By Carol Stiffler

In a place where winter consumes half the year, ice fishing is perhaps even more traditional than apple pie. In Curtis, where South Manistique Lake recently froze over, a few anglers have already ventured onto the ice (a risk that is currently ill-advised due to the warm weather we’ve had since).

Ice fishing is a way of life, and it’s one that gets passed down from generation to generation. Curtis resident Dan Duberville is helping. He organized an ice fishing event originally called Dan’s Fish Coop that became so popular it evolved into the Curtis Winter Carnival. Up to 1,200 rainbow trout were loaded into an underwater “coop”, a 50-foot-by-50-foot enclosure, and kids caught them left and right. In the fishing competition at the end, kids won massive prizes. In 2006, the young winner got a fishing boat complete with a motor.

After a hiatus of more than a decade, Duberville is recruiting a team to revive the fish coop.

“People wanted us to start it back,” Duberville said. “People used to bring their kids, bring their grandkids, and help.”

A group of nearly 20 volunteers and supporters met Saturday evening to learn details of the revived fish coop event and learn how they can help.

The newly coined Curtis Lions Kids’ Fish Coop begins at 9 a.m. on Saturday, February 17 on South Manistique Lake. That’s President’s Day weekend and Free Fishing Weekend. The Manistique Lake Lions Club is assisting as host sponsor, sharing their non-profit status and funds for the event are directed their way.

It’s all for the kids, Duberville declares – every bit of it. The event requires many helpers and a large amount of cash, but doesn’t make money. Any leftover funds get set aside toward the next event, which costs thousands of dollars in fish alone. The goal is to give kids a good ice fishing experience, maybe even launching a new winter hobby.

To make it fun, the fishing is easy. The rainbow trout are captive under the ice, locked in an enclosure with four fence walls and a floor. The coop structure freezes into the ice after it’s installed, and Michigan State Police divers swim underneath to make sure there are no gaps in the fence that would allow fish to escape.

A heavy majority of the fish are caught during the event, and fellow event organizer Rich Blank estimates that 15 percent of the fish are set free at the end.

This year, a hot air balloon will be on the ice, offering tethered rides as long as the wind holds off. More than one thousand rainbow trout, and a smattering of golden trout, have been ordered. Duberville is planning to make a 16-foot fish pinata for kids to smash. Winter fireworks may light up the sky – that’s to be determined. But ice fishing is the main attraction.

Each fish in the coop will be a “keeper”, guaranteed, and some will be whoppers. Duberville said some fish will measure 24 inches in length.

Rainbow trout don’t naturally exist in South Manistique Lake, and these newcomers will be certified sterile fish. Stragglers that evade being caught during the event will be released into the lake, where anglers will be amazed at their catch on some future date.

For now, though, the focus is on the planning. Duberville is securing cash contributions and seeking prize donations. An auction is scheduled for January 13, 2024 to bring in more funds.

“It takes a lot of volunteers to do this,” said Blank, owner of Curtis Motor Sports. “It takes 20 to 30 people to set the fence [coop]. It’s a big job. You have to stand up 200 feet of fence, cut the ice, drop the fence in all the way to the bottom, a little at a time, until it settles in.”

He’ll be there, as will Jim Anderson, whose front-end loader once went through the ice while at work for the event. It was retrieved within hours, and still runs just fine.

Other former coop volunteers have passed away over the years, and new ones are needed to fill their shoes. Duberville is looking for people with the heart of a servant, who can get on board with giving this day to the kids.

“I’m just trying to make this thing happen for children, and most of all, for the glory of God,” Duberville said. “It’s not about me, it’s not about you; it’s about these children, and most of all, that God gets the glory.”

People or businesses that have items to donate for the auction can drop them off at Curtis Motor Sports, just east of the Sa-Wa-Quato Inn on Main Street in Curtis. All items (except clothes) are welcome. Monetary donations can also be mailed to Curtis Motor Sports, PO Box 127, Curtis, Mich., 49820 Attn: Curtis Fish Coop. All proceeds go toward the purchase of fish and prizes.