The recent Arctic blast got ice fishing enthusiasts fired up about their winter passion, but temperatures since have moderated — putting the ice-making on hold — and most lakes in the Northland aren’t yet safe.
Still, the warm snap hasn’t cooled the excitement.
“There’s a lot of excitement, and I think the excitement is only going to grow as people get tired of sitting in a (deer) stand looking at the same small doe walking by,” said Brian “Bro” Brosdahl, a longtime ice fishing promoter and guide from Max, Minn., in northern Itasca County. “There’s an excitement to deer hunting, but I think there’s more excitement about ice fishing because early ice — the first month and a half of ice fishing — is phenomenal.
“More exciting than fall because all it does is rain in the fall lately. That fall bite didn’t stop when the ice happened; it’s still there — it’s just us getting to it.”
The warm-up might have forced a delay in “getting to it,” but ice fishing will be in full swing soon enough.
To get their thoughts on what’s new and what’s in store for this winter and beyond, we talked to three ice fishing authorities: Brosdahl, North Dakota Fishing Hall of Fame member and outdoors TV host Jason Mitchell and Chip Leer, a member of the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame who will be inducted into the Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame in April.
They covered a variety of topics from trends to gear, but keep in mind the products they promote are just a sampling of what’s out there.
With gear shopping as in fishing, finding out for yourself is half the fun.
Brian “Bro” Brosdahl
With his trademark red goatee and gift for gab, Brosdahl is one of the most recognizable and likeable brands in the fishing industry with sponsors that include Frabill, Humminbird, Aqua-Vu and Northland Tackle, among a host of others.
Along with wife, Heather, Brosdahl this time of year spends more time on the road than on the ice with his annual “Bro Road Show,” a promotional swing of retail outlets across the Ice Belt that continues through early January.
He’s still found time to scratch his hard-water itch on small, shallow northern Minnesota lakes that are the first to freeze. Bro and his wife spent part of their 25th anniversary ice fishing Tuesday, Nov. 19.
“There’s been 4 or 5 inches of ice in my area for a week,” he said Tuesday. “This is the time of year when I fish for what I can fish for and not what I want to fish for. Shallow lakes that freeze early are my target.”
When checking early ice, Brosdahl says he’ll drill holes every 10 feet to 20 feet to test the thickness.
“I don’t go all the way through,” he said. “If I drill down and I see 4-5 inches of ice, I know” it’s safe.
Frabill’s “Bro Series” line of popup hub-style portable houses carry Brosdahl’s name, as does the "Bro SideStep" flip-over shelter. The lightweight pop-ups are popular for their portability, folding up into a carrying bag. The Bro Series pop-up has 44½ square feet of fishable space, weighs 36 pounds and retails for $350.
“I scoffed at them 15 years ago, but I don’t laugh at them anymore,” Brosdahl said. “They fold up like a sports chair. It’s a maximum amount of room that folds up to a small space, and the price is smaller.”
Also of note, Brosdahl says, is Plano’s Edge series of tackle boxes, which feature a rust-proofing agent and precut plastic dividers. The boxes are made for crankbaits, but they also work great for jigging spoons and other ice fishing gear, Brosdahl says.
“You don’t smell the rust-proofing agent, and you don’t see it, but it’s there,” Brosdahl said.
In a 30-plus-year fishing career as a guide, communicator and product developer, Hall of Fame angler Chip Leer of Walker, Minn., has watched ice fishing evolve into the high-tech pursuit it is today.
In terms of new ice fishing products on the market this year, Leer says he believes it’s more about improving what’s already available: portable houses with multiple doors instead of a single door; jigs with stronger hooks, new shapes and colors; and a growing menu of ice rod options.
Manufacturers are paying attention to what anglers want while creating a product buzz that helps demand outweigh supply, Leer says.
“The one thing the industry has learned, and one of the reasons it’s growing and successful, is that these manufacturers have learned to make limited amounts of product,” Leer said. “They have learned that it’s better to estimate and run out than it is to overestimate and have to carry product from year to year.”
You snooze, you lose, in other words, when it comes to buying ice fishing gear.
“As angry as that has made consumers sometimes, the reason that we continue to get better product is because these guys continue to be able to produce things, still turn a profit and move forward, and that’s especially the bigger ticket items -- houses, augers, all that stuff,” Leer said.
Last winter, Leer said he tested Northland Tackle’s Eye-Ball Spoon, which was a big hit under the ice in the Devils Lake Basin and on Lake of the Woods.
“Hands down, no questions asked,” Leer said it was the best fish catcher both trips. Shaped like a fish’s eyeball, the jig is available in one-sixteenth, one-eighth and one-quarter-ounce sizes and a variety of colors.
“We know that fish hone in on eyeballs, and the concept sounds so simple,” Leer said. “When we first tested that thing, literally I’ve never tested a product more successfully than I did that.
“It outproduced anything else that we were fishing with.”
Two new tungsten jigs — the Punch Jig and the Punch Fly — are made from a denser version of tungsten, Leer said, which means they drop faster for their size. Beefier hooks hold up better, he said, and a larger eyelet makes it easier for anglers with older eyes to tie the jig.
“That was done on purpose, too, by the way,” Leer said. “The oversize eye from the line just makes it easier to tie because some of that little stuff is just impossible.”
Jason Mitchell of Devils Lake, N.D., logs his share of ice time as host of the “Jason Mitchell Outdoors” TV show and pro staff for Clam Corp., known for its line of ice fishing shelters, rods and tackle. A line of Clam flip-top and hub-style shelters carries Mitchell’s name, as does Clam’s “Gen8” and “Dead Meat” series of ice fishing rods designed for different species and applications.
Among Clam’s new ice lures, Mitchell says, is the Jointed Pinhead Mino, available in a variety of colors including a gold-and-red glow combination that looks like a must-have for Lake of the Woods, where walleyes have a proven penchant for both colors.
The spoon also has a blade on the split ring where the hook is attached for added fish-attracting flash and noise.
“I tested some prototypes last winter, and I caught a lot of fish on them,” Mitchell said. “You just shake it and it moves so much. You hardly have to do anything with the rod tip and it moves. I think that’s going to be a home run.
“I think, too, whenever you add blades or another split ring, you add a little bit more noise to the presentation.”
Despite the advances in ice fishing technology — electric augers with lithium ion batteries, electronics with mapping and side imaging capabilities and tracked vehicles such as side-by-side ATVs and Sno Bears that basically are mobile fish houses — Mitchell says he doesn’t think the industry has peaked.
“The equipment will just keep getting better,” he said. “I think electronics will keep coming, mapping will keep coming. Now, for example, not only do we have contour maps, but like on Devils Lake and Stump Lake (in North Dakota), we’re using old aerial photography and overlaying that so we can see where the trees were, and brush piles are and things of that nature.
“It’s come light years, but I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon.”