Russell “Rusty” Gerard with one of his new icehouses. This one is near Lawrence Lake Marina. CRAIG MOORHEAD/SPRING GROVE HERALD
Russell “Rusty” Gerard with one of his new icehouses. This one is near Lawrence Lake Marina. CRAIG MOORHEAD/SPRING GROVE HERALD
The thermometer was well below zero as Russell (Rusty) Gerard of Spring Grove took a lunch break in the boathouse, but out on "the bay" the ice-houses were warm and cozy.

"I've been fishing all my life," he said. "My dad was a fisherman, my uncles, everybody in my family.

Gerard grinned. "When I met my wife... well, my wife came with this boathouse. It's been in her family since 1946.

Soon, Russell will be known as "Captain Rusty." That because Rusty's Fishing Charters will officially begin taking clients out on the Mississippi just as soon as the ice melts away from the boat ramps at Dresbach and Genoa dams.

For now, Gerard is enjoying a sideline of his brand new charter business, renting out seven heated and equipped ice fishing shelters near Brownsville's Lawrence Lake, a popular backwater just north of that river town.

The phone has been ringing. A group of farmers with a case of cabin fever from the Owatonna area are out trying their luck. Someone from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is ready to take a crack at "hard-water fishing." Another call just came in from Austin.

"I'm kind of surprised," Gerard said. "I've been really interested in trying this out, because I'm down here all the time in the wintertime. I'm self-employed in the construction business. I don't take on too many projects in the middle of winter."

Ice anglers have been picking up bluegills, jumbo perch and crappies. Some decent bass show up as well, and tip-up users frequently pull in big, toothy pike.

"The sleeper ice-houses have been very popular," Russell said. "I've got one that sleeps four and another with two beds. They're getting really nice crappies out here at night.

"This is more successful than I thought it would be. Next summer I'm going to build a real deluxe four-person sleeper. I've got three houses that have little wood stoves, just so I could save a little on propane. Those are really popular.

"I'm having fun, enjoying myself down here this winter."

Gerard recently received his U.S. Coast Guard Merchant Marine license. That will allow him, along with a first mate, to take up to six paying clients at a time out on the big river when it thaws. They'll be running two vessels. One is a 20' Sea Arc fishing boat, while the other will be a 24' luxury pontoon. Pools 5, 5A, 6, 7, 8 and 9 are all on the agenda for anglers.

"The pontoon will be based right here at Lawrence Lake Marina," Gerard said. "I'm planning to run 4-hour scenic tours and take some folks out fishing on that boat. It will be equipped with a bathroom, and that type of vessel can be a little easier for disabled persons and older folks to fish from.

"I'm setting this up with families with kids in mind, retired folks and seniors, persons with handicaps. I really want to make it as affordable as possible. I'm not concerned about making a lot of money."

"The ice is so thick right now (over two feet) that we expect to rent the shelters out into March. After the first of March, you have to pull unoccupied shelters in each night, but we're prepared to do that.

"That's also about the time when walleye fishing below the dams becomes really good. We're planning to take folks out for that just as soon as the boat ramps are clear of ice. Last year, we had less ice, and I was able to fish for walleye at the end of February.

"Later in the season, catfishing will be my premier fishing charter. That's the fish down here that I love the best. With flathead catfish, I've gotten them up to 52 pounds, and there are bigger ones out there. The catfishing down here is crazy fun. We go out in the evenings and fish at night. We have to use big gear, up to 40-pound test line with heavy rods and reels.

"There's also excellent panfishing up in Lawrence Lake. You can catch crappies, bluegill, and perch all day long. We'll be taking folks out to enjoy that, too.

"For me, this is really something I've thought about for seven or eight years. It's about getting out from behind that concrete truck, hammering planks and nails. After doing that for 31 years, I'm ready to try something different.

"I just want to do something that's fun," Gerard chuckled. "I was told that God gives you an extra day of life for every day you go fishing. I hope that's true."