MOORHEAD, Minn. — Get ready for an ice fishing explosion.
Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it's likely to be even bigger than the boom the sport has seen the last several years.
That's the word from people who keep a close eye on the sport.
"All needles are pointing to people wanting to get outside and do stuff this winter," said Henry Drewes, a regional fisheries manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources who is based in Bemidji. "And one of those things will be ice fishing."
That promises to be a good thing for those who make their living on the sport.
"Our predictions are that we'll see record sales for many ice fishing companies," said Matt Johnson, Ice Team manager of Minnesota-based Clam Corp.
Ice fishing was already growing in popularity because of improvements in comfort, mobility and technology. Wheeled fish houses that can easily be transported, and offer all the warmth and comfort of home, are one of the main drivers of that growth.
Those with their fingers of the pulse of the sport believe continuing pandemic restrictions and recent rises in the number of coronavirus cases in several cold-weather states including Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin will only add to that expansion.
Outdoor activity, including fishing, saw marked increases during the spring and summer as the virus limited things like sporting events, concerts, music festivals, night life and fairs. Fishing licenses sales in Minnesota, while leveling after an initial eruption in the spring, are still 10% ahead of this point a year ago.
The restrictions — whether government-mandated or self-imposed — show no sign of loosening until next spring at the earliest, according to many health experts.
"I think people are going to be looking for ways to get out of the house," Drewes said. "Besides having restrictions on some of the things we can do, many people are working remotely from home. I think we're going to need outdoors activity to help people keep their sanity."
The ice fishing industry is ready.
"We have been planning for ice fishing to be super popular this season, even without the pandemic," said Caryn Olson of Scheels, an outdoors retail giant that has stores in the ice-fishing belt of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin. "It's no secret that the outdoors industry has been booming in 2020 and we would expect the ice fishing season to be no exception. Hunting and fishing are a couple of the ultimate social distancing activities."
Retailers, generally, had trouble keeping inventory stocked over the summer. Johnson said many of Clam's retail partners saw record-setting sales during the open-water season. Those same retailers are already asking for additional orders, he said.
"We're already seeing the increase trend in sales," Johnson said. "The ice fishing shows have been mostly cancelled, but retailers don't seem to be overly concerned as their stores are booming. Obviously not the ideal situation, but there is an upside to it — if you're thinking with a glass half-full mentality."
Mike Larson, owner of recreational vehicle dealer Outlet Recreation with three stores in North Dakota and Minnesota, said he's expecting demand for the popular Ice Castle line of wheeled fish houses to be high, but he's not sure if the supply is going to be available.
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That's in part, he said, because of COVID-related production problems and because so many people bought Ice Castles over the summer to use at RVs. Ice Castles retail for $10,000 up to $50,000. Most the units he sells are in the $20,000-$25,000 range, Larson said.
"There's so many people using them as crossovers now," Larson said. "We sold a ton of them to people this summer who wanted to use them as an RV in warm weather and a fish house in the winter. We have a bunch of people wanting them, but we'll have to see how inventory holds up."
The expected COVID-fueled growth of ice fishing will intensify growth already seen in the last five years. Drewes cited two popular walleye fishing lakes in Minnesota as examples.
Lake of the Woods on the Minnesota-Canada border saw an estimated 2.8 million hours of angler activity last winter, Drewes said, which was 33% higher than the DNR's ever recorded. Drewes said three of the last four winters have seen more than 2 million hours of fishing pressure, figures the agency has never seen.
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On Upper Red Lake, angler hours averaged 1.6 million over the last four winters.
"Last winter was the busiest year we've ever seen on Upper Red Lake," Drewes said. "The gear is better, fish houses are better. It's a trend that continues and I would expect this winter will be no different if the weather and ice conditions are favorable."
Weather is one variable that could put a wrinkle in the boom. If ice is late-forming or poorly forming, or heavy snow covers lakes and access is limited, some ice fishing activity will be stunted.
Zippy Dahl, who owns Perch Patrol Guide Service on Devils Lake, N.D., said his summer business turned out to be excellent after many cancellation calls in the spring. Once anglers figured out they could fish safely with a guide, Dahl said, business returned. Bookings for this winter are already looking strong.
"Not one of our guides so much as had a cough or sniffle. All of our clients remained safe. We all worked together to be safe and once everybody figured out what we needed to do, we had a good summer," Dahl said. "Outdoor activities seem to be a safe thing to do. It's sort of been an outdoors explosion with the pandemic between fishing, hunting and camping. We're hoping to see the same thing this winter. It's looking really good right now. We're right on track for a great winter."