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More popular than ever, ice fishing about to hit full swing across the Northland

The growth of the Fargo Ice Fishing Show, in many ways, reflects the growth of the ice fishing industry and the ever-increasing popularity of the winter pastime.

Fargo ice show lobby 2.jpg
Ice fishing enthusiasts stream into Scheels Arena in Fargo for one of the previous Fargo Ice Fishing Show events. This year's Fargo Ice Fishing Show, set for Dec. 10-12, 2021, features about 40% more exhibit space and nearly twice as many vendors as the inaugural show in 2018. Contributed / Mike Olson
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When the Fargo Ice Fishing Show opens at 1 p.m. Friday, Dec. 10, in Scheels Arena, the three-day event will feature about 40% more display space and nearly 90 vendors, almost twice as many as the inaugural show in 2018.

There was no show in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but this year’s event is the biggest yet, according to Mike Olson of Thompson, North Dakota, show organizer and host of “Fish Addictions TV.”

Fargo ice show logo resized.jpg
Contributed / Mike Olson

By expanding the show to the adjoining ice arena, organizers gained more than 20,000 square feet of display space, Olson said.

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“It kind of became a necessity,” he said. “Vendors really liked the Fargo area and the Red River Valley, and they said, ‘The one thing this show needs is more space; make it a bigger show.’ ”

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Vendor booths fill the floor before one of the previous Fargo Ice Fishing Show events. This year's show, which opens Friday, Dec. 10, 2021, features additional floor space and vendors. Contributed / Mike Olson, Fish Addictions

The growth of the Fargo Ice Fishing Show, in many ways, reflects the growth of the ice fishing industry and the ever-increasing popularity of the winter pastime. With another season of hard-water fishing opportunities on the horizon, the options for getting out and enjoying time on the ice have never been better.

The popularity seems to span all age groups, Olson says. As always, affordability is a driving factor.

“The No. 1 reason why ice fishing is growing the way it is is because it’s always been a cheaper sport to get into,” he said. “You don’t have to buy a boat. You can get into it for $500-$600, and you’ve got everything you need to catch fish.”

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Mike Olson, organizer of the Fargo Ice Fishing Show and host of "Fish Addictions TV," says advancements in electronics and other gear have contributed to the growing popularity of ice fishing as a winter pastime. Contributed / Mike Olson, Fish Addictions

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Constant improvements

According to Olson and other industry insiders, the technology and the equipment available to ice anglers just keeps getting better, whether it’s electronics, clothing or portable shelters that are lighter and warmer than earlier versions. The innovations include everything from lightweight augers run by battery-powered drills, to whiz-bang electronics such as Garmin’s Panoptix LiveScope, Humminbird’s MEGA Live Imaging Transducer and Lowrance’s ActiveTarget live sonar.

Old standbys, such as the Vexilar and Marcum flasher units, among other brands, allowed anglers to see fish below their jigs within a small area of the bottom, but the new generation of electronics takes that potential to a whole new level.

“Now we can see fish 100 to 160 feet away and see what we’re doing, and if that’s working to bring them in,” Olson said. “As a search tool, you can go to a lake where you had a hard time staying on a bite – now we can stay on those bites.”

Fishing guide and ice fishing authority Brian “Bro” Brosdahl of Max, Minnesota, whose sponsors include Humminbird, says the new technology is “like an ultrasound,” without getting too technical.

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Fishing guide and ice fishing authority Brian Brosdahl of Max, Minnesota, admires a walleye he caught Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, while ice fishing on Upper Red Lake. Contributed / Brian Brosdahl

“You can actually see the fish moving, and it’s virtually live, and that’s where they get the name,” Brosdahl said earlier this week in a phone interview while he was putting the technology to use catching walleyes on Upper Red Lake. “You can count how many fish are on the screen, and you can see them moving in fluid motion. It takes a little skill and usage, but you can actually see fish to the side … and look for schools of fish in the distance, and so that’s pretty cool.”

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Humminbird 360.jpg
Brian Brosdahl of Max, Minnesota, used this Humminbird MEGA 360 sonar unit Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, while ice fishing on Upper Red Lake. The unit allowed Brosdahl to see fish in every direction from his ice fishing hole, allowing him to land more walleyes in the process. Contributed / Brian Brosdahl

Olson, who says he’s most familiar with the Garmin LiveScope units, says it’s to the point where he can “pretty much tell” if a fish is a crappie, walleye or pike just by the way it behaves on the screen.

