Outfitters see a vast and growing ice-fishing market

  • Article by: JOHN EWOLDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 25, 2014 - 4:20 PM

More anglers than ever are hitting the ice – and driving demand for warm clothing, fish-tracking devices and mobile, state-of-the-art icehouses.

In an earlier time, ice fishing in Minnesota meant a lone figure hunkered down on a frozen lake. Only the heartiest stock, foolhardy even, took part.

But 1,500 years after the first confirmed knowledge of humans making holes in the ice to fish, the pursuit has moved into the digital age — from survivalist sustenance to a gadget-rich sport that can be enjoyed in shorts and shirtsleeves in an insulated trailer.

Ice fishing has undergone a transformation, said Matt Teske, marketing manager at Dick’s Sporting Goods. “The days of sitting on a five-gallon bucket in a Carhartt jacket are going away,” he said. “It’s about technology and comfort.”

About $260 million was spent on ice-­fishing gear in 2012, an increase of nearly 10 percent over 2011, according to the American Sportfishing Association. Minnesota and Wisconsin have among the highest number of ice anglers at an estimated 700,000 and 600,000 respectively.

But Minnesota remains ice-fishing central. Many local companies with ice-fishing ties thrive here, including Clam Corp. in Rogers, Rapala in Minnetonka, Otter Outdoors in Maple Lake, MarCum Technologies in New Hope, Vexilar in Bloomington and Canvas Craft in Rogers.

Five metro companies (Rapala, Otter, MarCum, Polaris and StrikeMaster) recently formed Ice Force, a partnership with a ­marketing emphasis on ice fishing. “It’s going swimmingly,” said Tom Mackin, president of Rapala. “We’re hearing from major retail partners that they’re having their best ice-fishing season ever,” he said.

Clam Outdoors in Rogers has seen steady double digit growth each year, said Nick Chiodo, director of marketing. Ten years ago, the ice-fishing accessories maker company sold eight items. Now it’s more than 500. “This isn’t just a guy out fishing with his buddies anymore,” Chiodo said. “It’s for women and the family. People drive by a lake dotted with shelters on it and wonder how they can get involved.”

Sales of ice-fishing ­merchandise are up 30 percent in the last year at Sportsman’s Guide, said Joel Takkinen, vice president of merchandising at the St. Paul-based business. At Gander Mountain, the growth rate for ice-fishing gear is higher than for open-water gear, said Ryan Larsen, director of merchandising for the fishing division. “People just want to be comfortable out there,” he said. “If they’re comfortable, they stay out longer and catch more fish.”

Manufacturers and retailers are baiting anglers with ­products that emphasize comfort, technology and mobility. The workhorse of the sport, the ice auger, is still required, but hand-cranked and gas-powered models are being replaced with propane and battery-powered models that are cleaner and easier.

Gadgets used by summer anglers are now breaking into winter sports, including depth finders, underwater cameras and flashers, a k a digital fish finders that show when fish are swimming near the line.

One of the latest devices, BlueTipz, sends an alert to a smartphone when a fish is on the line, in case an angler gets distracted during a heated card game.

A ‘comfort’ sport

If electronic gadgets don’t attract customers, luxury “shacks” with all the comforts of home might.

American Surplus in ­Montevideo now builds more than 30 models of Ice ­Castle fish houses ranging from $5,000 to $36,000. The company sold 2,081 icehouses in 2013, and plans to build 2,500 this year.

“Last week we sold 19 fully equipped RV models with showers for $25,000 each, in just one day,” said Jeff Drexler, owner of American Surplus. “We had no idea it would be this huge.”

Many of the models can rival the coziness of home base, Drexler said. Stove, check. Microwave, check. Carpeting, check. Bay windows, check. Shower and toilet, check. Air conditioning, check.

Yep, even air conditioning. Drexler wisely determined that “ice shacks” that double as RVs are a better investment when they can be used year-round. If an RV has plumbing, it might qualify for tax deductions as a second home.

Rick Lano of Chaska bought a 20-foot icehouse three years ago, along with a propane auger and various electronics. “We spend more time ice fishing now because it’s so comfortable to spend time in there,” he said. “And if the fish aren’t biting, it’s easy to move to another spot.”

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