It’s remarkable to look back and see how dramatically and how quickly ice fishing has changed. Years ago, a “depth finder” was that painted lead ball that clipped onto your line when setting tip-ups. A couple of decades later, nearly all ice anglers use hi-tech sonars system, some equipped with GPS mapping that draws the depth contours below your boots. You no longer need to drill 20 holes to find the spot-on-the-spot.
It’s right there — marked with a waypoint!
Speaking of cutting holes, you can forget about properly choking your auger or carrying gas cans around. Rechargeable batteries power drills that start with the push of a button and chew through ice like a laser. And once holes are cut, today’s rods are nothing like Grandpa’s jig-stick that literally was a stick with a couple of pegs to wrap the line. Companies offer super-light graphite rods designed for various species and presentations—light jig, spoons, noodle action, spring bobber, and more. Specially built spinning reels function at 30 below, or else try one of the new in-line models that deliver twist-free fishing. And new “ice lines,” woven or extruded from hi-tech materials, deliver superior feel and are designed to shed ice and resist freezing or coiling.
Not surprisingly, the number of ice anglers has dramatically risen. In our northern region, ice fishing pressure exceeds the spring and summer months on small lakes up to a million-acre Lake of the Woods. On three large, popular Minnesota lakes, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has tabulated about 5.5 million hours of ice fishing annually. This activity has provided a huge boost to the fishing industry. A 2018 survey by the American Sportfishing Association estimated that annual expenditures for ice fishing equipment exceeded $181 million. Matt Johnson, Pro Staff Manager of Clam Corp., reports that their annual sales have doubled within the last 7 years. “We used to publish a 6-page catalog,” he says. “Now it’s 96 pages!”
Part of the draw is increased comfort. Instead of a quest for survival, we can fish comfortably in suits of light materials with insulating layers underneath, keeping the body warm down to -30 or less. Ice fishing boots are built for the toughest conditions. We have many great new gloves, as well, that are warm but allow dexterity. When my hands get wet, I always have a couple of those microfiber towels in my pocket to dry off immediately. Tent-style hub houses that can hold a dozen people have become popular, as they’re light ad easily transported
The latest insulated portable shelters have insulated tops and interior lighting. Many anglers now choose to fish from a modern wheelhouse that provides mobility as well as most of the comforts of home. Tom McMahon, the founder of Yetti Ice Houses, a top-of-the line wheelhouse, notes that since they went into business 9 years ago, sales have increased at a dramatic rate. “Many folks buy these houses to use as a summer cabin or guest house, in addition to ice fishing,” McMahon says. “They’re built for all-season use, with lots of amenities.”
This increased fishing pressure has fishery managers taking a watchful role. Although hourly catch rates tend to be low in winter, a wheelhouse may hold four anglers fishing straight through a weekend, with lines in the water all night long, and while cooking or watching football games. “Because finding fish has never been easier, ice anglers maybe removing big sunfish and crappies faster than they can be replaced in many lakes,” says Chris Kavanaugh, northeast regional fisheries manager for the Minnesota DNR. “Regulations keep lakes from getting ‘fished out, but they can be ‘fished down’ when anglers selectively harvest larger panfish. To preserve the species, fish start to mature at an earlier age, producing even more small fish and resulting in stunting.” While managers carefully tailor bag and length limits on popular walleye waters, smaller lakes often rely on angler restraint or secrecy to avoid overharvesting. We recommend that today’s ice anglers enjoy this bounty, but not kill the proverbial goose that laid the golden egg.