While many Minnesotans were huddled inside their homes over the holidays, hiding from subzero temperatures, ice fishing guru Steve Baumann had a crew on a frozen Twin Cities lake, boring practice holes with an innovative auger his company, AWC Distributing, makes and markets.
Baumann, an engineer, is known nationally and even internationally for the Vexilar sonar units (aka depth finders/fish locators/“flashers’’) manufactured by another company he owns, Vexilar Inc. Like AWC, Vexilar is located in Bloomington.
People who don’t fish, especially those who don’t ice fish, can be forgiven if they haven’t heard of Baumann. A native of southwest Minnesota, where his family farmed, Baumann, 65, cut his angling teeth on Lake Shetek, far from Minnesota’s storied northern lakes country.
When he was just 3 weeks old, Baumann was bitten by an encephalitis-infected mosquito. He recovered. But he never fully regained use of his legs.
The affliction didn’t hold him back. While a student in Marshall, Minn., Baumann worked part time for a company that did contract work for Vexilar. In time, Vexilar would develop the first liquid crystal display fish finders. But its signature product didn’t surface until Vexilar bought rights to a “rotating wheel flasher” sonar unit that was a flop for bass fishing — its intended purpose — but perfect for ice fishing.
Baumann and a partner, the late Skip Christman, bought Vexilar in 1986, and in the years since, the company has thrived, despite an onslaught of competition from multiple big names in the fishing sonar business.
Now Baumann, who was inducted into the Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame in 2004 and the national Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in 2012, appears to have hit another home run in the ice fishing game with an auger he calls K-Drill.
“The K-Drill will be a disrupter in the auger business,” Baumann said.
Innovatively, the K-Drill relies on a separately purchased ½-inch cordless drill for its powerhead. Even more innovatively, the K-Drill (the auger part of the unit) isn’t made of steel, as many conventional augers are.
Instead, the K-Drill features an aluminum shaft, steel cutting blades and a plastic conical auger section. The result: A K-Drill tips the scales at only about 10 pounds, a fraction of the weight of some augers.
Though Baumann owns two K-Drill patents, he gives much of the credit for the auger’s design to fellow Minnesota engineer Doug Kluge.
Kluge’s father, Jacob, was an ice-auger innovator as early as the 1950s. Along with his son, Kluge believed electric augers ultimately would prevail among anglers over more traditional gas-powered models.
“When you add up the pluses of electric augers, you see the advantages pretty quickly,” Baumann said. “No gas spilled in the back of an SUV. No smoke or noise. No oil leaks. No hard starting on cold days.”
Other manufacturers also produce battery powered augers, notably Ion, which first marketed an electric model in 2012; Strike Master, owned by angling powerhouse Rapala; and fellow winter-fishing heavyweight Clam, which sells an auger kit that can be paired with a cordless drill.
The breakthrough that successfully brought K-Drills to market occurred about four years ago when Milwaukee brand power tools developed a ½-inch drill that was “brushless” and powered by an 18-volt lithium-ion battery. The drill’s battery worked well in cold weather and delivered considerably more power to the auger than earlier models.
“It was important to us that the auger, with the drill, not only be lightweight, but that it could be operated with as little torque as possible to the angler,” Baumann said. “You shouldn’t have to be a big strong person to handle the drill while the auger cuts the ice.”
DeWalt and other tool makers also produce light-commercial drills similar to Milwaukee’s, with costs hovering around $275. Eight-inch K-Drills, meanwhile, sell for $259, with 6-inch models costing around $200.
The combined approximate $525 cost of the 8-inch auger is similar to prices fetched by battery powered augers made by Ion and Strike Master.
“The advantage with our auger is that you have the drill to use the rest of the year for other purposes,” Baumann said. “For ice anglers who work construction, or even just for homeowners, the drill comes in handy.”
By some estimates, about 1 million anglers fish through the ice each winter nationally, with the largest share in Minnesota. In a given year, perhaps 10 percent to 15 percent buy augers, Baumann believes.
It’s likely that gas models, which are cheaper than electrics, will continue to be popular among anglers for the foreseeable future. Augers powered by clean-burning four-stroke engines also could gain share, given their environmental advantages.
But the safe money in the long run seems to be on electrics, considering that K-Drill has sold all units it has made in each of the past three years — and considering that Strike Master’s popular new Lithium 40v auger in both 8- and 10-inch models is listed as out of stock on the company’s website.
Which returns us to the practice holes Baumann’s crew from AWC Distributing drilled in a Twin Cities lake over the holidays.
“When it’s as cold as it has been, ice is diamond-hard,” he said. “Still, with one 5-amp battery, using an 8-inch auger, we cut through about 15 inches of ice easily, time and again.”
Which, if you manufacture winter fishing augers, is what you do: drill holes in ice — frigid weather or not.