By Steve Weisman
Over the past several months, we have taken a look at fishing changes over the last 60 years or so. The changes have been so many that books could be written about those areas of change. However, I would be remiss if I did not turn to one area of fishing that has probably changed more than any: ice fishing. With all of the changes since the 1950s, we have gone from what I would call the “dark ages” into the “new age!” Let’s take a look.
I have been ice fishing since the late 1950s, when I was a kid growing up in north central South Dakota. It was pretty rudimentary in those days, and we pretty much stood around a chiseled ice hole watching a big bobber. The first challenge was simply getting a hole through the ice. At that time, I witnessed people try their hand at everything from an axe to a spud bar. Needless to say, I was a little concerned about safety with an axe, so my dad and I always used a spud bar. However, if the ice was thicker than a foot, we would do one hole for each of us and be done.
The hole always started about 12” in diameter and by the time I had completed the hole with a spud bar, it had become a 5-6” hole (if I was lucky). No matter how I tried, the longer I would spud, the narrower the hole would become. Of course, at least a couple of times, I lost control of the spud bar, and it went down the hole. After losing two spud bars, my dad put a rope on the end and made me wrap the rope around my hand. I still have that red spud bar with the nylon rope attached in my garage.
We had no rod and reel combos. No, we used braided line, a plain hook and a bobber with a minnow for bait. The line wrapped around two pegs on a long stick that had a metal point to stick into the ice. Then we would watch the bobber – most of the time, since we had no shelter, we had to constantly skim the newly forming ice out of the hole. We didn’t jig; we’d just sit on a bucket and watch. Or as I began to shiver, I’d jump up and down and maybe run around the pickup to get the blood flowing.
And why not? The clothes that we used were the same ones we used to keep warm when we did the farm chores. We’re not talking insulated anything! We certainly had no shelter of any sort, except for the pickup, which we used to block the wind. Rudimentary, yes. Sure we caught some fish, but it was pretty much blind luck. No flashers in those days!
Things begin to change
In the late 60s, I met my father-in-law, who actually had a portable ice shack that he hauled around on a snowmobile trailer. It came in six parts, and we put it together on the ice. Oh my, that kerosene heater felt good on those cold windy days (but oh did it stink!). We actually used rods, reels and spooled with 6-pound test monofilament line. We’d still use the plain hook and minnow, but we downsized the bobber and even went to something called a tear drop tipped with wigglers or wax worms! Now we were targeting all kinds of fish: walleyes, northern pike and panfish.
We had even advanced to hand ice augers, although the spoon auger seemed to only be sharp for about two holes and then just spun on the ice! Mora came out with a regular hand auger that worked pretty well. However, my father-in-law had an electric one that hooked to a car battery. Of course, that added more weight and stuff to haul out – no big deal when the ice was thick enough to drive on.
Then in the late 1960s, my dad purchased a Jiffy power auger. It was heavy and kind of dangerous with only one arm to control the torque of the drill when it came to the bottom of the ice, but it was certainly something compared to a spud bar! Soon my father-in-law had one, too, and we were set.
I continued to fish and refined my techniques somewhat, and by the mid-70s I had a homemade portable wooden ice shack with skis to pull across the ice. I could put everything on top of the shack and away I would go. Still pretty rudimentary, but moving slowly away from the dark ages.
Then in 1978 I moved to the Iowa Great Lakes and came “face to face” with the finicky bluegills of West Okoboji. I learned from some of the locals the need to down size and go light if I wanted to even come close to catching a fish. Many the day that I caught only a handful or nothing. Still, I had no idea what was going on beneath the ice.
Then in the late 80s, I met an ice fisherman, who changed not only my ice fishing ways but shaped the entire ice fishing industry: Dave Genz known as Mr. Ice Fishing. He truly revolutionized everything. Most amazing to me is that he would give away his “secrets” to other anglers. He actually wanted others to succeed at the sport of ice fishing. He introduced me to his fishing techniques and also to a way to see what was going on beneath the ice: the Vexilar FL-8 flasher.
His first big invention, of course, is the portable ice shelter, called the Fish Trap. The year was 1980, and in his garage Dave, with the help of his wife, Patsy (she sewed the canvas pieces together), built his first Fish Trap. It has become the standard for all flip-over ice shelters. Growth was slow, since it was a two-person process, but by 1992, Genz joined his Fish Trap with The Clam, and the new era began. Although many ice shelter manufacturers have come on board over the years, I have stayed with Clam. I think it has to do with knowing the effort Dave put into his design and also a loyalty I felt for a guy who got started in his garage!
Talking with Dave
I met Dave when he first began bringing the Trap Attack two-person panfish tournaments to Emerson Bay on West Lake in late February-early March. This was the perfect time for late ice action on West Okoboji. I would spend the day with Dave as he and Denny Clark went around the bay checking on how the teams were doing. I learned so much simply by being around and listening as he talked with the teams. They came from several states to fish the gin clear Okoboji waters. And they were good! Plus, they were willing to share and didn’t hide their techniques.
Soon, my son Curt and I began fishing the Trap Attacks, and in 2004 we qualified for the National Championship. With a lot of luck, we finished third in the Championships. Plus, we had the best teachers in the world around us, who shared with us some of their techniques for catching fish through the ice.
On the cutting edge
Dave Genz has been on the cutting edge of ice fishing for over 30 years. In the industry, there are a couple of initials used: B. G. It stands for Before Genz! Now, there are two more initials used that describe continued change: A. G. Obviously, that stands for After Genz!
Here is just a quick list of his accomplishments:
• Developed the Fish Trap
• Created the Winter Fishing System that included mobility, efficiency and the importance of a plan
• Developed the Ice Box, known today as the Genz Box, along with a system for adapting Vexilar flashers for use in ice fishing
• Led in the development of quality sensitive short rods-comparable to open water rods
• Helped design the modern “less bulky, yet warm” winter clothing
• Designed ice jigs that “fished heavy”- but were still small-to help with visibility on flashers
• Developed the down viewing method for using underwater cameras
• Recently teamed up with Clam to design his new Tungsten Jigs
For all of his efforts, he has been inducted into both the Minnesota Hall of Fame and the Fresh Water Hall of Fame. That pretty much says it all!
Getting better and better
How else to describe ice fishing today. So much information out there. New technology and equipment coming along each year. There are lots of manufacturers now designing and tweaking what has been done before, taking ice fishing more and more into the new world.
Television shows, Internet websites and You Tube videos…they all take us to the latest and greatest in the ice fishing world. I begin to wonder where will it all end?
It’s just a matter of taking the time to learn. Now, at my age, it’s fun to help my grandson become part of the A. G. movement. Even at age 14, I see him doing things so naturally and easily. He is so open to new ideas and wants to constantly experiment with lures and presentation methods.
Still when I reflect on this 70 years of change, I’m glad I was a part of the dark ages and the ice revolution that has occurred. It’s been quite a ride. I also have to give Mr. Ice Fishing a tip-of-the-hat for his foresightedness. Ice fishing, it gets me excited just thinking about it. Time for the season to begin!