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Nice on the ice: Growth in ice-fishing fueled by good fishing, good gear

Last winter, ice anglers on Lake of the Woods near Baudette, Minn., spent more than 2 million hours fishing and caught more than 350,000 walleyes, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service1 / 3
An angler holds a nice Lake of the Woods walleye. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service2 / 3
112617.O.DNT.IcefishC1 -- Fish houses from a previous year dot the ice of Lake of the Woods. Ice fishing continues to grow in popularity on the big lake and others across Northeastern Minnesota. Be sure to check with local resorts or bait shops about ice conditions before venturing out on lakes this winter. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service3 / 3

DULUTH, Minn. — Ice anglers eager to catch early-ice crappies are already hitting Pontoon Bay of Fish Lake, says Tim Wagner of Hi-Banks Resort near Duluth.

"We've got 5 to 6 inches of ice," Wagner said Wednesday. "We get about 30 cars a day here, guys walking down."

Understand that the cars aren't on the ice. Nor any permanent ice shelters. Just folks shuffling down the ice with their portable fishing shelters, setting up for a few hours of action.

It's still early in the season, and not all lakes are safe to venture out on — it's important to check with resorts or bait shops about ice conditions, and be cautious.

The eager anglers who have found safe ice conditions are part of a continuing surge of hard-water anglers that has been driving explosive growth in the ice-fishing industry for several years, said Russ Francisco of Marine General Supply in Duluth.

"Last year was a big growth year," Francisco said. "We thought that was the top."

But this year has started fast, too, he said.

"Last week was a record week for us," he said. "This year, for some reason, it's tents. When we get early ice, it's tents that sell first. When we get late ice, it's electronics that sell first."

Ice formed early this year compared to recent years. It's still relatively thin and unsafe in many areas — including most of Fish Lake — but it has put folks in the mood to buy ice-fishing gear, Francisco said.

"The manufacturers are already running out," he said. "The Strikemaster auger — the factory is out."

Continuing trend

After years of gradual growth, the ice-fishing industry began booming several years ago with the advent of better shelters, innovations in augers, more sophisticated electronics and the coming of wheel houses that crank down onto the ice.

"This 'new idea' of ice-fishing is only a decade old," Francisco said.

He has a name for the old days of ice-fishing.

"The five-gallon bucket," he said.

For most, those former days have been let go like a 5-inch crappie. They're gone.

"I used to have three kinds of tents in stock, and that covered the whole gamut of styles," Francisco said. "Now I've got 27 different models people can look at in flip-overs, plus all kinds of pop-ups. And that's not taking into account the crankdowns (wheel houses)."

Winter anglers fish their home waters wherever they live, but they'll also travel for dependable bites — Upper Red Lake, Lake of the Woods, even Devils Lake in North Dakota.

"Lake of the Woods is the savior for the market with Mille Lacs being down," Francisco said.

Ice-fishing bonanza

Lake of the Woods has been nothing short of phenomenal. Last winter, anglers logged just over 2 million hours of ice fishing on the sprawling border lake. They caught nearly 350,000 pounds of walleyes and 325,000 pounds of saugers. Winter fishing pressure on the lake far outstrips summer pressure.

Several resorts cater to the big lake's ice anglers, ferrying them onto the ice to preheated fish houses where drilled holes await them. The fishing pressure is intense, but the lake is big enough to handle it. At peak season, houses are lined up on the ice like tiny homes in some frozen subdivision.

"It's really good fishing because of that stained water," said Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism. "You get action during the day. You don't have to be out there at midnight."

While some angling groups prefer a resort's full services, lots of anglers come up self-contained, Henry says, with the kind of gear Francisco is talking about.

"All the new technology — the flip-over shelters and pop-ups, insulated fishing shelters, more-efficient heaters, the new flashers — all of that has made ice fishing more efficient," Henry said. "And it's not really expensive to go ice fishing compared to buying $50,000 boats."

It's hard to say where the ice fishing boom will top out, on Lake of the Woods and elsewhere.

"I said this a couple years ago: It's as big as summer fishing north of Hinckley," Francisco said. "It's starting to grow faster than summer fishing."