Ice fishing has taken on a radical transformation over the past couple decades. The pursuit of fish through the ice was once one of the most basic – some might say crude – forms of angling you could do. The average ice angler would have a basic hand auger, a couple spools of line, hooks, sinkers and a gad ,or cut stick. That was about as fancy as it got. Drop a worm or minnow down the hole and wait. My early memories of ice fishing had more to do with staying warm than catching fish. If and when you did get a bite, it was a cause for much celebration. Mostly we stood around fires trying to keep our feet warm.
So fast forward to the early 1990s. This is roughly when I first discovered the wonderful world of electronics on ice. Power augers had already come on the scene in a big way, dramatically changing the way you could fish on ice. Having lots more holes was great, but you still were fishing more or less blind. However, on Lake of the Woods one cold December in 1991 a group of anglers from Minnesota and Manitoba introduced me to fishing with a “flasher”. This old school sonar showed you the bottom, your lure, and any fish that were hanging around. Seeing a crappie swim to my lure, leave and then get teased back, was absolutely fascinating and completely changed how I fished. Back then, finding a flasher for ice fishing was almost impossible, and usually required rigging a unit meant for open water in a way that was suitable for ice. This was easier said than done. To say that’s changed today is an understatement.
In 2016, ice fishing is no longer the poor step-sister to open water angling . Almost all the major electronics companies have sonar machines made specifically for use on ice. You can zoom in, change screen colours and get digital depth read outs. A few fish finder models have incorporated underwater cameras ,so you can actually see the fish you are after. Many of the top end units also have GPS, allowing you to mark the hotspots with a way point. No more triangulating your “sweet spot” with a tree, boat dock and flag pole. So common are ice fishing electronics in 2016 that it’s weird to see an angler that doesn’t have one.
The ice fishing tackle as changed as well. Ice fishing gear is now more than just a line on a stick. Today there are specialty ice fishing rods of every length, weight and colour. There are special reels made to work well in the cold and unique ice fishing lines that promise to stay limp and supple even in the coldest weather. All these rods can be stored in special cases with names like Ready Rig. The lures and other presentations specifically made for ice fishing species of all kinds is absolutely mind boggling. Unique lures with names like the Chubby Darter, Jigging Shad Rap and Swedish Pimple are specifically aimed at the ice market. Tiny micro-ice jigs are sued to catch panfish and perch. And there are old faithful classics like the Airplane Jig, a jigging lure that’s been catching lake trout for 60 years. However, I doubt the 1950s version of the Airplane jig was coated with glo in the dark paint.
All this ice fishing stuff can seem a little overwhelming, and maybe like overkill. We haven’t even talked much about the amazing numbers of portable and flip up ice tents on the market. No more shivering in the wind or behind a flapping tarp. Some of the new tents even have thermal material that can make the insides of the room so warm you can fish in a t shirt without any extra heat sources. Some even features LED lighting that runs off a 12 volt battery. It’s all worlds away from the ice fishing many of us grew up with.
But the cool thing about ice fishing is that you can still do it the old fashioned way if you want. There is no law you have to use a fish finder or even a rod and reel. Some days, as I charge multiple batteries or curse some piece of technology that’s acting up, I yearn for the old simplicity. Putting all my gear in one small pack and backpacking into a distant lake seems like it might be liberating. And it just may happen someday.
But not this winter.