Temperatures are falling, the ice is getting thicker and sales of shelters, cold-weather clothing and specialist tackle are booming. The states in America’s ice fishing belt are preparing for what could well be the busiest season on record.
Buoyed by improvements in tackle, technology and comfort, ice fishing has been gaining momentum for the last five years or so, but industry sources say that following a pandemic-fuelled participation increase, the sector will be like a bobsleigh coming off the last curve.
“We predict record sales for many ice fishing companies,” says Matt Johnson of Minnesota manufacturer Clam Corp. “We are already seeing an increased trend in sales. The ice fishing shows have been mostly cancelled, but retailers don’t seem to be overly concerned as their sales are booming.”
Many of Clam’s retail partners enjoyed record sales during the open water season. Now they are asking for additional orders of ice fishing gear. Scheels, an outdoors retailer with stores in the key ice fishing states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota, is expecting a sales surge.
“We have been planning for ice fishing to be super popular this season, even without the pandemic,” Caryn Olsen, Social Media Leader at Scheels, told the Duluth News Tribune. “The outdoors industry has been booming in 2020 and we expect the ice fishing season to be no exception.”
Henry Drewes, a regional fisheries manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said: “All the needles are pointing to people wanting to get outside and do stuff this winter and one of those will be ice fishing. Last winter was the busiest we’ve ever seen on Upper Red Lake. The gear is better, fish houses are better. It’s a trend that continues and I expect this winter will be no different if ice conditions are favourable.”
Minnesota DNR statistics give credence to the optimism. Resident shelter licence sales increased from 39,973 in 2016 to 50,368 in 2017, while non-resident shelter licence purchases more than doubled to 999 from 2016 to 2017.
There are a number of reasons behind the growth, says St. Croix’s Director of Marketing, Jesse Simpkins. “Ice fishing is as much, if not more, a social activity than a solitary one. It allows for family and friends to get together and share time on the ice in closer proximity. And if you look at the demographics, youth is being served. Participants skew considerably younger than in other fishing segments.”
Chris Russell is Marketing Director of Fishing for Frabill, which has just launched the ‘College of Ice’ programme for anglers new to ice fishing. He also believes the sector has benefited from family participation. “It is a great family sport and not limited to how many people can fit into a boat,” he said. “It is a great winter time activity when there are limited choices and the cost to get started is reasonable.
“Frabill has already seen some strong sales and all the indicators point to a great season as people continue to enjoy fishing as an alternative to larger group activities.” Providing there is good ice, Russell believes record sales are on the cards, with Frabill’s ice combos, mid-price point shelters and basic accessories all anticipated to be good sellers. The new battery-powered drills coming into the market from other companies are good for getting people started, he added.
Simpkins agrees with predictions of record sales. “All the indicators point to it,” he says. “The carryover from the open water sector is there and if this plays out in the same way it will be a very good season. I fully expect product demand to mirror the open water sector where combos have gone very well. They provide that easy choice for new anglers. Also, opening price-point rods, reels and other tackle should do very well. Of course, Mother Nature can always play her part and another factor could be supply issues.”
The comfort and the space afforded by wheeled fish houses – a trending product line – also appears to be attracting more families on to the ice. “There are more and more of them,” said one resort owner. “They have kind of evolved from the pick-up truck guys who have a fish house/shelter on the back.” The most popular units are in the $20,000 to $25,000 range.