What you Need to Know about Custom Ice Rods

 Featured -  Croix Custom Ice  by St. Croix Rods  Photo Credit -  Matt Addington Photography

Featured - Croix Custom Ice by St. Croix Rods

Photo Credit - Matt Addington Photography

It’s usually easier to view changes to a sport like fishing looking backwards, rather than in the present or especially future.  That’s why it’s difficult to call the custom ice rod boom we’re seeing now a revolution, given pioneers in the rod-making business like Thorne Brothers have been doing it for decades.  Yet, for as long as a these tools have been around, it seems that only in recent years are they gaining widespread acceptance throughout the ice belt.  That’s likely due to a number of factors, not the least of which is increased interest in the sport the last 10 years or so.  Having fished and followed this trend over the years, and in designing a number of custom ice blanks myself, I think it’s time we discuss their popularity, and why they’ve become such a hot-ticket item in today’s ice market.

First off, we’ve been here before in the open water side of the world, and the development of customized rod blanks to approach specific situations, lure types, and species is certainly not a novel idea.  I went to college in the mid-late 1990’s less than an hour from the St. Croix Rods factory in Park Falls, WI, and they along with G. Loomis were some of the early leaders in the space.  Around that time, higher modulus carbon fiber, which was lighter, stronger, and more sensitive, saw more widespread use and adoption in such companies.  As anglers realized their benefits for all kinds of applications, it set off a flurry of designs, lengths, and actions, which became more feasible to build due to the new materials and methods.

Yet in the ice rod market, true customized rods were all that was available in the beginning, where anglers would describe lengths, powers, and actions, along with thread colors, blank preferences, and custom signatures or artwork.  These were hand tied items, not mass-produced, but careful creations of a few talented artisans.  Today, that workmanship still exists, though be wary of the term “custom” and how it’s used.  True “custom” ice rods are a razor thin percentage of all custom ice rod sales, as most are rarely built to a customer’s individual input and specs for a number of reasons. 

First and foremost, that process is slow and requires much more time and effort as rod builders labor over lengths, guide-spacings, various colored threadwraps, and the like.  Then, they switch out and build something else completely different.  That’s why instead of being truly custom, they’re instead “customized” to fit sweet spots in power, length, and action that are more popularly saleable to the general fishing public.  It allows ice rod companies to build up inventory, and sell to the retail environment.  Even the most fervent of custom shops sell relatively few true customs, as it’s difficult to charge what it takes on a per-rod basis for that level of service. 

That doesn’t make the majority of these not-so-custom creations less desirable however, far from it in fact.  Most are still handmade and are major upgrades from your traditionally mass-produced ice rod.  At this point, I’d have a very hard time going back to stock rods, given the way these customized ice rods cover the full breadth of species and applications I love to fish.  Whether a true custom or customized, I’ll be taking advantage of new offerings and technologies in this space for some time to come.

Glass rods eventually gave way to solid carbon blanks, and carbon is still today the most heavily used material in custom ice rods.  These blanks are typically ordered in by an overseas manufacturer, and in some cases ground to spec depending on the rod being built.  Just like many years ago in the open water market, there’s only so many ways to mill these down to achieve differing powers and actions.  It’s a well-understood process, and some great rods feature solid carbon designs.  This year, the advent of tubular (hollow) design, which has proven so popular with the highest-end rods on the open-water side of the market, has been brought to custom ice rods by St. Croix via the Croix Custom Ice (CCI) lineup.  The result is an even lighter and more sensitive blank than other high performance custom ice rods to date.  I anticipate the exploration into tubular ice rod design to be in its infancy, though increased attention to ice anglers and their needs will surely lead to rapid development and possibly even different materials and methods.

All of which is a long way of saying we live in a great day and age of ice angling.  Just as we’ve grown accustomed to technique-specific live-bait and jigging rods on soft-water, we’ll become just as spoiled with sight-fishing and spoon rods for the hard-water.  The result will be just as impactful as it was 20 or so years ago for me the first time I picked up a rod designed for properly fishing a jig.  I learned feel, mental mapping of the bottom, current, and sway, all while being able to detect bites and drive a good hook home with much more effectiveness.  All of these attributes led to a better presentation, and thus, more fish both detected and landed.  It’ll be the same for a whole new generation of ice anglers that embrace today’s customized ice rods.  Eventually, they won’t remember what came before them, and likely won’t fish with much else.            

