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Winter Vacations in the Ice Fishing Belt

By Chip Leer - January 1, 2002
Sequester your tacky Hawaiian shirts and put away those droning Jimmy Buffet albums, or sadly, CD's if you've upgraded formats. This winter you're taking the family on an ice fishing vacation, and I'm playing the role of travel agent.

Sporting folks realize that ice fishing's moved past the status of being a quasi-fishing pastime for summer anglers in withdrawal, or an outlet for partygoers. It is a sport, and done right, can be enjoyed by groups and families, and ultimately, molded into a vacation.

Jane Sindelir, Executive Director of the Lake of the Woods Tourism Bureau in Baudette, MN, first points to the breadth of activities that surround ice fishing.

"Up on Lake of the Woods [and other popular lake areas] winter visitors take part in a number of activities. They cross country ski, snowshoe, and what's become increasingly popular is wildlife viewing. Our guests really get into winter birding, especially for rare species, as well as looking for fox and listening for the howl of timber wolves."

Supplementary activities certainly add to the overall adventure and offer entertainment to non-anglers, but it's the full-blown winter fishing experience, which sets the scene. And that experience is laden with laughter, hooksets, kinship, and surprisingly, creature comforts.

"Full service resorts are a major part of ice fishing vacations. Guests can choose from heated cabins, condos, and rooms right inside the main lodge. There are swimming pools, saunas, Jacuzzis, and game rooms for the youth," Sindelir reports.

Cindy Strochein, part of the brass at Sand Bay Beach Resort in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, agrees with Sindelir. Her resort is seeing an increasing number of families and groups during the cold weather months. The upswing is due largely to Lake Michigan's ice fishing machine, but also because of a growth in alternative wintertime activities.

Lodging is a significant component of any vacation, oftentimes dictating whether memories are fond or nightmarish. This notion is heightened further in an ice fishing vacation, because lodging doubles as the primary recreation facility. You can fish, eat, and sleep inside the confines of a fully furnished "permanent" fish house. In ice fishing lore, you've essentially got permanent and portable fish houses. Permanents being hard sided – wood, aluminum, etc. – structures that sit for extended periods, sometimes months, in a solitary location. Portables are any of a variety of smaller, lighter weight, and generally soft sided – canvas, vinyl, etc – shelters, which are designed to easily move from spot to spot during the course of a day. Fish Traps being the best examples.

Ice fishing resorts rent permanent shelters, some "sleepers", others "day houses", and many both. Sleepers, as the name implies, are fish houses intended for overnight stays – day houses are simpler refuges where anglers fish by day and fall back to shoreline accommodations to slumber. In both occasions, the structures are strategically placed over proven hotspots, but that's where the similarities end. Some rentals are cozy, covering only a 4' X 6' swath of ice, others monstrous, housing a dozen or more anglers.

Outfitters, such as Dave Bentley at Eddy's Lake Mille Lacs Resort operate heated and furnished "fish houses on wheels", which can be raised, trailered, and relocated in a flash, keeping in stride with perch and walleye migrations.

Furnishings and décors are as diverse as their lengths and girths. Bare bones units yield only holes and heat, shed-style, but with plenty of atmosphere. At the other extreme stand nearly decadent shelters, decked in knotty pine woodwork with satellite television; full bedding and picture windows; refrigerators and stoves; sofas and tables.

Speaking of heat, it is just that, which determines overall comfort and how gratifying the ice fishing experience is. Manufacturers go to great means to produce warm and comfortable clothing, powerful but efficient heat sources, and mobile shelters that maintain internal tepidity. Providers of rental fish houses do the same. By the time a shack is heated – most rental outfits preheat shelters and predrill holes before guests arrive – you can kick back and fish in short sleeves and stocking feet.

Some rental packages even include fishing gear and bait, meaning all you need to do is show up. And showing up, such as on Lake of the Woods, means being taxied out to your fish house in a heated, all terrain Bombardier or similar form of mass transit.

Networks of roads often span like veins across the ice. Ron and Sharon Hunter of Judd's Resort on Lake Winnibigoshish plow and maintain numerous thoroughfares to their rental units. In addition to guests, day-trippers can pay a small fee to use the resort's access and roads and fish wherever their heart's desire.

Booking a professionally guided excursion is yet another option. Resorts and independent guides take clients on mobile ice fishing trips. By keeping current with bites, outfitters sometimes even leave the lake of origin, traveling to smaller, and more pristine and remote waters.

Serious winter anglers often treat permanent shelters, rentals included, as base camp. They investigate other parts of the lake, possibly chasing different species, and then return to base camp at nightfall. This sort of flexibility obliges anglers of varying levels, enriching the overall group experience. Novice anglers can remain inside the rental shelter, where conditions are balmy and the fishing's easy, while more seasoned members are free to explore.

The temperate environment of a heated shelter is ideal for providing instruction. Persons new to the sport can watch and emulate what others are doing without having to fend off the elements. There is no better means to teach kids how to ice fish, and embrace the sport. Let ‘em jig; hook a minnow; watch the depth finder; look down the hole; and maybe even survey with an underwater camera. They'll quickly acquire an affinity for ice fishing, and fishing in general.

I've forever contested that any person can enjoy ice fishing if they're comfortable and something's biting. That bite might be pencil-length perch or potato chip panfish, but to a child or first time participant, it's still a tug on the line and fish in hand.

Ice fishing in a group setting is a phenomenal social activity. It transcends age, gender, and socio-economic stature. Ice fishing yields the ideal environment for talking, laughing, and just hanging out with friends and family, all while watching for bobber to go under. And the advent of resorts and outfitters that furnish and rent heated shelters make vacationing in the northland a reality.

Hope you chucked those awful tropical shirts and island music and gathered the parkas.

"Warm up the family truckster and get the kids!"

Author Chip Leer
Chip Leer
Chip Leer is an avid ice angler and the Co-Founder of the On Ice Tour.
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