Across Minnesota, hard water is producing hot fishing.

And lots of cold cash.

From the St. Croix River, where crappies have been fairly plentiful in recent days through about 7 inches of ice, to Upper Red Lake, where thousands of anglers huddle in fish houses nearly every day seeking limits of walleyes, the bite, generally, is on.

"This is the busiest winter I've ever had," said Spider Johnson, a fishing guide who owns seven rental fishing houses on Upper Red Lake, about an hour north of Bemidji. "Last weekend there had to be more than 5,000 houses on the lake. In the 12 years I've been here, I've never seen anything like it."

Johnson's house-rental gig hasn't been the only beneficiary of a recent cold snap that thickened most of the state's lake and river ice.

Sales of winter fishing equipment -- from fancy electronics to high-tech portable shelters -- have been brisk, despite early December weather that vacillated too much to make good ice.

What's more, bait is being gobbled up by the truckloads, first -- as always -- by anglers, then by bluegills, walleyes and other sport fish. Which points up a major difference between summer and winter angling:

Virtually every trip, cold-weather fishermen buy bait, while many of their summer counterparts -- muskie and bass anglers to name two -- routinely forego purchases of fatheads and shiners, and instead attempt to trick their quarry using plugs, crankbaits and other hardware.

"These are the best ice conditions we've had in about 10 years," said Ron Meuwissen, owner of Ken's Bait Service in Chaska, whose 10 trucks cart fathead minnows, white suckers, shiners and wax worms year-round to retailers in about a 100-mile radius of the Twin Cities.

"When you get good ice, people put their shacks on the lake," Meuwissen said. "That's when bait starts selling. People fish on weekends. But some also will stop on their way home from work to fish for an hour or two."

In the west metro, early winter walleye fishing was good on Minnetonka when ice there was only 4 inches or so thick.

"That first bite is always best," said Dan Iversen, owner of Metro Lakes Fish House Rental. "It's slowed down now, as it always does. But sunnies and crappies are still going on Minnetonka, and some walleyes are being caught."

Iversen just started pulling his rental houses onto Minnetonka, over about a foot of ice.

Minnesota leads all states in sales of ice-fishing gear, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates is a $250 million annual business nationwide.

By some estimates, about 70 percent of winter-fishing transactions occur in the three states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Clam -- builder of portable fishing shelters and other gear -- and electronics maker Vexilar are among Minnesota's leading manufacturers of ice fishing equipment.

"Our sales are way above projections this winter, and good ice is one reason," said Tom Zenanko of Vexilar. "It isn't just in Minnesota. I was talking to a guy near Sidney, Nebraska, the other day and he had 10 inches of ice there, just like they do near Toronto. People in northern Missouri are even fishing through the ice."

Rapala, headquartered in Minnetonka and the world leader in fishing lures, this past year jumped into the ice-fishing game "with both boots," as president Tom Mackin described it, buying big players StrikeMaster of Big Lake, Minn., and Swedish blade maker Mora Ice.

Additionally, Rapala formed marketing and distribution partnerships with Marcum, manufacturer of electronic sonar gear and underwater cameras, and Otter Outdoors, which builds portable ice fishing shelters and sleds.

Rapala will market its new products worldwide, including in Russia. "Ice fishing is huge in Russia," Mackin said.


But the sport is unlikely anytime soon to be as popular there or anyplace else as it is in Minnesota, where even now, someone, somewhere -- perhaps on Mille Lacs, traditionally the state's premier walleye lake -- is pulling dinner through an icy cylinder.

Yes, of course, the usual caveat and warning: Ice is never safe.

So exercise caution.

Then do what Minnesotans have done since statehood in December, January, February and March.

Go fish.

Dennis Anderson •