Chip Leer is product manager for Bemidji-based Northland Tackle and a longtime ice fishing promoter, educator and seminar speaker. Leer, of Walker, Minn., also is on the pro staff of Ice Force, a collection of manufacturers that includes brands such as Strikemaster and Marcum.
As he geared up for the 23rd annual St. Paul Ice and Winter Sports Show, which began Friday and ends today at St. Paul RiverCentre, Leer talked ice fishing trends and early ice tips with Herald Outdoors Editor Brad Dokken. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Q. What are you hearing about ice conditions across the region?
A. We need the bottom to fall out (temperature-wise), at least for a few days. We need one of those, “Oh my word, it’s cold out” stretches of weather. There are guys who have been out, but I don’t know anybody who’s found over 5 inches, and most of that is an optimistic 5. It will come. It can come any time as far as I’m concerned.
Q. How’s the level of excitement, based on what you’re seeing?
A. The enthusiasm for ice fishing continues to just be really fun to be a part of. There isn’t anywhere you go that people don’t show up in anticipation. Ice fishing, if it had an opening day, it would be equal to deer hunting and opening fishing in Minnesota. But the fact it doesn’t have a line in the sand that says, “from this day forward you can take part,” is the only thing, I think, that keeps it from an all-out frantic pitch.
I’ve had a couple of multiple-day promotions with literally four-five-six-seven speakers all day long and full houses listening to the seminar speakers. Even at Gander Mountain (in Forest Lake, Minn.) last weekend, there were 75 to 100 guys at every seminar. The reason it’s so surprising is that does not happen with open water anymore. We do these open water sports show weekends, we do open water events, and they don’t come out like that. They come out, they’re there, they’re enthusiastic, but you don’t get the participation that you’re getting for ice fishing.
Q. Why has ice fishing gotten so popular?
A. We talk about that every year. I don’t know. I think truthfully, it’s the simplicity of it. It’s a portion of the sport that we still have not completely overcomplicated. If you listen to two muskie fishermen or bass fishermen or walleye fishermen talk techniques, it sounds like they’re speaking a completely different language. Ice fishing has still held itself to be relatively simple in my mind. You drill a hole, you sit down, and you play a game to catch a fish.
Q. What’s new in terms of “must-have” winter tackle?
A. If you look at what the jigs are made out of, the different metals that are available now, we’re getting slower drop rates of jigs, and those are becoming hugely effective.
Ice fishing-wise, anglers are really paying attention to drop rates of lures, and those drop rates are affecting people’s success because most of the time, the fish don’t chase really super-active, fast-swimming lures (in winter). They do when they’re aggressive, but the vast majority of the time, we’re faced with negative or neutral or just not real active fish or highly pressured fish.
So this whole next generation that I see, which you’re starting to see on the shelves this year, are the ones that are more fly shaped—we call them more flies than jigs. So, like Northland, who I work with, obviously, they have what’s called the Helium Fly, and the Helium Fly is a nonlead metal that actually almost floats free in the water.
It does have some weight, the hook’s got some weight, the head’s got some weight, and it’s got some fly material on it and then they pre-rig it with a little piece of plastic (Impulse attractant), and then when you drop that down there, it falls so slow, it’s mind-boggling how slow it is. It’s just awesome for panfish in shallow water. It’s way more enticing.
Q. Anything new in terms of colors?
A. I still think the whole UV inflection is big. All the UV colors still continue to be expanded upon and are super effective and especially if you glow them with an actual UV flashlight because your white flashlight does not affect that paint like the blue UV flashlights do.
Q. In terms of gear, how much better can it get?
A. I was talking with (fishing guide and fellow Ice Force member) Brad Hawthorne a couple of weeks ago, and we were looking at an Otter house (portable fish house). That same Otter house he and I had a few years ago retailed for $400, and it’s $1,000 now.
