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Helping more get hooked

Ice fishing has changed over the years, and as popular as ever

Minnesota winters get a bad rap, but for those who love the outdoors, there is recreation galore. The state boasts 22,000 miles of groomed snowmobile trails and miles of cross country ski trails. Ice skating and sledding are popular, and ice fishing attracts thousands, young and old, to the state’s over 10,000 lakes.

With warmer temperatures and the calendar turning to March, Minnesota’s ice fishing season will soon come to an end. So, how was the ice fishing this winter? Ask a fisherman. They are known for being good storytellers, and, if you’re lucky, they may even share a tip on where the fish are biting.

Jim Dempsey, of St. Cloud, has fished since he was a young kid, and he described this ice fishing season as “phenomenal.” He freely admits his passion for fishing, and he grew up spending a lot of time fishing central Minnesota lakes, including Grand, Clearwater, Pleasant and Pearl. Dempsey owns a St. Cloud bait shop with his wife, Kathy. “We’ve been here nine years,” Dempsey said, “and I plan to keep it up as long as it’s still fun.” He has a permanent fish house on Pearl Lake, where he and his wife both enjoy fishing, and he said he’s had some success this winter seeing a few walleyes and some northerns. When asked if his customers share their “hot tips” with him, he admitted, “Yeah, they usually do.”

Another lifelong fisherman is Steve Nelson, of St. Cloud, who grew up in Holloway. In the 1960s, Nelson and his dad, Floyd, spent many a winter day on a frozen lake in pursuit of the “big one.” They had a small, four-by-four house for spearing, but for angling, they sat on buckets outdoors on the ice. “We didn’t go often because we needed to have a nice day,” said Nelson, adding they didn’t have the waterproof bib overalls so many fishermen wear now when sitting out in the open. In spite of the layers of clothing they wore and lots of socks, they would eventually get cold, so they would get into the truck and turn on the engine to warm up. A day on the ice was a great adventure for Nelson, who loves the outdoors. “I didn’t have any video games,” he said, chuckling. In those days, unlike today, they had few comforts on the ice, but he fondly remembers gobbling down iced cinnamon rolls and sipping ginger ale while waiting for the fish to bite.  Most often, he and his dad fished Artichoke, Lac qui Parle and Big Stone lakes in western Minnesota.

When he was in his twenties, Nelson built a portable house using canvas with plywood ends. He had no windows and for heat, he used either a propane heater or a Coleman lantern. “We used chisels and a spoon auger to cut the holes in the ice,” said Nelson. “Because we had to hand crank all the way through the ice, we cut smaller, 6 inch holes.”  Since moving to St. Cloud, he’s done a lot of fishing at Clearwater and Cedar lakes.

Neither Dempsey nor Nelson could have dreamed how much ice fishing would change over the years. Now you can rent or own an Ice Castle fish house, a portable fish house that provides all the comforts of home, including a bathroom, a kitchen, a furnace, satellite dish, bunks and plenty of space to live comfortably and fish for days on end. “It’s great for staying overnight, but it’s heavy, and you need to have a three-quarter-ton pickup to pull it,” Nelson said.

Technology has changed fishing, too. Serious anglers have a GPS unit to learn about the lake structure and see where the fish are located.  Fish finders today are more sensitive than the first ones made, and underwater cameras are popular. Some people drill a hole and put their camera down into the water so they can watch a fish take the bait.

There’s more destination fishing today, with people going to Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, Devils Lake in North Dakota, Lake Winnipeg and Lake of the Woods. “The bigger lakes tend to have the big fish,” said Nelson, “so people want to go where the action is. It’s harder to get the big ones locally.”  Dempsey enjoys a fishing trip to Lake of the Woods now and then. “They have guides that do most of the work,” he emphasized, “like marking trails and chopping holes and ensuring everyone’s safety.” The ice houses are heated, and they provide the lunch, too.

Nelson and friend, Byron Giese, fished Big Stone Lake near Ortonville on a mild January day. It was hard to drive onto the ice because of the ice heaves at all of the accesses. The warmer temperatures expanded and contracted the ice, and the heaves on shore were 3 feet high. They finally got on the lake and followed the trail four miles to a “hot spot” near the Meadowbrook access where they’d had luck two years before. For all the effort, Nelson got an 11-inch perch, but that and one other fish were all for the day. The weather was so mild they sat on buckets out in the open, and if they didn’t get a bite, they would move on and drill more holes in the 2 feet of ice. “It was unbelievable,” he said. “On a typical January day, we’d be sitting inside the house and playing cards.”

Some fishermen staying in an Ice Castle nearby asked them where they had been able to drive on to the lake that day. They had been parked in the same spot for a few days and were concerned how to get off the lake because of the ice heaves. “There was no way to cross, so they had to check the accesses on the South Dakota side.”

Nelson and Giese watched a commercial seining operation at work netting thousands of pounds of sheepshead and filling crates to rid Big Stone Lake of the rough fish. DNR permits are required for these netting operations used to clean up a lake in hopes of increasing numbers of game fish.

The beauty of fishing in late winter/early spring is that the temperatures are warmer and the angler doesn’t need a fish house or source of heat. March can be a good time to take the kids fishing, especially if the panfish are biting, which makes for a more fun experience. There are many Take a Kid Ice Fishing programs offered throughout the state to expose kids to ice fishing and to boost interest in the winter activity. “My wish is for kids to put aside their video games and check out a depth finder,” said Dempsey.

Dempsey is actively involved with Fishing Has No Boundaries, a nonprofit volunteer organization which has the goal to open up the great outdoors to persons with disabilities, through the world of fishing. He has volunteered with the program for years at Camp Confidence in Brainerd which hosts a weekend event at Sylvan and Gull lakes each August. Volunteers bring their boats and pontoons and tons of enthusiasm. The organization also provides adaptive angling equipment, including ramps to access boats, pole holders, reel grippers and different kinds of electric reels. Last year, over 300 anglers and volunteers participated in the event.

Dempsey was also involved in setting up the Central Minnesota chapter of Fishing Has No Boundaries in the St. Cloud area, and he’s been recognized for his work by Simply Outdoor Experiences. He encourages anyone interested in the organization to check out their website:

The short, dark, winter days are gone, and March is here. It’s time to plan that ice fishing trip today. For tips on where they might be biting, ask somebody who knows–a fisherman.

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