Dokken: Ice fishing in extreme cold can go sour in a hurry when gear malfunctions

My decision to stay home and stay warm sounded even better when I heard about the nightmarish afternoon the friend who invited me to fish with him had encountered on New Year’s Day.

Fishing in snow.JPG
Ice fishing in snowy or cold conditions can be rewarding, but the fun meter can drop in a hurry if equipment malfunctions, which is more apt to happen in extreme weather.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS — I had full intentions of going ice fishing at least one day during the recent New Year’s weekend.

Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken

Then I saw the weather forecast and quickly changed my mind.

Maybe I’m getting soft in my advancing years, but I prefer to think I’m getting more sensible in my approach to winter fishing. To say I’m getting smarter might be a stretch, but I’m not going to venture out regardless of the weather.

Especially when low temperatures are flirting with 30 below zero.

Been there, done that, as the old saying goes; many times.


These days, not so much.

If I’d been doing what I call “lazy man’s fishing” – walking into a rental fish house with the holes drilled and the heat going full blast – I probably would have ventured out last weekend. As time goes on, I find “lazy man’s fishing” more and more appealing. But the idea of setting up a portable house in subzero temperatures, drilling holes, cleaning slush out of the holes, hoping the heater worked and then packing everything up at the end of the day in even colder temperatures, didn’t seem even mildly appealing.


Staying home was an easy decision.
If that makes me a fair weather fisherman, so be it. I’ll wear the title proudly.

My decision to stay home and stay warm sounded even better when I heard about the nightmarish afternoon the friend who invited me to fish with him had encountered on New Year’s Day. He’s apparently madder at the fish than I am and decided to hit the ice with his son, even though morning air temperatures dipped to nearly 30 below zero.

First off, his snowmobile wouldn’t start, which should have been the first indication that things might not go well. Instead, he decided to walk out on the ice, pulling his portable shack to a spot about a half mile from shore that occasionally produces walleyes late in the day.

Long story short, he broke two poles setting up the house and the heater quit working.

That definitely would have sealed it for me, but in an act of pure persistence – other words might apply, as well – he was able to “MacGyver” the shack so it was usable and borrow a heater from a friend who lived nearby.


Adding to the fun, the slush that built up on the base of his ice shack made it feel as if it had doubled in weight on the walk back to shore. He was dripping sweat by the time he got back to the truck.

All this for a measly 10-inch walleye.

That’s rough.

You don’t know unless you go, though, and while I’m more selective about the kind of weather in which I’ll venture out to go ice fishing, I’ve had some memorable outings on subzero days.

I’ve also had some duds, though nothing on the scale of what my friend encountered last weekend.

One of the best occurred about 15 years ago, when some friends and I trailered our snowmobiles up to Oak Island on Minnesota’s Northwest Angle, for what has become more or less an annual mid-February trip.

The temperature the first day soared into the low 30s, and we had good fishing off the east side of Garden Island about a 12-mile snowmobile ride from camp. As predicted, though, the weather turned nasty late that afternoon and we headed back to camp in near-whiteout conditions.

It was all we could do to see from one stake to the next on the marked snowmobile trail across the lake back to Oak Island. The wooded trails on the island have rarely looked better than they did that blustery afternoon.


The mercury plummeted as the storm front passed, and the air temperature by the next morning was 32 below zero.


Coaxing the snowmobiles to start took some doing, but they reluctantly chugged to life and we headed for a spot near camp to set up our portables.

A 60-degree temperature change should have been a death knell for fishing, so we didn’t expect to have much luck. Instead, the two of us fishing in my portable encountered almost nonstop walleye action set up off an island point over about 20 feet of water.

We lost count of how many 17- to 19-inch walleyes we caught that day, but it easily was upwards of 30. All but the few that we needed to fill our limit went back to swim another day.

I’d still venture out in subzero cold for a shot at fishing like that, even if it meant going through all the rigmarole of setting up a portable, drilling holes, hoping the heater worked and tearing down at the end of the day.

But only if I was at the lake and in camp already.

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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To get an event in the Outdoors Calendar, contact Brad Dokken at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or by email at Deadline is 5 p.m. Wednesdays.