Ice fishing gets slick with gadgets, heated shelters
Written by Grand Forks Herald   
Thursday, 08 December 2005 07:10

In many ways, Greg Clusiau is a poster child for how the sport of ice fishing has evolved in the last 20 years.

Clusiau, 57, of Keewatin, says he'll log upward of 60 days on the ice during a typical winter. For Clusiau - and thousands of others like him - ice fishing today is an exercise in comfort, reliability and mobility:

Lightweight, portable houses.

Electronics that clearly show not only depths, but fish.

Underwater cameras that show everything.

Augers that chew through a foot of ice in mere seconds.

And heat, glorious heat. Long gone are the days of sitting on a five-gallon bucket and freezing.

"It's amazing," Clusiau said. "I talk to people about this. I don't know if we were just stupid or what. We didn't know any better. We were standing outside and never even thought about shelters. For the most part, a lot of us went out and drilled holes with the five-gallon bucket for a chair. Once in a while, we'd have a fire on the lake but no portable heaters or electronics or anything. It was uncomfortable. I don't know how we even put up with it."

Clusiau says that all changed in the mid-1980s, when he met Minnesota ice fishing guru Dave Genz, inventor of the Fish Trap series of portable fish houses. Genz gave Clusiau a Fish Trap to try, and the pair quickly became friends. Before long, Clusiau had purchased a "flasher" depthfinder unit that read the underwater world in shades of red, orange and green. Known as the Vexilar FL-8, the flasher opened up a new world of ice fishing opportunities, Clusiau said, because it allowed him to see what was - or wasn't - going on below the ice.

"Fishing with Dave made me buy my first Vexilar, as he made it look way too easy," Clusiau said. "And it was. After I purchased mine, I began preaching and spreading the word.

"I had one of the first Vexilars in this neck of the woods, and I just set the whole place on fire."

The Vexilar, and similar units such as the Marcum LX-5, are standard electronics in today's ice fishing arsenal.

Talk about new products this winter, and ice fishing promoter Chip Leer of Walker says the first four-stroke ice auger to hit the market is a big development. Manufactured by Strikemaster Corp., the auger features a synthetic shaft instead of conventional metal and weighs only 20 pounds.

Also notable, Leer says, is the growing popularity of mobile "hard" houses that anglers tow to the lake just like they would a boat in the summer. More comfortable than canvas portables, the houses often sell for upward of $2,000.

They're ideal for larger lakes such as Upper Red and Lake of the Woods, which traditionally have well-plowed roads, says Leer, co-host of the outdoors TV show "Fishing the Wildside on Ice."

"They're becoming a new market or new category," Leer said. "It's a whole other aspect of fishing - a mobile-based camp. I don't know how many of those companies there are, but they're popping up everywhere. Between Walker and Minneapolis, you'll drive by no less than 10 different manufacturers with hard fish houses for sale. You sit in downtown Walker on a Thursday or Friday morning, and those things go by. It looks just like opening day in May - trucks and fish houses all heading north."

Other products simply are refinements of old standards. As a member of Genz's "Power Sticks" team of ice fishing educators and promoters, Clusiau is in frequent contact with tackle manufacturers. Aside from glow paints in a variety of colors - a development that's already a few years old - and perhaps colored hooks, Clusiau says the tackle itself hasn't changed much.

At the same time, though, few could argue the improvements in ice fishing equipment haven't driven the pastime to its current level of popularity. Clothes are better, augers are better, houses are better, rods and reels are better - and consumers are taking notice.

According to Noel Vick, vice president of marketing for Plymouth-based Clam Corp., which markets the Fish Trap and Clam series of portable houses, how much ice fishing has grown is difficult to say because few tracking measures exist to gauge its popularity. But the company's sales figures, he says, speak for themselves. And in the end, those are the numbers that count.

"We grow 10 to 20 percent annually," Vick said. "But we really don't have good statistical data other than the fact that all we do is build fish houses for a living, and we have a 70,000-square-foot manufacturing facility to build fish houses."

Also interesting, Vick says, is that ice fishing, which has its roots in the Midwest, is expanding both east and west. That bodes well for continued growth in the industry.

"This is the only activity I can think of that started in the Midwest and spread east and west," Vick said. "Most trends end up here, and we started this one. The eastern Dakotas and Minnesota are the epicenter - the most advanced ice fishing areas - you can't go anywhere else and see this level" of sophistication.

Ask Clusiau about that sophistication, and he'll say it's made his ice fishing experience more enjoyable on every level.

"Having fun is the bottom line, but you usually don't have too much fun unless you find fish," Clusiau said.

Comfort and technology aside, ice fishing in its most basic form still involves trying to coax a fish into falling for a lure presented through a small hole in the ice. That's a big part of the attraction. Always has been. Always will be.

"Ice fishing is not even remotely like it was; you can't count the changes," Leer of "Fishing the Wildside" said. "But at the same time, everything is the same. It's still a hole, a line, a jig and fish.

"It still comes down to the fact that no matter how good your products are, you still have to make the fish bite, and there's nothing that can do that except the fisherman," Leer said. "The rest of it is all creature comforts and confidence. All these things are here for us to use, and they're great tools, but it still comes down to man against fish, and that's why I like fishing."

Leer says ice fishing also provides a piece of mind he can't find anywhere else.

"Part of it is the serenity of it all, and there's certain things that happen in the winter that you just can't duplicate anywhere else," Leer said. "Being on the lake at twilight or after dark and listening to the hum of the lantern to me is romantic. That can't be duplicated anywhere else."

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