The Scout House Concept

The first time I’d heard of a “scout house” was in the late 1980’s on Minnesota’s Lake Mille Lacs.  I was fishing as a boy with my dad and his buddy in a converted camper that we comfortably spent a few nights catching fish in.  Action there was slow but somewhat steady, though we had word of better fishing through a man referred to as “Sanders” that had several permanent houses across the lake.  Some of those houses were more mobile than the overnight 5th-wheel style campers like the one we were staying in, and we eagerly headed to the edge of some mud flat on the north side of the lake to sit in the scout house one evening.

What happened next was a defining moment in my young ice-angling career, as we cramped in tight quarters to catch a mixed bag of walleyes and jumbo perch, literally one after the other.  No flashers, no GPS, and really no clue to the bite other than the intuition of a Mille Lacs Lake veteran whose name may or may not be real.  Maybe the more important “no” is that there were no other people.  No other trucks, no roads plowed to our location, and no other fish-houses within miles.  These days on Mille Lacs there’s fewer secrets, and more people, but the principle of a scout house is just as valuable there and across the ice-belt.

Last year was my first owning a drop-down style fish-house, and it really opened my eyes to that style of ice angling.  I’ve fished out of many of them previously, but until you own one and starting living the realities of where you’ll be fishing, how you’ll get on, and most importantly the safety of your rig on ice, it’s difficult to predict in advance many details of your winter fishing.  After spending the season in one, I must admit, the creature comforts along with the fact that your family is more likely to fish with you, can make it hard to get out on the ice in anything else.  In fact, I know a fair number of wheelhouse owners that have gotten rid of their old portable shelters.

That’s where the road forks however and I’m reminded of the scout house scenario above.  There’s quite the lull, especially early-ice, during the many weeks where wheelhouse anglers are waiting for driveable ice, yet there’s ice enough to walk and potentially use ATV’s and snowmobiles on.  That’s where even the most fervent hard-house owner should consider a flip or pop-up style portable shelter as their scout house of choice.  Owning one without the other seems a bit limiting to me, especially given the relative cost differences between the two groups.  It’s easy to spring for a small portable shelter after you’ve spent a big chunk of change on a permanent house of any style.

My experiences with the wheelhouse were unsurprisingly that the best fishing I had came on spots that I had put some time into scouting and fishing previously.  That was true for the spots I came to later in the season, but also spots that I fished within days of one another.  That means for anyone dragging a wheelhouse around, a portable shelter of some kind is just as valuable an asset, especially if you’re fishing a few days in a row. 

So many wheelhouses are dragged up to incredible fishing destinations, plopped down on a likely looking spot, and ridden out for the remainder of the trip whether fishing is good there or not.  With hydraulic or crank-up features, snap-in hole covers, and quick cutting electric augers out there, why not setup with the hope of finding something better?  Better yet, plan and expect to move.  We all know it’s easier to transport and setup a portable than to drop and bank a hardside, so hit the lake this winter with plans to explore the space outside of your hard-sided house.

Another alternative that makes the scout house such a deadly part of the 1-2 punch, is that you can use it for more than just finding fish.  I can think of many scenarios last winter when the hardside bite was all about camping out during low light periods, but fish could be had during daytime with a bit of mobility.  That way, you don’t have to necessarily move the big wheelhouse to stay on the fish, rather, you fish early and late out of it while enjoying a day-time bite elsewhere.  That can include other lakes for panfish, or even a break from the wheelhouse on shore.  My observations have been that too many people hole up in their drop-down fish house and miss out on all the other great fishing to be had in an area.

Of course, take heed to ensure that your mobile approach is truly mobile, as the last thing you want to do with the scout house is weigh-down that side of your angling experience as well.  Pack light, bring a smattering of what you’ll need, and make sure to make mobility the primary focus here.  Limit yourself to a lightweight auger option, flasher, a few rods, and one or two jacket sized tackle boxes.  More than anything, you’re looking for the presence of fish on the flasher.  Do your best to catch a few to confirm that they’re a target species so you don’t drag the big house over for a school of small perch.  From there, take cues on what the bite is telling you. 

With so many anglers these days are considering the jump to a wheelhouse, don’t forget about how both permanent and portable systems can work together.  Use each to their own advantage, and maximize the fun and comfort along the way.      

2018 - The Year to Buy Big-Ticket Items?

