Minnesota’s ice anglers by necessity must operate at extremes: Patient, as they wait for Mother Nature to produce the conditions that create ice, yet ready to spring into action, as the ice-fishing season already is a short one to begin with.
Though some folks look askance at anyone who would head out into freezing conditions, walk or drive upon frozen water, and dangle a lure or bait through a small hole, the reality is ice fishing seems to be gaining in popularity in states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin. When the lakes are frozen, it’s the only way to scratch the fishing itch, though for some passionate fishermen and women, open-water fishing actually plays second fiddle to ice fishing.
While it’s difficult to know exactly how many people ice fish in Minnesota — regular fishing licenses allow people to fish for an entire year — it’s impossible to overlook the towns of ice-fishing shelters that form on many lakes, the technological advances when it comes to ice-fishing equipment and lures, or the multitude of people who plan ice-fishing vacations to lakes such as Mille Lacs, Lake of the Woods, Upper Red and Winnibigoshish.
As the beginning of this year’s ice season draws closer, here are five things to watch:
1. Make things easier
The ice-fishing equipment available today makes the sport easier and more efficient than ever, said Jeff “Boomer” Stelmach, an avid ice angler and outdoor personality. Among the first new pieces of gear he points to is the K-Drill, an auger that weighs less than 10 pounds and operates off an electric drill. Not only are the augers light, but also they don’t require gas and can pop plenty of holes in the ice before needing to be recharged, Stelmach said. Using a K-Drill has afforded him the opportunity to ice fish more with his daughter.
“I have spilled gas on an insulated fish house, and the smell lasted all winter,” he said. “My daughter wouldn’t fish with me the rest of the winter.”
And when it comes to lures, nothing has changed the ice-fishing game like plastics that are every bit as realistic as minnows or wax worms — and that stay on the hook better than live baits — and the advent of tungsten jig heads, Stelmach said.
“Tungsten is 30 percent heavier than lead, so it drops down the hole faster,” he said. “Fish in the winter often move in schools, so the more time your bait is in the water, the more fish you’re going to catch.”
2. Women’s time
Kristen Merwin, incoming president of Women Anglers of Minnesota, acknowledged that ice fishing “really has been a sport for men for a long time.” Yet, she sees that slowly shifting.
“With women, ice fishing is really booming,” Merwin said. “They can do it. They don’t have to have a boat, or a truck to haul the boat. They can take their regular car and drive onto the ice and go fishing.”
The Women Anglers of Minnesota group focuses on fishing in general and offers formal trips — the next, which is sold out, is at a resort next month in Deer River — to its 175 or so members. Group members regularly do more informal fishing gatherings, too. It’s also close with a similar clubacross the border called Wisconsin Women Fish. That group has a trip planned to Upper Red Lake next month.
“When we go on trips, it’s not about who will catch the biggest fish, but [teaching women] how do you do this and [showing them] the best way,” Merwin said. “We share a lot of information, and it’s an environment where they can really feel comfortable.”
3. Head south
Taking an extended ice-fishing trip for many people means packing up and heading north. Plenty of opportunities exist to the south, too. Justin Sommer who owns Sommer Outdoors in Fairmont, Minn., recalled going out in the area as a youth and being satisfied with one- or two-fish days. Now, catching that number of fish might take just a minute or two.
Ice fishing has been “fantastic” in recent years, he said, and it isn’t unusual for anglers to catch 100 or 200 fish per day. The vast majority are sunfish and crappies, the latter of which average around 10 inches.
“I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” Sommer said. “[The upcoming ice-fishing season] is looking to be one of the best.”
4. Waiting on ice-in
One thing is clear: Ice-in across the state is later than usual. In the portion of the state north of St. Cloud, the median ice-in date is about Nov. 22-28. South of St. Cloud, it’s between Nov. 29 and Dec. 5, according to state climatologist Pete Boulay.
A consistent run of temperatures below freezing, coupled with light winds, produces the best ice. Those conditions were forecast for this week, but it remains to be seen how soon lakes will be locked with ice.
“I’m hoping we can build some good ice this year,” Boulay said. “It’s just like forecasting the weather, but it looks promising (in early December).”
And there’s still plenty of time before we start getting into record territory when it comes to late ice. In 2002, for example, Lake Minnetonka wasn’t frozen over until Jan 2.
5. Getting kids into the sport
In Jeff Ledermann’s mind, ice fishing is a great way to introduce young and old anglers to the broader sport of fishing.
“There’s a lower threshold for equipment and costs to get involved,” said Ledermann, angler recruitment, retention and education supervisor for the state’s Department of Natural Resources. “Being on the ice is very intriguing and spurs curiosity within adults and kids. It’s something different — it’s interesting.”
During Take-a-Kid Ice Fishing Weekend, which is Jan. 14-16, people who are 16 or older don’t need a fishing license when accompanied by an angler 15 years or younger. There are a variety of educational events across the state that take place during the weekend. Go to bit.ly/mnaqua online for a list of events on that and other winter weekends.
Ledermann recommended ice-fishing newcomers check with local bait shops for information about ice conditions and where the fish are biting. He also directs people to the internet, where they can find almost limitless videos and other information about ice-fishing gear, safety and tactics.
“As long as folks get good information about the right clothing and safety, it’s a great opportunity to introduce people to fishing,” he said.
Joe Albert is a writer from Bloomington. Reach him at writerjoealbert.com.