Little portable on the prairie: the ice fishing revolution

My first experience ice fishing was when my father loaded me and two of my brothers into the car, and we drove to Lake McBride near Coralville, Iowa. I was probably 10 years old so that was about 52 years ago. Dad was an experienced ice angler having been raised out in western Minnesota where lakes like Minnewaska produced lots of walleyes and pike during the cold-weather months.

We walked out from the shoreline pulling a couple of sleds full of gear to a spot that held fish during open water figuring there should still be some pike or walleyes there. We had some pipe and canvas to build a windscreen, a few ice chisels for busting holes, and our rods consisted of 2-inch wooden dowels with pins on the side that you wrapped the line around. On one end of the dowel was a spike to stick it into the ice. 

With little snow on the ice, we brought our skates. We chiseled holes into the ice, tipped hooks with shiner minnows and suspended them below some plastic bobbers. To ward off the cold, you chiseled holes. After a couple hours of skating around the ice holes, we scrounged up some wood for a fire to warm our feet. Every so often a bobber would dip, and dad would catch a largemouth bass. We kept them all. 

The transition towards modern ice fishing evolved rapidly on the prairies of Minnesota thanks to Dave Genz and Denny Clark. Clark pioneered The Clam, a portable shelter that allowed anglers to fish in lousy weather conditions. Clark’s shelter allowed a few anglers inside one unit to dodge the elements. Genz wanted his shelter to be more portable, so he devised a one-main flip-over shelter called the Fish Trap.

But that wasn’t Genz’s only contribution. He incorporated sonar into his program and rods that sported actual reels. Genz designed lures just for ice angling and promoted mobility on the ice. Anglers bought into the program rapidly and in huge numbers. Books and articles about Genz’s program by the nation’s top outdoors journalists dominated the winter issues of many publications.

Genz and Clark combined their resources and joined forces to promote the sport of ice angling developing the Ice Team to spread the word. Tournaments followed, and soon manufacturers saw a substantial market developing. It was a fast-moving bandwagon and people jumped on in droves.

Which brings us to today: Amazing shelters, tremendous electronics consisting of GPS, sonars and underwater cameras. Ice fishing rods and reels designed just for the sport. Lures developed just for vertical jigging through an 8-inch hole. Great fishing for walleyes, pike, and panfish. Augers that are lightweight and capable of drilling through ice like a hot knife on butter. It was a rapid evolution, and the catalyst that sparked it was a pair of anglers, Genz and Clark, who saw the potential and acted.

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