The other evening, Dave Genz put a lot of miles between him and his home in St. Cloud, driving eastbound on Interstate Hwy. 94 through central Wisconsin, with a thousand miles or more of blacktop lying still ahead.
Genz -- ice fishing's pied piper -- was loaded down with a van full of winter-fishing gear. He was driving to Vermont, with a trailer and snowmobile following behind.
Until March, Genz will meet in back rooms of VFW halls, Holiday Inns and at sporting goods stores throughout New England, and also in Michigan and Indiana -- just about anywhere he can gather a crowd of people wanting to learn more about how to fish through the ice.
"In winter," Genz said, "I go looking for people to talk to."
Advancing his arrival will be posters and announcements in retailers' windows, on lampposts and on the Internet.
"I don't charge admission," he said.
At 61, Genz still sits atop the ice fishing world, a perch he has occupied for more than a decade. Most noted for propelling the portable fishing house to the forefront of the winter angling scene, he also makes his living developing winter fishing lures and, especially, promoting ice fishing on behalf of a bevy of specialty manufacturers.
"I'll also fish while I'm in New York, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine," Genz said. "I can give a much better seminar when I'm familiar with the local fishing."
Genz considers the East Coast a virgin market, of sorts, for winter fishing. Anglers there haven't taken as quickly to the many equipment- and fishing-technique changes that have swept across Wisconsin and, especially, Minnesota the past 15 years.
These include portable fishing shelters, as well as snazzy depth finders and fish locators, global positioning systems, high-speed augers with laser-sharpened blades, graphite rods and smooth-spooling reels, colored live baits, specialty lures and space-age lines.
Each has contributed to a winter fishing revolution in which Genz has played a pivotal role.
"Mobility is a big part of it," he said. "Ice fishermen aren't content to sit in one spot anymore. You have to be able to move to a new spot to find fish. We call it trolling through the ice. We're not content to sit in one place anymore and wait for the sun to go down to catch fish."
Though portable ice fishing houses are commonplace back east, many anglers there are more likely to spread out a handful of tip-ups, rather than using a flasher to look for fish through the ice, then move until fish are found.
Genz gets paid to preach the gospel about the benefits of using modern ice-fishing electronics, especially flashers. But like any good salesman, he's a true believer in what he understands -- knows -- is a better way to fish in winter.
Meaning his method puts more fish on the ice, more often, using techniques never before imagined.
"Lures we design today for ice fishing typically have large surface areas so the signal from flashers bounces off them readily," he said. "That way it's easier to see how far down your lure is at any given time, and you're able to put the lure nearer to the fish."
It's been about 20 years since Genz quit his job as a maintenance foreman for a Twin Cities company and struck out on his own, intending to make fish and fishing his livelihood.
Until then, he had dabbled in the ice-fishing business on the side, selling portable canvas ice fishing houses and imported Eurolarvae out of his garage.
He hit pay dirt when he licensed a portable ice fishing house to a company that paid him a royalty for each unit sold.
Clam Corp. now owns the rights to that shelter, and Genz is part of Clam's development team that tries to keep their houses on par with, or preferably ahead of, the competition.
"One of the big changes in portable houses now is insulation," he said. "We have one model of Fish Trap houses that is insulated, and it requires significantly less heat to keep it a whole lot warmer. Also, in real cold weather, it doesn't freeze up inside and create condensation."
Genz concedes that traveling from seminar to seminar can be tiresome in winter. But oftentimes a friend and longtime fishing partner, Rick Johnson of Bigfork, Minn., travels with him, providing company on the road and an added knowledgeable voice at seminars.
More developments on tap
Still more innovations are coming to ice fishing, Genz believes, each intended to make anglers more comfortable on the ice, and more readily able to adapt to find fish.
"As new types of batteries develop, new electric-powered products will be brought on the market," he said. "Already we have LED lights for portable houses. Electric augers will become more popular. Also, heated clothing, including socks and vests. Heated coolers to keep beverages from freezing in winter. And winter fishing rods with heated handles."
Genz is aware that a recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey of hunters and anglers indicated that ice fishing, like open-water fishing, has dropped some in popularity nationwide.
"But we don't really think that survey is accurate, because overall ice-fishing expenditures are up by more than 25 percent, as shown in the same survey," Genz said.
Regardless, Genz says he won't stop promoting the sport he loves any time soon.
"I'm not doing anything I care to retire from," he said.
Dennis Anderson • firstname.lastname@example.org