Gimme Shelter on Ice

The northwestern Ontario ice fishing world I grew up in had no ice shacks. It’s fair to say there weren’t even ice fishing tents. If you went ice fishing, it was done out in the open and fully exposed to the elements. Which is why so many fishing lines were sunk within about 50 feet of shore. The only way to keep warm was via a bonfire. You huddled around the flames and watched for a bite. It was all pretty quaint and old school. No one fished in the open lake much as it was just too cold.

Fast forward about 30 years. The trip is on Lac des Mille Lacs, northwest of Thunder Bay. I’ve been invited to shoot an ice fishing show with someone who will remain nameless. However, the trip exposes me for the first time ever to the pleasures of a commercial ice fishing shack. The company is Sugar Shack rentals, and the proprietor is Archie Hoogsteen. We are able to drive right to the shack on an ice road, although Archie told us he could pick people up via snowmachine if needed. The shack was warm, thanks to a wood stove, and the extra wood was piled up outside the door.

“We’ve been catching as few nice ones,” Archie said as he showed us around. “This shack has been especially good.”

With that, he moved four squares from the floor of the shack and revealed some pre drilled ice fishing holes.

“You are all ready to go.”

I will confess to have been a bit taken aback by this. Ice fishing in comfort? In shirt sleeves? But that’s exactly what was on the menu, and soon fat walleyes were being yanked through these holes into the warm and comfy confines of the shack. Not only was it easier to handle the fish in the warmth, but they were not half frozen if we wanted to let a smaller—or larger—fish go. All in all, it was a positive experience and one I’ve repeated several times since in a variety of locations.

Renting an ice shack is a great way to introduce people to the pursuit of ice fishing, without also introducing them to potential hypothermia. For folks who are not accustomed to being on a windy lake in the winter, an ice shack is a safe retreat. They can watch the wind howl out the window, while fishing and enjoying all the pleasures ice fishing has to offer. And let’s be clear, catching fish in a hole in the ice is super cool and unique. It is amazing to watch a fish come up on your line as you look down the hole. In some places you can see right to bottom, and watch fish swim by. One time, while fishing a rented shack on Lake Superior, I watched a half dozen species swim under my feet, including lake trout, whitefish, herring, brook trout, pike and steelhead. It was very cool to see the fish come in to the tube jig, with some taking a swipe and many just swimming by without a taste. The most exciting experience was jigging a tube with everything quiet, and then a two-foot long steelhead rocketing in and grabbing the lure without so much as a hesitation. That fish was like hooking on to a rocket and what a fight it was.              

Speaking of Lake Superior, one of the most exciting ice fisheries in northwestern Ontario is exploding on Black Bay, a large shallow part of the greatest lake. I think it’s fair to say that without the commercial operators out there, most people would not be able to enjoy it. Most of the fishing takes place many miles off shore, and to say it can get cold and windy out there is an understatement. But from the confines of a heated shack, the sprawling bay is a perch-filled pussy cat. It’s miraculous what some heat and shelter can do.

It should be noted that having an ice shack doesn’t mean you don’t have any opportunity to get outside. Quite the contrary. You will have to get to and from, and that is done as often as not via snowmobile or open sleigh. That can be a bit fresh. Plus, a lot of anglers like to place their second line outside. So if and when the strike comes, you have to run outside and tend it. And if it’s not too cold and windy, sitting outside in the winter can be downright pleasant, if not invigorating.

Renting an ice shack is not for everyone. But if ice fishing interests you, and freezing your butt off doesn’t, it might be just the thing for you. 

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