Embrace Minnesota’s Ice Fishing Season

By Lisa Meyers McClintick

Brainerd ice fishing-recliner Meyers McClintick
Getting comfy at the Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza on Gull Lake

The arrival of January and February in Minnesota triggers a parade of icehouses to favorite fishing spots statewide.

Seeking everything from the hallowed walleye and easy panfish to northern pike and eelpout, about 10 percent of Minnesota’s 1.5 million license-holding anglers head back to the lakes once they freeze. They can turn an empty, snow-covered bay into a winter village overnight, complete with houses, makeshift streets, lighting and laughter that often comes with this social winter sport.

Minnesota can, after all, boast the world’s largest ice-fishing contest (Brainerd Jaycees Ice Extravaganza) and put a long-underwear twist on spring break (Walker’s International Eelpout Festival).

Never tried ice fishing? Don’t let fanatics, winter weather or the mind-boggling array of gear intimidate you. At its roots, ice fishing ranks among the more basic outdoor sports and can accommodate any skill level. Considering you don’t need a boat to get on the water, winter fishing can be more accessible, too.

“I think we’ve made ice fishing more complicated than it has to be,” said John Fylpaa, who introduces kids and families to ice fishing each winter at Lake Bemidji State Park. You can layer up for warmth, borrow a hand-operated auger and try the sport with only a fishing pole, a lure and a 5-gallon bucket to sit on. If you prefer more comfort, Minnesota excels in that arena, too, with some of the nation’s top suppliers of ice fishing shelters and a full gamut of gear.

Ice fishing houses on Lake Mille Lacs
Ice houses on Lake Mille Lacs

Here are some things you might not know about one of Minnesota’s most beloved pastimes.

  1. You can try it for free. Every January, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources hosts Take a Kid Ice Fishing weekend, when residents can fish without a license when accompanied by a child age 15 or under. On that weekend, select state parks provide all the gear and coach families through everything from drilling holes to keeping them from freezing over. With the state park vehicle permit required to enter the park, no additional fishing license is required at state parks year-round. Visit the DNR website for details.
  2. Layer up wisely. No one will have fun if they’re freezing—especially kids. Be sure to dress in layers, including a base layer, warm fleece and a shell that can block the wind and keep you warm. Consider pocketing a few air-activated hand and foot warmers in case they’re needed. Fylpaa suggests not bundling up fully until you’ve walked across a lake and toted your gear, which can work up a sweat. Once you settle in to fish, that’s when you’ll want to pull the warmest layers on.
  3. Add on the angling. Try a weekend getaway at one of Minnesota’s bigger four-season resorts, which are equipped for a variety of winter recreation. You can rent a warm, cozy icehouse for a few hours or half a day and still have time to enjoy other activities such as skating and hockey, snowmobiling, sleigh rides, dog sledding, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
  4. Hire an expert. Minnesota has hundreds of fishing guides that not only know the best lakes and best-bet spot to fish for specific species, but can coach you through the ins and outs of ice fishing, fillet your catch, and let you try some of the best equipment and gadgets.
  5. Enjoy the spectacle. Whether you participate or not, bundle up and check out Minnesota’s biggest ice fishing spectacles. At Gull Lake, you can roam among 10,000 holes drilled every January for the Brainerd Jaycee’s Ice Fishing Extravaganza or drive among the comical and sometimes bawdy fishing camps at Walker’s International Eelpout Festival every February.
  6. Sleep on a lake. With modern luxuries, renting an ice house with family or friends can be as homey as a warm, well-appointed cabin—think carpeting, TVs, couches and bunks—that just happens to have strategic holes in the floor. Lake Mille Lacs is particularly famous for its luxury houses, but northern Minnesota’s Lake Winnibigoshish, Red Lake and Lake of the Woods also are big draws for ice fishing fans.
NW Ice Fishing 2
Inside a sleeper fish house on Lake of the Woods

That hole in the floor of icehouses can provide its own entertainment—not to mention dinner--with rattles that alert you when a fish takes the bait. Some anglers use underwater cameras to see what’s happening below.

“[Underwater cameras] open up a whole new winter world through the ice. It’s an interesting nature study,” says C.B. Bylander, former outreach section chief for the DNR’s Fish and Wildlife Division. “You can watch fish that swim closer to look but not bite and other fish that come out of nowhere like a torpedo.”

Another surprise for first-timers? How a lake can crack, boom and even sound like a sci-fi laser gun fight as ice contracts and expands with temperature changes.

No matter what happens on a day or weekend of ice fishing, Bylander said, “There’s always an adventure. And with a long winter, you might as well be outdoors.”

And if you successfully catch your dinner, consider it a tasty bonus.