 Photo Credit - Ben Larson - In-Depth Media Productions  Products featured:  Strikemaster Solo Lazer , and the  Otter XT Pro Resort

Photo Credit - Ben Larson - In-Depth Media Productions

Products featured: Strikemaster Solo Lazer, and the Otter XT Pro Resort

Big expenditures in hunting and fishing tend to be rare for most people.  For the most part, the outdoors has always been a rather humble sport, available to all in some form regardless of social status or financial means.  Growing up, squirrel hunting economics were driven by the best deal you could get on a brick of .22 ammo.  Trout and panfish didn’t seem as picky as they are now and crawlers were free to pick.  Even deer hunting was done with a hand-me-down Bear with poorly fletched aluminum 2117’s that flew just as crooked as they were bent.  

Today, we spend more on that which we enjoy, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.  Gear and gizmos that expand the experience or otherwise make for a more enjoyable outing aren’t taboo in my mind, provided they don’t determine the pleasure you take away from doing what you love.  The trick for almost all of us is always getting the most for your buck, and doing without until the time is right. 

Given what I’m seeing in all aspects of the outdoors industry, that time may be now or at least very soon for big-ticket purchases.  I’m talking about the many-hundred or multi-thousand dollar ones.  Boats, fish-houses, trailers, and even rifles or bows.  While I’m not involved in the day-to-day operations of all categories of outdoors manufacturing, it doesn’t take somebody plugged-in to know that the world is looking to be more expensive for years to come.  Here’s just a few of the indicators and reasons why. 

 Anything metal from deerstands to augers like this  Strikemaster 40V  will be more expensive by this time next season.

Anything metal from deerstands to augers like this Strikemaster 40V will be more expensive by this time next season.

Raw goods and materials costs rise over time, and tariffs are at least in the short-term, influencing prices of steel and aluminum.  That is not an indictment on anyone or a political stance; it’s a material reality that makers of anything metal are facing right now.  When their costs go up, yours will inevitably creep upwards as well, the degree to which depends on timing, inventory, and a host of other variables that are more difficult to predict.  While these source materials may drive the largest portion of future increases, there’s other factors at play as well.     

Consumer buying behavior has also changed from what we’ve come to know over the past few decades, even the past few years.  The brick and mortar retail market has contracted somewhat, and online sales have shifted business models for retailers everywhere.  Amazon and other internet power players have aided in an overall loss of retail floor space, and in-turn our local hunting and fishing re-supply efforts have changed as well.    

With consolidation comes a lack of choices, and typically increased cost of all products.  Many goods that ship well or are relatively low-cost will always be somewhat price-protected, but larger, more expensive items you’d likely want to see in person before buying will still need to live in the retail spaces we’ve always purchased from.  Even those that buy shotguns, ice augers, or fishing electronics online have likely spent some time in person with that product, whether out with a buddy or in taking the time to stop by an industry show or sport shop.

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Especially with larger items, service provided by retailers is still vital to the help that consumers need with those products.  These days you can buy anything anywhere, but not knowing how, when, or why to use it defeats the purpose of purchasing it in the first place.  There’s also the fact that things don’t always work as advertised and may require additional work or maintenance that keeps people happy with shops that do a good job.  That said, even though your average hunter or angler may be buying at an independent retailer or other local store for whatever level of service they provide, the product itself is not immune to price increases due to overall market consolidation.         

Lastly and perhaps most importantly is the topic of financing a large purchase.  We live in a time where borrowing money is extremely cheap, especially compared to previous decades.  Especially in boats and fish-houses, financing options will play a big role for customers everywhere.  With recent indications that the Federal Reserve Bank may increase its benchmark borrowing rate several times in the next few years, you’re likely to pay higher interest on any large item you finance moving into the future. 

All of which is not a cry to dig up the coffee can in the yard and throw your money at a large hunting or fishing purchase!  I will however, make no hesitation in saying that if you are buying in the foreseeable future, you’ll likely pay more the longer you wait.  It’s true that no one can fully predict the future here, and markets are fickle, with complex factors at play which can always reverse trends.  Not to mention, often the best time to buy something big is simple.  Do it when you’re ready. 

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Crick-Fishing 101

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I grew up next to two “cricks,” one of them being closer to a trickle, the other maybe more appropriately named a creek.  The two eventually joined, but no matter where we fished along them, the experienced was a hands-on activity.  Worms were dug, grasshoppers were caught, and most of the fishing involved wading and an eventual swim.  It’s rewarding to see my boys enjoying the same parts of the crick that I did, as they dig some bait and head down to fish for whatever bites.

