NAPLES, Fla. - The seed was planted during a weekend in a sleeper ice house on Upper Red Lake in February 2018.

Our group of six guys was chilling and grilling, smoking barbecue ribs (outside the ice house) listening to mixtapes of our favorite tunes and drinking fermented malt beverages (and not catching fish) when the question was first raised.

What the hell were we doing there?

It was pointed out that one member of the group, which had at that point been gathering for 26 years to ice fish and compete for a spectacular traveling trophy, had recently semi-retired to Naples, Fla. The temperature in Naples right then was 100 degrees warmer than at Upper Red Lake.

Our annual ice fishing events (it would be a gross overstatement to call them contests) had for years been identified with Roman numerals, like the big football game held each year. So while we were still in the throes of Ice Fish XXVI it was determined that Ice Fish XXVII would be held in Naples.

And so it was.

Last weekend the other five guys flew to Naples to meet the sixth. We rented a condo and went deep-sea fishing in the Gulf of Mexico on the same weekend we would likely have been on Lake of the Woods. And once again it was 100 degrees warmer in Naples. With no wind chill. And no snow.

We caught a boatload of red grouper and snapper, went to a Twins spring training game in Fort Myers, smoked cigars, walked barefoot in the sand, rented a Jet Ski at Bonita Springs Beach and toured brew pubs and restaurants along the Paradise Coast of southwest Florida. We never felt a raindrop. It was sunny and in the 80s every day.

It was an epic trip that may throw into uncertainty the location of Ice Fish XXVIII and probably all after that.

This annual gathering started in 1992, on Lake Mille Lacs, with three of us, then just into our 30s. The event grew to four, five and finally six guys - an odd collection of humanity including four ink-stained newspaper wretches and two of their friends, a mortgage banker and a cop. Four of us at one point worked together at the Duluth News Tribune, back in the late 1980s.

No one recalls why we decided to start an ice fishing event - five of the six guys rarely ice fish other than this trip. But it has endured as a constant each winter now, well into our 50s, even as most everything else in our lives has changed.

Our hair has mysteriously changed color, or mysteriously gone away. We all got married (four of the six also saw divorces, one twice.) Kids came and grew up and sometimes kept us home. Most of us lost our parents. All but one moved to different cities to change jobs. (One of the group moved from Duluth to New Orleans to St. Paul to Chicago then to Minneapolis as his newspaper career, and life, evolved.)

But Ice Fish and it's crazy, homemade trophy, emblazoned with a Sports Illustrated cover photo of infamous former figure skater Tonya Harding, has endured. (The trophy has been in fishing lodges and cabins and ice houses and track vans and municipal bars from Malmo to Baudette to Orr to Ontario and is a constant source of awe and wonder. Alas, it was unable to meet the Spirit Airlines baggage restrictions to go to Naples.)

While the group's numbers waxed and waned from about No. X to XXIV, everyone came back together for the landmark Ice Fish XXV. Now there's an implied commitment to keep it that way, to make sure all six can attend each year. For several of us it's the only time we see each other. There's a lot of catching up to do. A lot of water to report over the dam.

So after the sun and fun and beer and much shared music (they're called playlists now, but were cassette mixtapes when we started all this) we eventually parted ways on various days last week, each leaving Naples on different flights, returning to the frozen Northland, including one with a cooler full of grouper fillets.

We were already talking about Ice Fish XXVIII in 2020.

Pass the sunscreen.

Visit the Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.) at www.duluthnewstribune.com

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