By Tom Dickson
For years no one took ice fishing seriously -- not even ice anglers. It was jowly Walter Matthau, after all, not hunky Brad Pitt, who was cast as the sport's archetype in Grumpy Old Men -- a retired TV repairman sitting in a lawn chair with a six-pack cooling in the ice hole. Winter angling was for playing pinochle in shanties, listening to sports on the radio, swapping Ole and Lena jokes, or just escaping the homestead in midwinter. Actually catching a fish was beside the point of what was essentially an exercise in fraternal bonding or existential pondering. But in today's ice-fishing world, catching fish is precisely the point.
Over the past two decades, ice fishing has transformed into a high-tech, gear-laden recreational enterprise, complete with specialized strategies, technological innovations, tournament circuits, and even celebrities. The revolution has made ice fishing more comfortable, more productive, and more fun for more people. But some say the new gear and gadgets may be taking the sport out of the sport.
"Anglers can now race miles across Mille Lacs at full speed, come to a screeching halt, jump out, and drill a hole right over the edge of a tiny mudflat only 30 feet across," says Tom Jones, DNR large-lake specialist for the famous walleye lake. "You have to wonder if ice fishing is losing the sense of adventure that used to come from actually having to work to find fish."
The original ice anglers were fish spearers. Before European settlement, Ojibwe Indians chipped holes in the ice and then waited, often for days, under light-blocking shelters for a fish to swim up to a wooden decoy.
Early 20th century ice-fishing techniques and equipment were hardly any more sophisticated. A 1920 article on Minnesota ice fishing in Western Magazine advocated using a "good axe" for chopping a hole and, for shelter, building a fish house "out of odds and ends of lumber, corrugated iron, sheet iron and tin, tarpaper or manufactured paper substitutes." Author Harry J. Ladue called this junk pile a "cozy . . . little shelter in which to indulge in winter fishing."
Ice-fishing accommodations hadn't improved much by 1965, when a Conservation Volunteer article recommended a sheet of canvas tacked to three 6-foot-long poles. "Two 2-by-4 foot sheets of one-quarter-inch plywood hinged together are also quite satisfactory," added author Joe Fraune.
Staying protected from the elements has always been a struggle for the winter angler. The 1974 edition of McClane's New Standard Fishing Encylopedia tried to allay readers' concerns by noting that "employment of 'insulation' in everything from underwear to boots has virtually assured the ice fisherman of bodily warmth and with minimum weight." Any ice angler who endured wet jeans and clammy cotton long johns in the pre-Thinsulate and Gore-Tex era of the 1970s might recall otherwise.
For much of ice-fishing history, the equipment was as spartan as the frozen lake landscape where it was employed. Anglers made rods from a cut willow or a dowel with two golf tees glued into holes in the side, around which they wrapped their line. The Beaver Dam Tip-up, developed in the 1930s, and the Lewandoski Rattle Reel, which made a commotion to wake napping anglers when a fish took the bait, were the extent of Yankee ingenuity.
Hauling the gear across a lake was "no problem," Fraune wrote, "if you can round up an old nail keg or a wooden shell box. Just add a rope handle to the keg or put some runners on the shell box." Like so many ice anglers of yore, Michigan outdoors writer Steven Griffin jerry-rigged equipment in his garage. Even as recently as 1985, he advocated in his Ice Fishing: Methods and Magic: "Try building a rod from the whippy post that holds bicycle safety flags." He then devoted an entire chapter to staying amused when fish aren't biting. "Why not try counting the minnows in your minnow bucket?" he said.
None of the roughly 100 ice anglers spread out across South Lindstrom Lake on this Friday morning in late February are playing cards, listening to the radio, or tallying fatheads. They're busy pre-fishing for a tournament that begins the next day, a qualifying event for the sport's Super Bowl: the North American Ice Fishing Championship. I'm out on the wind-whipped lake in 10-degree temperatures with Dave Genz, known as "Mr. Ice Fishing" for popularizing many of the sport's new techniques and much of its gear. Today he seems like the ice-fishing godfather. Every few minutes a fellow tournament angler stops by to pay homage to the man who developed the Fish Trap brand of portable ice shelters.
Genz, 60, grew up in St. Cloud, the son of a highway construction worker who took winters off to go ice fishing. As a restless boy, Genz first developed what's now known as the "run and gun" ice-fishing approach. "I'd get bored sitting in one spot," he says, "so I'd drill a new hole, and if I didn't catch anything, I'd drill more holes until I started catching fish. Pretty soon I figured out that you could catch more fish by moving around."
For years an ice angler had two options. Stay put in a warm-but-stationary ice house and catch only the occasional fish that happened to swim underneath. Or move around and find active fish but expose yourself to winter's worst. Then in the 1980s, Genz and a few other innovators developed the portable fish house, which combined mobility and warmth. These durable pop-up tents, which seat from one to six anglers, feature a plastic or wood floor and aluminum or steel frames that support canvas or nylon material. Genz pulls a solo unit in a sled behind his snowmobile and can set it up in about 30 seconds.
