Minnesota fishing guide Jason Mitchell remembers when overnights on the ice in a portable shelter were more about survival than fun.
Condensation would fall from the poorly insulated ceiling. D batteries powering the shelter's air-circulation fan would fail in the middle of the night. Lighting was dim, elbow room was nonexistent and certain propane heaters were worrisome.
"You ended up being miserable," he said.
At last weekend's St. Paul Ice Fishing and Winter Sports Show, Mitchell was celebrating a new era. Upsized shelters, advances in thermal insulation, built-in LED lighting, affordable and long-lasting lithium-ion batteries, carbon monoxide detectors, cots that can be stacked like bunk beds and rubber mat flooring have saved ice camping.
"More and more people are using these hubs to camp," Mitchell said. "You set up a folding table with a cooking stove, bring a jug of water. … The equipment is so much more trustworthy than it used to be."
A member of the Clam Outdoors pro fishing staff, Mitchell spent part of the show's opening day at a luxurious display of a six-sided, pop-up, hub shelter that featured ample room for two anglers to spend at least a few days on the ice.
The industry keeps developing accessories like rattle reels and cell phone holders that screw into the circular, interior hubs where the tents' structural poles connect to one another. Adding to those conveniences, compact lithium-ion batteries can be purchased with enough capacity to run fish-finding electronics, fans and lighting for days.
Mitchell said part of the ice camping trend is for groups of fishing friends to set up "villages" on the ice, sharing resources and building camaraderie. Portable carbon monoxide detectors are a must, he said, and a Minnesota-based technology company has expanded into the ice-fishing scene with camping-friendly Heat Hog portable heaters.
"All these little things add up," Mitchell said.
The season begins
This year's three-day ice fishing show at RiverCentre drew 190 exhibitors and 22,754 guests looking for deals on equipment. Attendees also scouted new places to fish, kicked the tires on an array of wheelhouses and checked out new gear. The event coincided with the season's first ice auger activity on Upper Red Lake, traditionally the most popular destination in Minnesota for early-bird walleye seekers.
As of Thursday at Upper Red's West Wind Resort in Waskish, anglers were being coached to walk onto the ice with portable shelters or to tow their equipment with an ATV or snowmobile, nothing larger and no side-by-sides. West Wind was warning its patrons not to cross beyond a large, unstable pressure ridge away from shore.
"We have lots of good fishable ice on the east side of the crack," the resort informed anglers who launched there. "Use your head and be safe out there."
There's already been a ton of early foot traffic, Kevin Waldo, an owner of the resort, said Thursday. "This week there's been lots of people, and next week there'll be more," he said.
The National Weather Service is forecasting mildly falling temperatures for next week, with northern overnight lows in the teens and low to mid-20s. Longer-term, the weather service's Climate Prediction Center has foreshadowed above-normal temperatures throughout Minnesota at least until Dec. 21, the official first day of winter. And for months weather forecasters have talked about a strong El Niño that would bring unseasonably warm temperatures to Minnesota along with below-average precipitation.
Clean it up
New this year to all ice anglers is an untested law meant to thwart littering. Successfully pushed by Minnesota's "Keep it Clean" collaborative, the statute adopted by the Legislature earlier this year requires ice anglers to properly dispose of rubbish and human waste. Garbage and waste must be placed in a hard-sided container that won't freeze into the ice. Violations are ticketed as petty misdemeanors but with a $100 fine, plus fees.
"Contain all your waste and don't let it touch the ice," said Robyn Dwight, president of the Upper Red Lake Area Association and a founder of "Keep it Clean."
She said 55 new lake associations in Minnesota have joined the campaign, now featuring several high-profile billboards in the north that say: "ICE IS NO PLACE FOR YOUR GARBAGE & WASTE."
Be careful out there
Once again this season, the state Department of Natural Resources is reminding ice anglers to make sound judgments about the reliability of ice. "There is no such thing as 100 percent safe ice," the DNR says on its ice safety web page.
The agency's longstanding guidelines: Wait for at least 4 inches of solid, clear ice before venturing out on foot; 5 to 7 inches before crossing ice on an ATV or snowmobile; 7 to 8 inches before crossing on a side-by-side; 9 to 10 inches for a small car or SUV; 11 to 12 inches for a medium SUV or small truck; 16 to 17 inches for a heavy-duty truck and 20 inches or more for a heavy-duty truck towing a wheelhouse.
The DNR says ice anglers are responsible for checking ice thickness themselves, and it strongly encourages ice anglers to carry ice picks to save themselves if they fall through the ice.
Twenty-nine people have died in Minnesota ice accidents over the past 10 years. According to DNR statistics going back five years, nearly half of those who died were 60 to 69 years old. Also in the past five years, 61.5% of the deadly accidents involved snowmobiles, ATVs and side-by-sides — not cars or trucks.
Brian Brosdahl of Bros Guide Service said he is concerned about mild temperatures. In his primary area northwest of Grand Rapids, all the way to Bemidji, plenty of shallow lakes are already supporting snowmobiles and ATVs, he said.
On Thursday, he walked 300 yards from shore on a smallish lake north of Grand Rapids. There, in 7 feet of water, he found 9 inches of ice good for fishing. But he's concerned that if it stays mild for long without a strong cold snap, full-sized ice houses and wheelhouses will have a shortage of lakes to visit.
"Let's just say I'm glad I'm not in the house rental business this year," Brosdahl said. "For me, I run small groups using sleds and pop-ups. It'll be just fine for that."
North of Hwy. 2 and north of Hwy. 200, he said, the smaller lakes still make ice even when days are warm.
"I'm not too worried," he said. "Winter always comes. That's what I keep telling people."