He might not have known it at the time, but Dave Genz was making ice fishing history in 1980 when he built the first flip-top portable ice fishing shelter in the garage of his Twin Cities-area home. As the story goes, his wife, Patsy, used her sewing machine to sew the white canvas that attached via poles to the homemade wooden “tub” that served as the base.
That invention became known as the Fish Trap, and this year, the Fish Trap marks its 40th anniversary.
To mark the milestone, Rogers, Minn.-based Clam Corp., which has owned the Fish Trap brand since 1992, is releasing three special edition models of the groundbreaking Fish Trap shelters. Unlike the distinct blue that has become a Clam and Fish Trap trademark, the special edition Fish Traps are white with the same red lettering Genz used on those early Fish Traps.
That’s where the similarity ends: The special edition Fish Traps have the same “retro look, but with all the technology and features of the modern Clam fish houses,” Clam says in the production descriptions on its website, clamoutdoors.com.
That includes insulated thermal canvas and a molded plastic tub, the latter replacing the original wooden tubs in the late 1980s. In many ways, the special edition Fish Traps symbolize just how much ice fishing has changed in those 40 years.
I was in college way back in 1980, and even though I went to Bemidji State University, an outdoors hotbed, I didn’t spend much time ice fishing because I didn’t have a shelter to keep warm on cold winter days.
I had one of those spoon-style augers that took forever to drill a hole through the ice, and those old “pointed stick” ice fishing rods, basically wooden dowels with a spike at one end to jab into the ice and two pegs to wrap the line around.
The idea of electronics was both unheard-of and unaffordable.
When it came to ice fishing, you had to pick your moments and hope your free time coincided with weather that was warm enough to make being outdoors bearable.
Then as now, I wasn’t a big fan of freezing.
In the mid-1980s and out of college, I graduated to a 4-by-6-foot suitcase-style portable house I still have. Later, a friend and I went halves on one of those blue tarp houses shaped like a covered wagon, with front and back walls that folded down over the floor for storage and transport.
They were extremely heavy and not very portable; once you set up in a spot, you tended to stay there.
At the invitation of Greg Clusiau, a fishing enthusiast from Keewatin, Minn., who did some guiding back in the day, I had the opportunity to meet and fish with Genz in late November 1993 on a trip to Cutfoot Sioux Lake in northern Minnesota.
I used a Fish Trap and a Vexilar FL-8 flasher that was mounted on one of Genz’s trademark “Blue Box” units for the first time on that trip.
It changed everything.
Seated in the one-person Fish Trap, I was able to stay warm with a Coleman propane heater and keep my focus on fishing by watching the Vexilar, which allowed me to see — and better yet, catch — crappies suspended several feet off the bottom. Without electronics, I never would have known those fish were there.
I bought a one-person Fish Trap, a Vexilar FL-8 and a Genz Blue Box on which to mount it within days of returning to Grand Forks.
The popularity of ice fishing and the abundance of gear has exploded since 1980, and especially in the past 20 years. There are numerous other brands of both portable shelters and electronics on the market today, of course, but one could easily make the argument that it all happened because of Genz and the invention he came up with, and which his wife helped him make, all those years ago.
There’s a reason, after all, he’s widely referred to as the “Father of Modern Ice Fishing” and a member of both the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and the Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame.
His inventions were born out of necessity, Genz says, the need not only to stay warm, but also mobile.
“When I started, we weren't using any form of electronics in ice fishing yet, so mobility is definitely the change,” Genz, now in his 70s, told me in a 2010 interview. “What my grandfather taught me to do was go chop open the same hole the next night and fish in that spot and wait for the fish to start biting about sundown, and I think that kind of was the history of the sport.
“When we were chopping holes with a chisel, we didn't chop very many.”
I’ve upgraded to larger portables and Vexilar flashers with more bells and whistles — first an FL-18 and later an FLX-28 — but I still have both my old Fish Trap and that bare-bones FL-8.
As a nod to history and tradition, I might have to break them out at least once this winter. Or splurge and buy one of those 40th anniversary shelters.