Coming in From the Cold

New Gear Helping To Sell Ice Fishing

Dan Kreidler of Superior, Wis., pulls his fishing gear across the ice on Boulder Lake. (Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune/MCT)

Dan Kreidler of Superior, Wis., pulls his fishing gear across the ice on Boulder Lake. (Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune/MCT)

Ice fishing has come a long way from the huddled figure hunched on a windswept frozen lake, watching a hand-augered hole freeze shut.

Now that angler is apt to be sitting in his — or her — shirtsleeves in an insulated fishing shelter, twitching a glow-in-the-dark jig, a propane heater glowing in one corner, a flasher depth-finder purring next to a power-augered hole. A string of LED lights might brighten the shelter, and the angler is apt to be texting a friend while watching the flasher indicate an incoming fish.

Is it any wonder that ice fishing is becoming more popular?

“It’s because it got nice,” said Russ Francisco of Marine General Supply in Duluth, Minn. “We have nice equipment now. Tents became warmer. Rods and reels are high-quality. It’s fun to go now.”

An activity that once was an exercise in suffering and endurance has become downright civilized. Ice fishing’s rise in popularity has paralleled innovations in ice-fishing gear, retailers say. Lots of ice-fishing shelters are now made with integrated sled bases. The top folds into the sled, along with bait buckets, rods, tackle and heaters. The power auger, fueled by gas or propane or battery power, rides in the truck or on the snow machine.

Other shelters snap open easily and pack down small. Heaters are simpler and safer. Electronics keep improving. Rods and reels are getting more sophisticated.

Economical Sport

Even with a significant investment to get started in ice fishing, the sport is a relative bargain, retailers say.

“It’s way cheaper than summer fishing,” said Mike Reedy of Northwest Outlet in Superior. “You don’t have to get a boat.”

“It’s affordable. You can do it as a family,” said Ron Murphy, whose Shamrock Productions is bringing Duluth its first ice fishing show in two weeks, the Arrowhead Ice Fishing and Winter Show. “You can buy a shelter for a couple hundred dollars.”

Ice fishing retailers say the winter fishing season now rivals the summer season, which is saying something in a fish-crazy state like Minnesota.

“It is equal to the summer fishing in dollars and cents,” Francisco said. “Every time I say that on the radio or somewhere, people question me, but it’s true. There’s a lot of people who just ice fish.”

Scott VanValkenburg of Fisherman’s Corner in Pike Lake, Minn., sees the same trend.

“December and January are every bit as busy as June and July,” VanValkenburg said.

Terry Olson, manager at Gander Mountain’s Hermantown, Minn., store, estimated that ice fishing sales represent 25 to 33 percent of total fishing sales.

“The good thing for us is that it bridges the end of the (summer) fishing season and the spring opener,” Olson said. “Otherwise you’d have that long time with nothing in the fishing industry.”

As ice now forms on Duluth-area lakes, winter anglers are making plans to get out. One grandfather was talking to Marine General’s Francisco the other day about taking his 4-year-old grandson out. Taking kids out on the ice is more practical than taking them out in a boat in the summer, Francisco said.

“They can run on the ice,” he said. “It’s different than a boat. You don’t have to go back to shore. Part of fishing is running around with other kids. If someone else catches a fish, they can all run over to see it.”

And there’s always a warm shelter waiting.

Good Fishing

The other reason that ice fishing is popular in the Northland is that fishing is good for lots of species.

“We’re lucky here,” VanValkenburg said. “We’ve got wonderful bluegill fishing, crappie fishing and, of course, walleye fishing.”

Anglers have a legitimate shot at trophy walleyes in the Duluth-Superior harbor, up to 30 inches or longer. As soon as the ice forms there, anglers will be pulling their shelters out to jig for those walleyes.

“When the harbor freezes, to us, that’s just like summer, like the opener,” Francisco said. “Big walleyes is what they’re looking for.”

Beyond that, when ice conditions are right along the shore, anglers catch Kamloops rainbow trout and coho salmon off the Lester and French rivers and at McQuade Small Craft Harbor. If the ice gets really good offshore, anglers can catch big lake trout in Lake Superior.

“People come from all over just to say they’ve stood on Lake Superior and fished,” Francisco said. “They come from Iowa, Indiana, the Dakotas and mostly from the Twin Cities.”

Farther north in Minnesota, many inland lakes are stocked with brook trout, rainbows and splake. Native lake trout populate other inland lakes. Wisconsin’s Chequamegon Bay offers walleyes, brown trout, splake and other species.

On Lake of the Woods, resorts cater to ice anglers who fish for trophy walleyes from heated shacks far out on the lake.

“If you have any question about (the growth of ice fishing), look at the amount of money those resorts are investing in Lake of the Woods,” Francisco said. “It’s as important as summer fishing.”

In fact, winter fishing pressure (measured in angler hours) now far exceeds summer fishing pressure on the Minnesota side of the lake, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Latest Ice-Fishing Trends

Here are the latest trends in ice-fishing gear, based on interviews with four ice-fishing retailers:

∎ Shelters: The flip-over style shelters in a two-person size remain the most popular, most retailers say. Those shelters have an integrated sled base and go up quickly. Roomy pop-up shelters without floors also are popular and are more economical than those that incorporate sleds. Insulated shelters continue to gain in popularity.

∎ Augers: The battery-powered and lightweight Ion has proven popular, but propane and gas-powered augers remain good sellers. Blade systems continue to get better on all augers. Opinions vary on power-drill adaptors for ice augers. Clam has a new attachment this year that allows an 18-volt drill to power an auger.

∎ Heaters: Heaters such as the Buddy heater and the sunflower style remain the preferred sources of warmth, dealers say.

∎ Electronics: Vexilar and Marcum remain the leaders, dealers say. Vexilar has its new FLX-28 out this year.

∎ Rods/reels: The fly-reel style, in-line reels that were introduced last year have been well-accepted. They’re improved this year, with more room to grip the rod, dealers say. The in-line reels have simple, reliable drag systems, dealers say, and prevent line twist. But the bread and butter of the industry are still the $20 to $30 rod/reel combinations.

∎ Rod storage systems: Zippered, padded cases have been around for some time, and hard plastic cases are now gaining favor among some anglers for protecting rods during travel.