Also essential to modern ice angling is the power auger, a gigantic drill bit attached to a lawn mower engine. For decades the devices, invented in the early 1950s, were either too heavy or too expensive to be popular. Now many ice anglers own a lightweight electric or gas-powered (some with quiet four-stroke motors) model, which can bore 6-inch-wide holes through a foot of ice in seconds.
Making winter life even easier are garments of breathable, waterproof fabrics and lightweight insulation. While I'm shivering in the icy wind, wearing an ordinary winter jacket, Genz appears cozy as a polar bear in his custom-designed weatherproof coveralls, which feature insulted kneepads and seat pad, wind-impermeable hood, and oversized pockets for holding gear. "I call it a fish house you can wear," he says.
As with summer angling, the biggest ice-fishing innovations have been electronic. Years ago anglers determined lake depth by clipping a lead weight to the line. And they were never sure if fish were below their hole until one bit. Today's ice anglers use portable depthfinders that locate fish, determine depth, and even show if the lake bottom is soft or hard.
"Depthfinders changed everything," says Matt Straw, editor of In-Fisherman magazine. "Suddenly you were able to see suspended fish, when before you pretty much had to fish on the bottom." Powered by lightweight, rechargeable gel-cell batteries, modern sonar flashers and graphs operate by bouncing sound waves off the lake bottom (or fish). The sound waves return and show up as displays on a screen.
Genz turns his unit on and lowers the transducer through the hole, followed by a jig attached to his line. After two minutes he points to a moving orange bar on the display ring. "See, there's a fish approaching," he says. "Your sonar is also a mood indicator. If I jig real hard and see the fish swim off, I know not to jig so hard with the next one."
Adding to the electronic arsenal are underwater cameras, which allow anglers to see a fish ingest a bait and know exactly when to set the hook. "That has definitely been the biggest revolution in recent years," says Straw. "Now you can actually look down and see fish hidden between rocks and work your lure right to them."
Another space-age marvel is the GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver, which finds and records precise locations on lakes. With a GPS unit programmed with precise waypoints, an angler can cross a barren expanse of ice and drill holes directly over points, bars, mudflats, and other previously located fish-holding structures. Says Genz, "There are no secret spots anymore."
A growing number of manufacturers offer today's winter angler a dazzling array of clothing, shelter, transportation, and equipment. For those who find jigging just too strenuous, a gadget can automatically move your lure up and down. Graphite rods fitted into cork seats feature special undersized spinning reels spooled with 2- to 10-pound-test fluorocarbon line that remains soft in temperatures down to minus 40 F. Anglers can tie on teardrop lures, ice flies, jigging minnows, and blade baits that come in dozens of colors and sizes. They can use lures dipped in phosphorescent paint that glow in the dark after being "ignited" with a special flashlight sold just for that purpose. Anglers happy to stay put can buy permanent ice houses that feature satellite dishes, wind-powered generators, and even portable hot-water showers.
Or if all these bells and whistles have you longing for the old-school approach, try ice fishing in the Arrowhead region. "I haven't seen much increased use of technology in this area," says Steve Persons, DNR area fisheries manager in Grand Marais. "Here they're still mainly sitting on buckets."
Despite the new ice-fishing technologies and strategies, winter harvest is not depleting Minnesota of fish. "Over the past 20 years, there's only been a slight increase in winter fishing pressure; and catch rates have generally remained the same," says Donna Dustin, a DNR fisheries research biologist who compiles creel survey data.
That's a statewide average, however. On some lakes, ice fishing is chipping away at game fish populations. The winter walleye harvest on Lake of the Woods has tripled from a historical annual average of 100,000 pounds to 300,000 pounds in some recent years. Sauger harvest has grown from less than 50,000 pounds per year to between 200,000 and 270,000 pounds. The ice-fishing explosion on Lake of the Woods began in the late 1980s, after anglers learned of the lake's daylong sauger bite, which complemented dusk and dawn walleye activity.
"More than anything, it's the electronics," says Mike Larson, DNR area fisheries manager in Baudette. "Anglers can find fish with sonar and then see how the fish react. If the fish aren't active, they just move until they find fish that are."
The DNR also keeps a close watch on Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness lakes containing lake trout. Winter anglers can outfish summer anglers by positioning themselves directly over lake trout, something not possible when canoes are blown around by waves and wind. Though border lakes are still inaccessible enough to keep from being overharvested, fisheries managers are keeping an eye on the increased use of dog sleds to bring ice anglers -- and their electronic gear -- to backcountry waters.
It's likely that ice fishing won't grow to where the pressure rivals that of open-water angling in warmer months anytime soon. Even with the recent boom, only about 20 percent of the overall fishing pressure occurs in winter. The sport has certain built-in limitations. Only so many Minnesotans will leave their cozy living rooms to venture out onto frozen water in midwinter, no matter what new products promise to "assure bodily warmth." What's more, the entertainment value of some electronic gadgets may negate whatever additional angling advantage they offer. When anglers first started using underwater cameras on Mille Lacs around 2000, a survey of ice anglers found that those with cameras actually caught fewer fish than those without.
Large-lake specialist Jones speculates: "They were spending so much time messing around with their camera and watching the fish, they weren't paying attention to their rods."