The mild weather in parts of Minnesota might suggest otherwise, but some ice anglers are helping lay the foundation for another season now in an increasingly popular activity. They're researching new spots and thinking about reliable favorites. They're pulling together their lures and rods and split shot or making sure their augers will roar to life when needed.
Another favorite tool is in play again, too: The sport show.
Lost last year to the COVID-19 pandemic, the St. Paul Ice Fishing and Winter Sports Show returns Friday to the RiverCentre in St. Paul and runs through the weekend. It arrives after another popular gathering of vendors and gear and tips for success, the Hardwater Fishing Expo in mid-November in Blaine.
The St. Paul show is in its 28th year, and it will show off what previous visitors have come to expect: Guide services, gear makers, resort owners and others who are eager to connect with people — especially after 2021 and despite current public health concerns.
A vast number of the more than 170 exhibitors are returnees, said marketing director Amber Kansou of Good Sam Media & Events, the show's organizer. And they're enthusiastic.
"This show in particular has been extremely upbeat. You feel the vibe of excitement," Kansou said.
In traditional years, the event has drawn as many as 25,000 people over its three days.
The events often transcend the money exchanged. As much as buying products, some visitors are there to get educated on chasing walleye on Lake of the Woods, triggering fish on jigging spoons or putting questions to industry pros.
"It is almost about a community vibe, and that is what makes this show so exciting," said Kansou, who also is anticipating another Good Sam production: the RV Vacation & Camping Show on Feb. 3-6 at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
No doubt those in the hard-water game will be interested in the dwellings that build some of that community: Ice shelters and houses.
Interest in one brand, Ice Castle Fish Houses made in Montevideo, Minn., has overtaken supply, a comparable dynamic to other unexpected demand for recreational toys such as bicycles, kayaks and all-terrain vehicles since the pandemic began going on two winters back.
Based in Minnesota since 1993, Ice Castles claims to be the largest maker of fish houses in the world. The customized boxes with showers, beds and creature comforts are not solely for fishing. They've been used as multiseason recreational vehicles and, according to Brett Drexler, even home office space or a place to quarantine in the past year. Drexler is general manager at American Surplus & Manufacturing, Inc. in Montevideo, the makers of Ice Castles.
The company is producing eight to 10 RVs per day, all pre-sold by dealers. The typical turnaround is six to eight weeks after purchase; now it's six to eight months, Drexler said, with the massive interest in the units and the challenges in finding the parts to make them. Supply chain snags have affected everything from Jack Knife sofas to furnaces.
"Every week it is something different," Drexler said.
Last year, 1,743 units were built. American Surplus is on track to produce 2,000 this year. Prices range from $20,000 to $50,000.
And buyers aren't as interested in the smaller, traditional units, knowing they can get features such as LED lighting, toilets, stereo sound and more amenities. Ice Castles' 8x21 setup is one of the most popular, Drexler said, adding: "They want bigger."
The Hardwater Expo brought in 57 vendors and nearly 5,000 visitors — deemed successful after a year's absence and missing some vendors whose inventory and production continue to suffer.
"We were thrilled with the event and anticipate a bigger, better event in 2022," said Sara Soli, National Sports Center chief marketing and communications officer, in an e-mail to the Star Tribune.
For its part, Good Sam is mindful of public health but hopeful for its events in Minnesota and other states. The plan is to do four per quarter, to hedge against a deep health crisis that continues to disrupt public life.
Still, Kansou said, exhibitors are hungry for community. In normal years, shows such as the St. Paul event are wait-listed among exhibitors.
"They're excited," she said.
At a glance
Current and some upcoming events:
St. Paul Ice Fishing & Winter Sports Show
Friday through Sunday, RiverCentre, St. Paul (stpaulicefishingshow.com)
Minneapolis Boat Show
Jan. 20-23, Minneapolis Convention Center (minneapolisboatshow.com)
RV Vacation & Camping Show
Feb. 3-6, Minneapolis Convention Center (msprvshow.com)
Duluth Sport, Travel & RV Show
Feb. 17-20, DECC (duluthsportshow.com)
March 10-13, Minneapolis Convention Center (northwestsportshow.com)