Published December 13, 2009, 12:00 AM

WINTER FISHING PREVIEW: Hot season on ice

Ice fishing poised for a solid winter, industry watchers say
From deluxe fish houses that resemble mobile homes to high-tech clothing made specifically for wintertime anglers, the options for enjoying ice fishing seemingly are as endless as the imagination, if not the budget.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

Winter took its sweet, old time in getting here this year, but now that it’s arrived with a vengeance, the ice fishing industry is poised for a memorable season.

That includes everyone from retailers to resorts that cater to ice-obsessed anglers.

Even if the fish don’t always cooperate, there’s cause for optimism.

Nowhere, perhaps, was that more apparent than last weekend’s 17th annual St. Paul Ice Fishing and Winter Sports Show. According to Chip Leer, an ice fishing authority from Walker, Minn., whose face is well-known among wintertime anglers, promoters said the show set an attendance record, and retailers, in his words, were “ecstatic.”

“I tell you what, if you told me there were economic challenges for a lot of industries, the ice fishing industry sure seems to be strong,” Leer said.

Leer worked all three days of the show for Bemidji-based Northland Tackle Co. At times, he said, people waited in line 45 minutes to an hour just to buy a ticket to get in the doors of the St. Paul RiverCentre.

“It was out-of-control exciting, and they weren’t there just gawking,” Leer said. “Ice-wise, there’s certainly a lot of enthusiasm out there.”

Options abound

Leer and others said it’s difficult to say why ice fishing is bucking the trend in a down economy.

Cost and choice could have something to do with it. From deluxe fish houses that resemble mobile homes to high-tech clothing made specifically for wintertime anglers, the options for enjoying ice fishing seemingly are as endless as the imagination, if not the budget.

Gone are the days of having to sit outside on a five-gallon bucket and freeze.

Leer said ice fishing clothing seemed to be an especially big seller at this year’s ice show. Brands such as Ice Armor and SnoSuit now are household words among wintertime anglers, many who either own the clothing or wish they did. The ice fishing suits retail for as much as $600, but that wasn’t a detriment last weekend, Leer said.

“The amount of clothing they bought was just unbelievable,” he said. “That category is definitely here to stay. It’s getting better, and it’s getting more affordable. It’s definitely helping the experience.”

Castle on ice

When it comes to staying warm, portable flip-top houses that set up in seconds have been part of that experience for 20 years, but anglers with the means also are looking to more deluxe creature comforts.

Perhaps the ultimate in creature comforts can be found in hard-sided houses on wheels such as the Ice Castle.

In Grand Forks, Garden Hut subsidiary Dakota Outdoors is a dealer for the Minnesota-made Ice Castle fish houses. Shawn Dockter, a sales associate at The Garden Hut, said the houses are especially popular among families getting into ice fishing. The Ice Castle is available in sizes ranging from 6½ feet by 8 feet to 8 feet by 20 feet, and the larger units include such amenities as bunks and dinettes.

That luxury can cost nearly $20,000 depending on the size and options, but Dockter said sales consistently average 10 to 20 units per year. The beauty, he said, is that the houses can work as a base camp on ice while exploring other areas with portable shelters.

They’re especially popular on lakes such as Devils Lake and Lake of the Woods that offer plowed winter ice roads.

“It’s more comfortable for mom and the kids,” Dockter said. “The biggest thing happening with them now is more people are using them year-round. If they’ve got a place at the lake, they’ll use it as a bunkhouse or use it as a deer shack in the fall and an ice house in the winter.”

Sign of the times

According to Jason Mitchell, a Devils Lake guide and host of the outdoors TV show “Jason Mitchell Outdoors,” gear that makes the outdoors more enjoyable for women and families means husbands probably get more opportunities to fish and hunt.

In that context, splurging on a deluxe fish house can be a good investment.

“I’m seeing it in the guiding business,” Mitchell said. “If I get my wife into this, and she’s part of it, I get to spend more money and get to go more often. I think that’s part of it, too.”

Still, Mitchell said, the beauty of ice fishing is that it doesn’t require spending a small fortune to get started. Anglers can buy a seemingly endless variety of gadgets and gizmos, but an investment in basic gear doesn’t have to break the bank.

“Traditionally, we’ve always figured a person could get set up with some really good gear and be effective for $1,000,” Mitchell said. “That’s probably gone up to about $1,200.”

Mitchell, who also attended last weekend’s St. Paul ice show, said the Internet has created a generation of young anglers who not only know about the gear, they also know how to use it.

And they were out in force last weekend, he said.

“We’re seeing a lot of college-age guys getting into ice fishing, and they’re really savvy,” Mitchell said. “If you’re a college kid, you could have the latest and greatest — I’m talking houses, rods, GPS — and for $2,500 you could be really decked out.

“For another $2,500, you could have a (used) four-wheeler and trailer. You can’t even touch boat fishing for that amount of money, but you can be top of the line, best of the best in winter.”

The onset of cold weather means ice fishing will be hitting full-swing within the next few days at traditional hotspots such as Lake of the Woods and Devils Lake. Even before the cold snap, though, anglers were tuning up for winter.

Carson Robinson, events coordinator at Cabela’s in East Grand Forks, said the excitement was apparent in the store during last weekend’s Ice Fishing Classic. Portable houses, electronics such as Vexilar flasher-style depthfinders and propane Buddy Heaters all were popular items.

Robinson said he did notice, though, that many customers were sharing costs by teaming up to buy bigger-ticket equipment such as portable shelters and augers.

“You’ve got guys buying these $800 houses, but three or four guys will kick in $200 apiece and split the cost,” Robinson said. “People aren’t willing to compromise their hunting and fishing. That’s a sovereign area — regardless of the economy.”

Why the passion?

Sure, the abundance of gear and clothing options means ice fishing is comfortable and affordable, but industry insiders say it’s difficult to explain the passion people have for the pastime. Especially to outsiders, who might not be able to grasp the concept of heading out on a frozen river or lake in subzero temperatures.

Leer, the ice fishing expert from Walker, might have said it best.

“I don’t know why it’s so popular, I really don’t,” he said. “What excites me the most is being inside my house with the lantern and heater in control of everything — listening to the hum of the lantern, maybe the motor of the flasher.

“There’s something about that solitude that’s similar to, and probably a lot more comfortable, than deer hunting. It’s a one-on-one, cat-and-mouse game of trying to intrigue a fish to bite.”

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com.

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