It’s like trucks, right? They’re going to get nicer and they’re going to get fancier. Kind of like Otter is going. They’re not trying to fight anybody on price point or have the lowest-price fish house; they’re trying to have a good fish house, and you’re going to pay a little more to get it.
You’re watching the same thing in fishing rods. Like this whole Widow Maker series from 13 Fishing (a fishing equipment company). That’s pretty cool; it’s a high-end graphite rod with incredibly expensive diamond-coated line guides, and it retails for $70. That’s just the rod, and then you put a 6061 Black Betty (inline reel) on there, and you’ve got a $170 combo for ice fishing.
That’s what you’re watching happen. The same thing happened with pickup trucks, and I don’t see anybody complaining
Q. That doesn’t fit the mold of the “stereotypical” ice fisherman who sits on a bucket and gets by on the cheap.
A. I don’t think the ice angler has told the manufacturer what the limits are yet. I mean jigging spoons are creeping up around $8, $9, $10 depending on the brand. I think the reason you’re seeing the higher-end ice rods, I think the reason you’re seeing the higher-end ice reels, I think the reason you’re seeing premium tackle is because there’s the old 80/20 rule in fishing. Which is, 80 percent of the lure consumption is going to be by 20 percent of the fishing group. And the thing that’s different in ice more so than open water is that that 20 percent is really hard-core, and they’re a really smart group of fishermen, and they’ve got great choices at what they want.
Electronics, augers, houses … all of it is better.
Q. How does that influence the fishing?
A. It isn’t the tackle or the gear that’s the big influence. I think it’s the information. Between social media and the Internet, that’s what has changed is people’s ability to find a hot bite faster. You may not have heard about the hot bite for a couple of weeks after it started (a few years ago). Now, it’s like three hours.
They’re just following what they’re seeing on social media trends or within their own little network.
Q. Does that have a negative impact on the fishing?
I think so. Definitely on the small lakes, but I don’t know if that’s much different than it used to be. Once the word gets out on a bite, that part I don’t think has changed. What’s changed is the houses are more portable and the permanents have wheels. That never used to happen so, if you had a permanent fish house, the question was, “what lake are you on?” Now, it’s “where are you going to put it this weekend?”
Q. How do you approach fishing first ice?
A. One, it’s every step is a risk—not every 20 or 30 yards. That’s probably the biggest thing. When I hit a body of water, I’m never alone, I’m always wearing a life jacket and, if need be, just take it a few steps at a time. I take a chisel, I don’t drill holes with an auger. I take a chisel, and you chisel your way through. With a good poke, it’s usually about an inch a poke, so you want to make sure it takes you four-five-six pokes to get through the ice before you move ahead a few more feet, and you just keep going and it’s inch by inch. Don’t get ahead of yourself and don’t be in a hurry.
Q. How about the locations of the fish? Do you find them in different places at first ice than you do as winter progresses?
A. I think especially with panfish, there’s still a lot of active panfish that are relatively shallow depending on the body of water you’re on, especially if there’s any vegetation left in that system. There’ll be shallower fish early. And then as winter moves on, they tend to move out more toward the main basin, but shallow weed flats can be really fun to fish early season.
Q. Any plans for first ice?
A. I’m trying to get out as early as I can. I’m pretty locked up through the St. Paul Ice Show. That’s not uncommon. I’ll be out midweek for sure, it’s just a matter of where. I generally am looking for some small lake in the woods that’s got panfish. The smaller the better—anything from 50 to 250 acres is pretty much what I’m targeting and, if it’s got pockets and bays, all the better because all that stuff locks up faster, and we generally get more ice quicker.
Q. What’s on your ice fishing horizon this winter?
A. I’m hitting every single one of my favorite ice fishing locations from Devils Lake to the Glacial Lakes region of South Dakota. I’ve got a couple trips up to Manitoba and, of course, Ontario, Minnesota, and I’ve got one trip over to Wisconsin planned. That’s my stint as I see it right now. I’m pretty happy with that. It’s a pretty fun run.