Enjoy the uniquely northern sport of ice fishing.
With a minnesota motto that aptly states, “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” well, we all know just how important those glistening and gleaming bodies of water are to us in the bold north. We swim in them, we boat on them, we picnic around them, we catch fish in them. And we don’t let Old Man Winter with his decidedly-icy-and-sometimes-irritatingly-long-grip deter us from dropping a line and catching a big one—nope!
In fact, we relish it.
We bundle up. We head to the frozen lake. We drill a hole. We bait a hook and drop a line. And we hope for a hungry or inquisitive fish to find that bait just so dang irresistible that it takes a nibble and, voila, a fish is on the line.
This process of catching fish on a frozen body of water, of course, has been going on for at least two millennia as a way for folks to eat when the weather cooled and food became scarce. But now, ice fishing is mostly done as a hobby, a way to spend time relaxing alone or with friends or family, or for sport. Many Minnesota and Wisconsin cities and towns hold well-attended ice fishing contests; the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) notes they issue nearly 400 permits for ice fishing contests and tournaments statewide each year.
Jenny Anderson, founder of the Girl of 10,000 Lakes travel website, says ice fishing makes fishing deeper waters more accessible because you don’t need a boat! “People picture it as being really cold and just waiting around for a bite,” says Anderson. “But things have really changed with fish houses and heat sources that are easier to use.” She started with just an auger, rods, hooks and bait. But she later procured a vintage fish house/camper that can be used in all seasons and helps her little family of three maximize their time on the ice. “Having a fish house is a game changer,” says Anderson. “I light candles, play music, hang twinkle lights and make hot cocoa. It’s an awesome experience where you can relax and enjoy without the pressure of thinking ‘it’s freezing,’ or ‘where are the fish?’ If the fish don’t bite, you’re still warm and comfortable and had a great experience.”
When ice fishing for the first time, Anderson recommends going with someone who knows how to use the equipment and can show you the ropes. Or, head to a local state park where there may be equipment rentals. Professional fish guides like St. Croix River Valley Guides and Outfitters are also known to show folks how to have a good time out on the ice without you having to invest in all your own equipment until you’re ready.
What you’ll need:
Ice fishing rod: typically, 24”-36,” which is smaller than your warm weather fishing rod, as you need the leverage because of the confined space.
Ice fishing reel: more compact than a typical reel.
Ice fishing line: this line is created to withstand frigid temperatures and jagged ice.
Lures, bait and a tackle box.
Ice auger or drill: a must; no hole = no fish. A hand crank, gas or electric all work well, but the type that attaches to your cordless drill is pretty handy.
A spot to sit—on a 5-gallon bucket or inside an icehouse (with backup propane!).
A fish finder for those who are “hooked” on the sport.
Warm clothing: make sure to dress in layers. Women should skip the “cute” boots in favor of a warmer version.
What to Catch
It’s probably no surprise that the favorite fish to catch in Minnesota, the most beloved, is—you guessed it—the walleye. It doesn’t hurt that it’s the official state fish and, well, just think of the best plate of grilled walleye you’ve ever eaten—with that subtle sweetness and delicate, flaky texture—and you’ll understand why many folks adore this fish species, which is part of the perch family and is named for its distinguishable pearlescent eyes.
Did you know bluegill, named for its large “gills,” is the most commonly caught fish in Minnesota? There are over 160 fish species in Wisconsin and winter fishing makes up to ¼ of the annual catch in Wisconsin.
When you’re hankering to catch a big fish, one of those fish you can tell your grandkids about, Northern Pike may just be the one. He’ll give you a run for your money, as they’re known to put up a fight as you bring them in. The Minnesota state record is 45 pounds, 11 ounces, so you’ve got your work cut out for you.
For more information:
Head to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website (dnr.state.mn.us) and/or the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (dnr.wisconsin.gov)