Randy Havel remembers the old days when ice anglers used steel chisels or axes to hack holes in a frozen lake.

"My mother would take us out on Grand Lake St. Marys in Ohio, and we'd take our sled and an axe and go bluegill fishing," said Havel, 62, of Monticello.

Chipping a hole in a lake was an arduous task, depending on the thickness of both ice and one's biceps. It discouraged anglers from moving to a different spot.

These days, power ice augers carve through a couple feet of ice like a chain saw through Jell-O. And if anglers don't catch fish, they move 20 yards away and drill another hole. And another.

Power augers -- along with portable ice fishing houses, permanent houses on wheels and electronics -- have revolutionized ice fishing, and Havel is riding that frozen wave. He's president and CEO of StrikeMaster Ice Augers, one of the three largest ice auger manufacturers in the nation and the only one based in Minnesota. (The other two are in Wisconsin.)

Havel and his 11 full-time employees crank out thousands of hand augers, gas-powered augers and electric augers at StrikeMaster's assembly plant in Big Lake, just northwest of the Twin Cities. They're shipped to 17 "hard water" states, Canada and beyond. Minnesotans are No. 1 when it comes to buying ice augers, Havel said. It's a competitive business that fluctuates with the weather -- dipping during warm spells and rising during cold ones. With plenty of frigid weather in the Midwest to entice anglers onto ice, this season has started out like a winner.

"I'm smiling," Havel said.

Drilling for success

Havel and his partners, Ray Peterson, 61, of Richfield and Bob Giarusso, 64, of Elk River -- all sporting goods representatives -- bought StrikeMaster in 1991 from an entrepreneur named Bob Foster, who owned a bowling equipment business (hence the name StrikeMaster). After World War II, Foster visited Scandinavia and noticed winter anglers there using Swedish hand augers to drill holes through ice, so he brought one home to try. Soon he was importing and selling Mora hand augers.

"He got to selling more hand augers than bowling shoes, but they kept the name and it became an ice fishing company," Havel said.

The company has been around for 63 years. Over the years, lots of folks tried to combine a small gas engine with an ice auger, with varying degrees of success. Marv Feldmann of Plymouth, Wis., developed a successful model that eventually became Jiffy Ice Drills of Sheboygan Falls, Wis., another of today's major manufacturers. Eskimo, made in Cumberland, Wis., the third of the Big Three power auger makers, has been around since 1960.

StrikeMaster began producing its power augers in 1970, Havel said. The company was based in downtown Minneapolis until moving to Big Lake in 1993.

Like other outdoor equipment, power augers have been refined over the years. Today's models start easier, cut through ice better and last longer. Each brand touts its advantages. Like most other firms, StrikeMaster assembles parts that often come from around the world. Its two-stroke engines come from Germany, the steel cutting blades from Sweden.

"Our gearboxes are made right here in Minnesota," Havel said.

Based on the omnipresent buzz of power augers on Minnesota lakes, one would assume that gas-powered augers are the No. 1 seller. Wrong. StrikeMaster still sells more hand augers than power augers.

"Places like southern Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa and Nebraska -- they don't have the two feet of ice like we do," Havel said.

Hand augers cost less than $70. Power augers range from about $280 to over $500.

What's the future?

StrikeMaster has been selling four-stroke engines for five years. Four-strokes are quieter, pollute less and have been popular with resorts that have multiple-hole rental houses. Havel figures anglers will see more of them.

Electric augers have been around for years, but sales are growing, likely because of the increased number of permanent wheeled ice fishing houses now on lakes.

"The electrics don't leave the house smelling like two-cycle oil," Havel said. They can be powered by ATVs or snowmobiles. The continued evolution of batteries -- now smaller and more powerful -- could make electric augers more popular.

Global warming hasn't caused any dip in ice auger sales, either. "It's still going to get cold. The last three winters have been the strongest we've had," Havel said. But a nationwide decline in the number of hunters and anglers is worrisome.

"It's a real issue; we're concerned about it," he said. His company has been involved with helping introduce kids to fishing.

Ironically, even though Havel is in the ice fishing business, he doesn't have much time to fish for fun these days. He spends much of the winter traveling to various ice fishing contests and shows, promoting his company.

"It's tough," he said. "Usually in March, we'll go catch those jumbo perch on Lake Mille Lacs."

Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com