After decades of refinement, ice-fishing presentations are beginning to influence open-water tactics
ST. CLOUD — By mid-March even hardcore ice anglers are usually praying for open water, ready to stow their winter gear and prep the boat for the summer season. Dave Genz, meanwhile, is hoping for another few weeks of safe ice.
Genz, of St. Cloud, is an innovative thinker and a gifted angler, and is responsible for developing many of the tools we take for granted today: the Fish Trap flip-over shelter, the Genz Box that holds fishing electronics and a miniature 12-volt battery and even the maggots or Euro-larvae that many anglers use for sunfish, crappies and perch throughout the ice season.
His latest innovation, though, is all about open-water fishing. He calls it the “Holy Boat” because of the two holes cut in the bottom of the boat that allow anglers to fish directly beneath the hull. At first sight it seems like a novelty, but it’s also an incredibly productive fishing platform.
The Holy Boat in theory
Genz said the ice-fishing revolution that began in the 1980s was all about adapting the tools anglers relied on to catch fish during the open-water season for use on the ice.
“At the time, the same anglers that moved from spot to spot in a boat during summer seemed content to sit in a permanent fish house all winter long — even when they weren’t catching fish,” Genz said. “And while they searched for fish with electronics in open water, no one was using that technology on the ice.”
The reel-less “jiggle sticks” used by anglers across the upper Midwest were replaced by longer spinning rods and reels spooled with light monofilament line. Large spoons were replaced by tiny jigs that were tipped with live bait to trigger more bites.
All of this gear was transported on the ice in a small sled that also served as a portable shelter during harsh weather conditions. The sleds were light enough to pull by hand, but durable enough to be towed by a snowmobile or ATV to cover more water.
“With the right tools, we instantly began catching many more fish,” Genz said. “As those presentations were continuously refined, many of us thought that we were more productive and efficient on the ice than we were in the boat. That really got the wheels turning.”
When pre-spawn sunfish are holding in deep weeds, for example, a vertical presentation directly beneath the boat often works better than casting a jig or float rig away from the boat.
“Many anglers have experimented with hanging their ice-fishing transducer over the side of the boat and using a short rod to keep the bait close,” Genz said. “But it’s only marginally effective — especially when the boat swings in wind or current.”
Genz envisioned a stable vertical-jigging platform that would allow him to employ winter fishing tactics throughout the open-water season.
Building the Holy Boat
After considering a variety of boat designs, Genz settled on an 18-foot G3 jon boat with a 50 horsepower tiller outboard. He bought the boat at Frankie’s Marine in Chisago City, Minn., and had it rigged with a Minn Kota Ulterra trolling motor that automatically deploys and stows with a push on the remote control. It also features Spot-Lock, which uses GPS to hold the boat stationary.
“That’s often sufficient in calm conditions, but when the wind blows I use two anchors — one on the bow and one on the stern — to prevent the boat from swinging,” Genz said.
The 30-pound anchors are deployed with two Minn Kota electric anchor winches that are operated from the command center in the back of the boat.
Genz partnered with a welder in Chisago City to outfit the rest of the boat.
“He seemed excited about the project, and put a lot of thought into how it might be executed,” Genz said. “After we discussed the plan in detail, I left him with my new boat and returned home.
“I called him a couple of weeks later to ask how much progress he’d made. ‘I haven’t started yet,’ he said, ‘and Frankie wants you to call him.’ When I called the dealership, Frankie’s wife answered and said, ‘You didn’t think we’re going to let him cut holes in the boat before it’s paid for, did you?’ That was fair.”
Each of the holes features an aluminum standpipe that rises a foot or so above the deck. Water rises about halfway up the tube, just as it does in an ice hole. When traveling on plane, a plug fashioned from aluminum and closed-cell foam seals the hole to prevent water from shooting into the boat.
“The plugs have been the most difficult engineering challenge,” Genz said, “and I’m still not completely satisfied with my current solution. It works, but I’m always on the lookout for a more functional execution.”
Fishing in the Holy Boat
Genz uses the same rods, reels, lures and electronics that he uses all winter for panfish across the ice belt. Heavy, but compact tungsten jigs fall quickly through the water column and are easy to see on the Vexilar flashers permanently mounted next to each hole.
“Sometimes I’ll use small, finesse plastic baits — especially when fish are feeding aggressively,” Genz said. “Most of the time, though, I’ll load the jig up with four or five lively maggots.”
Early in the season Genz targets emerging weed beds that hold pre- and post-spawn sunfish. The fish might hold anywhere in the water column in these areas, but he said that the biggest fish usually are closer to the bottom.
“When the fish are actively feeding, it can be challenging to drop your jig through the smaller fish holding up high,” he added. “In this situation, we often switch to a heavier jig that falls faster to the bottom to avoid smaller fish.”
An aggressive jigging cadence usually works, but sometimes the fish demand a more subtle, almost dead-stick presentation that allows them to carefully inspect the bait.
“I usually start fast then let the fish tell me what they want,” he said.
Genz also noted that fish are attracted to the shade directly under the boat, and more fish usually move in after the boat is anchored into position.
It’s a novel fishing experience. So much so that Clam Outdoors — the ice-fishing tackle manufacturer based in Rogers, Minn. — has displayed the boat at their booth at the Minnesota State Fair.
But it’s also an amazingly effective fishing platform.
“I don’t think many anglers are going to drill holes through the bottom of their boats,” Genz concluded, “but I do think they would catch more fish by applying ice-fishing tactics to their summer fishing.”
Selective sunfish harvest
According to the Minnesota DNR, anglers harvest roughly 16 million sunfish every year in the state. Sunfish populations remain high in many lakes, but harvesting large sunfish — those larger than eight or nine inches — can lead to stunted populations of small fish.
Sunfish spawn in large nesting colonies during the spring and early summer. Male sunfish build and defend nests. Females will select a male, lay eggs, and leave them for the male to protect and fan with his fins. These nest-building male sunfish play an important role in repopulation, with the largest sunfish often getting the best spawning sites.
When anglers keep only large sunfish, which often are males guarding nests, the remaining small males don’t need to compete with larger males to spawn. Instead of growing, they devote their energy to spawning at younger ages and smaller sizes. And high sunfish populations are generally not conducive to growing large sunfish.
Spawning sunfish are particularly prone to over harvest because they are very aggressive while defending a nest. Anglers can help by releasing spawning sunfish, especially large, nesting males. Released fish have a high survival rate and will typically return to their nests to complete the spawning cycle.
“To maintain a high quality fishery, it’s important that anglers understand the important role these large nesting fish play, and that we work together to exercise a conservation ethic that ensures these fish thrive,” said Grand Rapids area fisheries supervisor Dave Weitzel.