“That’s a pretty crazy thing to have at your fingertips,” he said.

Ticket to success

No doubt the technology is helping anglers catch more fish through the ice, but it carries a steep price tag – from $1,500 to upwards of $2,500 for the high-tech live sonar units, depending on the retailer and the bells and whistles.

Despite the pricey advancements, anglers on a budget can still have a good time and find success on the ice, said Jason Mitchell of Devils Lake, host of the “Jason Mitchell Outdoors” TV show and a fishing industry veteran.

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Outdoors communicator and fishing pro Jason Mitchell of Devils Lake, host of the "Jason Mitchell Outdoors" TV show, admires a chunky perch in this undated photo. Contributed / Devils Lake Tourism
Contributed / Devils Lake Tourism

“There is a lot of excitement for ice fishing,” said Mitchell, who is giving seminars at 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 4, and noon Sunday, Dec. 5, at the St. Paul Ice Fishing and Winter Sports Show. “Ice fishing has really become a big thing. People look forward to ice. It’s to the point now where I know people that live in Iowa, Illinois and places (without good ice), and they’ll drive to get to ice, where it used to be that people would drive to get to open water. It has changed a lot over the last 10 years.”

That popularity also drives innovation.

“Ice fishing is probably one of the most innovative industries right now as far as what’s coming out, and what’s out now,” said Olson, the Fargo Ice Fishing Show organizer and “Fish Addictions TV” host. “As fishermen, we love to have some of the best stuff, whether it’s LiveScope or the live scan stuff that’s coming out right now, and guys are willing to upgrade and get rid of their old (gear). It’s a cool industry to be a part of right now, just because of the advancements that are being made continuously by all of the companies.

“You’re not just having one company just leaps and bounds above the other,” he added. “They're all pushing each other to get better, which is only good for the sport.”

Tackle trends

Even that old ice fishing standby, the jig, is becoming more specialized. According to Olson, advancements in jigging baits and glide baits that resemble a swimming baitfish provide new options for wintertime anglers.

“You see all those companies really focusing on artificial baits for anglers who don’t have to go buy waxworms and minnows and bring that along and try to keep them alive,” Olson said. “The advancements in ice fishing for those types of baits is always something to keep an eye on.”

It’s quite a change from the days when a store might have a 50-foot wall space set aside for every kind of ice tackle on the market, Mitchell says.

“There weren't a lot of options for ice tackle,” he said. “You had Jigging Rapalas, Swedish Pimples, Kastmasters, things made in the garage and some tear drop jigs.

“Now, there are really good options and really specialized options – really high-quality tackle,” Mitchell added. “Ice anglers are showing that they'll spend more money on a premium piece of tackle. That’s definitely a trend I’ve seen over the last year.”

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Sam Larsen, a lure designer for Bemidji-based Northland Tackle, lands a walleye Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, while ice fishing on Upper Red Lake. Contributed / Brian Brosdahl

Meanwhile, the list of accessories, whether it’s gizmos for “tricking out” the popular hub-style portable houses or “Ice Defense” de-icer units for keeping holes open, is seemingly endless.

On the downside, ongoing supply-chain issues mean some of the popular ice fishing products on the market aren’t always available on store shelves.

“The demand is so high, but all companies are having trouble getting product – it’s stuck overseas or stuck on ships and not quite here yet,” Olson said. “What’s in the stores is being bought as fast” as it hits the shelves.

“That’s the biggest downfall with anything this year,” Brosdahl said. “Everything’s behind.”

Tight supplies seem to have created a different type of buying atmosphere, Mitchell says.

“People just seem more frantic, where they’re buying stuff now because they’re worried they might not get it later, and that very well could be the case,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of stuff sold out by the first of the year – you’re not going to be able to find it. You don’t want to wait around. Buy it as soon as you can so you’ve got it, if it’s important to you.”

PULLOUT:

If you go

  • What: Fargo Ice Fishing Show.
  • When: Friday, Dec. 10, through Sunday, Dec. 12.
  • Where: Scheels Arena, 5225 31st Ave. S., Fargo.
  • Show hours: 1 to 8 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
  • Tickets: $12 adults, $24 weekend pass, 12 and under free admission; free parking.
  • Info: fargoicefishingshow.com .
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 bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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