups like that come out, they’re on the ice for about four hours,’’ Stauffer said.

Leaving nothing to chance — or debate — Trcka, Auel and Tebockhorst keep track of their catches on a legal pad. A single mark beneath a name connotes a fish in hand, with no distinction made for species.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Trcka held a commanding lead in the “most fish’’ category, the subject of a friendly bet.

As a kid, near his hometown of St. Bonifacius not far from Minnetonka, Stauffer fished a lot of area lakes. He also cast and jigged regularly on Lake Oscar, near Alexandria, Minn., site of his family’s cabin.

Those experiences came in handy when, about 15 years ago, the outdoor advertising business he worked for was sold. Switching careers, her leveraged his fishing skills and friendly nature and started a Lake Minnetonka summer guiding business, followed three years later by the winter operation.

“At first in winter, I’d just take people out in my portable,’’ he said. “Then I added one house, then another. Now I’ve got nine.’’

Trcka, Auel and Tebockhorst are happy Stauffer switched careers.

“After we found Todd’s operation on the internet and came up here the first time, we didn’t look anywhere else,’’ Tebockhorst said. “We just kept coming back.’’

Editor’s note: More information is online at setthehookguide.com. An internet search also will yield other Lake Minnetonka winter fishing operations.

Dennis Anderson • danderson @startribune.com