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Across the upper Midwest, fishing shanties are a common sight on frozen lakes every winter, but in at least one northern Wisconsin community, the number of shanties has increased dramatically this year. As Glen Moberg of Wisconsin Public Radio reports, that might be considered something of an economic indicator.

GLEN MOBERG: I'm standing on the McCleary Bridge, which connects the city of Wausau to the prosperous commercial strip of nearby Rib Mountain. But as I look east from the highway onto Lake Wausau, with temperatures barely above zero, it's a different world. Instead of the usual handful of fishing shanties, as you walk onto the frozen lake, you can see well over 100 of them more than three times the usual number clustered together on the ice.

Mr. DAVID NIEWOLNY: Money's tight. People aren't going up north and taking their shanties up north. They're staying close to home. I think the money's the situation this year.

MOBERG: Sixty-four-year old David Niewolny of Rib Mountain fishes from the cab of his truck in the midst of the Lake Wausau shantytown. He says there's a big difference between this winter and other winters - the economy and Niewolny says many of the fishermen are out of work.

Mr. NIEWOLNY: I've talked to quite a few out here that have been laid off for three, four months already and that's all they do is come out here all day, you know, see if he can catch a meal of fish.

MOBERG: Gordon Berna of Wausau is looking out the door of his shanty and reaching pretty much the same conclusion.

Mr. GORDON BERNA: There are a lot of people laid off, I imagine. Nothing to do, so you've got a lot of time to fish.

(Soundbite of banging)

MOBERG: Berna opens a hatch on the plywood floor.

Mr. BERNA: Froze a little bit, so I just have to open them up.

(Soundbite of scraping)

MOBERG: And using a hand auger, clears the ice off the top of three fishing holes that let him drop a line deep into Lake Wausau.

What are you catching right now?

Mr. BERNA: Oh, nothing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BERNA: I was out here yesterday, I didn't get anything. But they're catching bluegills and crappies.

MOBERG: Berna is retired and says he's seen his share of local businesses come and go in this area.

Mr. BERNA: The last place was Fisker's(ph). And I worked at Murrays on Third Street. I worked for Kraft Foods on Scott Street for 18 years. They moved out of town; Murrays closed; I worked for Bard, they moved to Mexico.

MOBERG: And Fisker's?

Mr. BERNA: And Fisker's, I retired.

(Soundbite of crunchy footsteps)

MOBERG: As we walk across the frozen lake, just 100 feet or so behind Gordon Berna's shanty, we encounter 28-year-old Josh Hitz of Antigo, who sits on a bucket, a line dangling into a hole in the ice. A black dog and a young boy are sitting inside his warm SUV, which is parked on the ice.

Mr. JOSH HITZ: I was a certified nursing assistant.

MOBERG: When did you get laid off?

Mr. HITZ: About three months ago. It's just lack of work, you know what I mean? Like I said, I'm out right here. That's just how I catch my meals a lot of it, so we get by as much as we can, you know.

MOBERG: And Hitz is not optimistic about the short-term prospects for the economy.

Mr. HITZ: I think it's going to go down yet, I really do. I think it's going to get worse before it gets better.

MOBERG: That pessimism is shared by a number of ice fishermen here, including David Niewolny.

Mr. NIEWOLNY: No, we haven't turned the corner yet. I think we're going to look at another year yet.

MOBERG: The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says interest in fishing and the sale of licenses traditionally goes up as the economy goes down. And in today's economy, it appears there are more people than usual on the ice fishing in shantytowns like the one on Lake Wausau.

For NPR News, I'm Glen Moberg in Wausau, Wisconsin.

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