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.”
While a serious ice angler could easily spend $10,000 on gadgets and an icehouse, a recreational angler can still make do on much less. Transportable ice shelters that pop up quickly don’t need an operator’s license and can be had for less than $150.
The low entry point attracts younger anglers who like the technology but don’t need to lay out big bucks on an Ice Castle. Southwick Associates Angler Survey shows that ice anglers are more likely to be under 18 than open-water anglers, contradicting any notion that ice fishing is the sport for grumpy old men.
Ben Collette, 25, of St. Paul thinks ice fishing is more popular now because of simplicity and better technology. For an investment of $750, he’s fully functional with an Instashack that takes 10 minutes to set up, as well as lightweight waterproof, windproof bibs with reinforced knees, a flasher for finding fish and a smartphone with GPS. “Catching fish like this is more rewarding than being in a big fish house. And it’s better entertainment than sitting home on the couch.”
Fredric McClaine of St. Paul prefers more creature comforts so he can bring the family. To fish on White Bear Lake, he bought an $8,000 homemade shack that he uses year-round, outfitted with underwater cameras and a live well aquarium for caught fish to keep his 9-year-old daughter, Riley, entertained. “She likes watching northerns on camera and in the well,” he said. “But if she gets bored, she reads or does her homework.”
Still, ice fishing has plenty of room for converts. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources estimates that only about 1 in 10 of open-water anglers also ice fishes.
For many people, the hesitation is simple. Michelle Bennett of Oakdale said that even with the comforts of home in an ice shack, there’s still the drilling and waiting for the ice shack to warm up.
“I don’t like the cold,” she said. “If I can see my breath, I’m not going to last long before I want to head home,” she said as she spent time on the lake with McClaine.
Chiodo, from Clam Outdoors, said there is no reason for anyone to be miserably cold anymore if they buy the right clothes. But the one factor that will make or break the sport is the weather.
Record cold weather this year and an extended winter last year have brought out the serious and the curious. At least for now.
With more warm winters like Minnesota had in 2011-2012, all bets are off. “Mother Nature holds all the cards here,” he said.