The Perfect Ice Shanty – A story by Sharon Kennedy

What does a little girl do when she wants to go fishing and the male fishermen in her family do not invite her because she’s a girl? The answer is simple. She grows up, meets a fine fellow who fishes with his family, and tells him of her wish. He immediately sees the potential for a partnership. He knows he has a winner in a gal who is willing to bait a hook and patiently wait for a bite. Eventually the couple marries. In the sunshine of summer or the icy cold of winter, Liz and Mark Merchberger of Cedarville pick up their fishing poles or spears and head for Lake Huron.

Under the guiding hand of her husband, Liz has become an accomplished fisherwoman. In 2015, she placed first in spearing a 34” 10 pound pike in the Steve Tassier Memorial ice fishing contest in Cedarville. Although she enjoys fishing on their boat, a 26’ Seaswirl Striper 2601 called the “Reelwild,” her first love is ice fishing. She spears pike and uses chub or artificial decoys that she jigs under the ice. A Ken’s Hook and minnows are bait for perch. Plenty of fishers do the same, but not very many can claim their shanty began life as a plastic liquid fertilizer tank made for use on a farm.

I guess Liz will have to explain how something as alien as a fertilizer container came to live out its final days as a fish shack. “A family friend, the late Erik Graham, had the brilliant idea of turning these tanks into ice shanties,” Liz said. “Ours is the only one on Lake Huron, but a few can be seen on Munoscong Bay.

“After a thorough cleaning, the tanks are transformed into a perfect shanty. The one we own measures six-by-six. When the ice is thick enough, Mark hooks the cylinder behind his snowmobile. We don’t live far from the lake and the tank is on skis so it’s a fairly easy haul. Once in place, Mark cuts a good sized hole through the ice. A propane heater warms the interior. The tank has been sanitized so there’s no concern about a fertilizer aroma arising when the heat hits it.

“As you can imagine, we get lots of comments and questions on our choice of shanty. When my husband brought the thing home, I didn’t know what it was. I asked him if it was a space ship from another planet. Mark painted the tank black and drew a picture of an alien head on it which completed the look. I was somewhat skeptical at first, but I’m glad I went along with it. It’s a great conversation piece and draws plenty of attention. By now the locals are used to it but if new fishermen are on the ice, they’ll come over and ask what it is. It isn’t unusual for us to be surrounded by other shacks as much for the fishing as for the opportunity to take photos.”

When winter settles in, Liz and Mark are anxious to head for the ice. Their boat is put away for the season and lake trout, salmon, and steelheads are temporarily forgotten. Deer season is over. Liz is an ace shot and has bagged at least six deer, the largest being a six point shot with a .308 Ruger bolt action rifle with a 2-7 Redfield scope. She downed that one on the property owned by friend, Butch Haske.

Although hunting is a close second, it’s easy to see why fishing is Liz’s favorite sport. Over the years, she’s won several fishing tournaments. The salmon and lake trout tournaments she enters are a team effort. She and Mark are competitors at the annual Hessel Slamming Salmon, the Cheboygan Salmon tournament, and the Grand Marais Offshore Challenge. They’re joined by their daughter Kayla, Mark’s brother Bob Merchberger, nephew Eric Merchberger, and good friend Jim Stolt.

One of the things Liz enjoys about ice fishing is the opportunity to watch the fish as they come into the hole. It’s a different experience from casting a line and waiting for something to bite. The shanty is darkened out and Liz relies on natural light. “The fish come in slowly to check out the bait,” she said. “Other times they come in fast with a quick grab at the bait or decoy. Sometimes I miss one and sometimes they’re too small to spear. I use a seven tine spear. One was purchased at a sporting goods store and one was handmade by John Wilkie of Raber. The spear is tied off in the shack and that’s a good thing because at different times I’ve dropped my phone and a fishing pole through the ice.

“When I spear a pike, I throw it on the ice, but perch go in a bucket to keep them alive until we fillet them. We clean the fish when we get home. We have a heated garage so it’s a good place to gut and debone them. There’s nothing better than fresh fried fish, although we occasionally grill or bake the pike.”

Liz credits her husband for his time and patience in teaching her to fish and hunt. The summer of 2017 they traveled to Alaska and had one of the most exciting fishing trips ever. “We stayed at Sitka Point Lodge,” she said. “The owner and outfitter, Mike Bowles, has a fantastic group of people who work there. Captain Mike Romine put us on fish four days in a row. We toured other parts of Alaska before returning home, but our most memorable is the time we spent at the Sitka Lodge. 

“We brought home a combined total of 240 pounds of salmon, halibut, ling cod, and yelloweye rock fish. When we were ready to depart, we called Bowles and he shipped the fish Alaska Air to Detroit. Mark loaded a freezer and generator in our pickup truck and drove to Detroit to get our catch. Each fish was as fresh as the day we caught it. Halibut is one of my favorites, but they’re all good.”

Liz is a city girl and her family and downstate employer thought she wouldn’t last long in the Upper Peninsula. “They thought I would be moving back to the Detroit area,” she said. “They figured a city girl would be bored and not like living in the U.P. but they were wrong. I’ve been here since 1989, five years after meeting Mark, and this is where I plan to stay. I love the abundance of nature, and I’m never bored. There’s always some outdoor activity I’m involved in whether it’s fishing, hunting, playing golf, or just enjoying the beauty of my surroundings. 

“Move back to the city? Not a chance!”

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