Most times, the quarry is simply a good time.  Meaning they drown some angle-worms they found in the compost pile, catch whatever array of stream minnow species they can find, and eventually find the deepest hole to jump in.  It doesn’t always happen in that order, especially when the burning nettles rake across uncovered skin, or the weather is plain hot and buggy.  Then the swim usually happens first, and fishing upstream happens next on account of all the muddy water running downstream.

Other times yet we’re after trout and the whole game is more serious.  We’re looking to make the perfect cast on a 45-degree angle upstream, as current washes our spinners along a grass undercut or current seam.  Most of our success comes incidentally while fishing for chubs and such, but there’s times where we catch a few trout actually trying to.  I’ve yet to show my oldest son Isaac how to raise the biggest browns during the day, covering ground and marking holes, only to come back during low light to catch them.  Mostly that’s because with trout especially, I think you have to walk before you run, as the slightest mis-step, bad cast, or wrong movement can end your chances for that specific hole.  Especially if the water is running clear.

Of course much of the fun are the adventures, stories, and days happenings that I hear from my kids when they head down to the crick themselves.  A few days ago, I had to visit a specific spot on the streambank to verify that there wasn’t a black bear in the area.  Instead, it was a few deer that stood near each other to drink in perfect alignment.  As their hooves splayed symmetrically side by side, the mud looked as if marked by claws. 

Dating back to my own youth, we’ve had run-ins with skunks, mad geese, even some upset beavers.  Perhaps the scariest was during the snapping turtle mating season, or so I was told, when we waded a small section to fish a deep hole below us.  Upon climbing up the bank to leave, we turned back to see two garbage-can-lid sized snappers, locked together shell to shell in a prehistoric embrace.  They were rolling in the river exactly where we were standing, probably too preoccupied to care what we were up to.  It was spooky nonetheless, especially to my kids. 

Probably what I enjoy about the crick more than anything is the simplicity of the fishing and self-reliance it requires.  Bad casts are typically rewarded with a free cool-down as the offender wades to retrieve the lure.  Deep snags or anything unsafely dislodged means you’re intentionally breaking the line and learning how to tie knots.  A cast in the weeds means everyone ducks and is glad they were wearing eye protection.  All these lessons from a simple cast. 

While not as challenging to catch as the trout, I’ve seen chubs, river shiners, and simple suckers reduce grown men to near tears as they fumble with micro jigs as mosquitos, tall weeds, and steep banks mess with them.  These minnows don’t live just anywhere along the streambank, they’re focused on outside turns, current seams, woody cover, and undercut banks like the trout are.  Reading water for me started as a kid both fishing and wading through areas that held these minnow species.

In those days, the small crick wasn’t a trout stream, so we were legal to seine minnows, something my own kids love to do as well.  They actually prefer the crayfish, taking turns to see who gets pinched first, daring one another to put one on their nose and the like.  It’s funny that later in life as a college student, many of my fisheries courses went back to wading in similar rivers trying to find those same species of minnows.  We were stream naturalists without even knowing it, learning as we went, at times even finding freshwater lampreys.  Of course, we had no idea what they were at the time, but spent some hours looking through old encyclopedias until we came across a similar looking sea lamprey. 

These days, the answers to so many of those questions we once had on what bug is this, or what minnow is that comes at the tips of our fingers.  Still, the process of uncovering something brand new to us at the time, then following the path of research to understanding is just as fun now as it was then.      Exploring the natural world around us is a great excuse to get out and do some crick fishing, if for nothing else but to get out and enjoy the outdoors.  Just make sure to wear long pants until it’s time to swim. 

Enjoy the Chase

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I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to write about a recent trip I had to Northern Wisconsin, where I caught zero fish, and had an absolute blast doing it.  I know, it sounds odd stated like that.  Sunset and scenery pics must mean the fishing was poor right?  Amidst the pressure of always trying to stay on top of the bite, I’ll be the first to admit that fishing can be tough no matter who you are, or how much experience you have.

But this bite, wasn’t really even a bite, and I wouldn’t describe anything I did that day as “tough.”  It was my birthday, and though I’ve been making it a practice of always wetting a line each year on that day, work took me to Hayward, WI for a meeting.  That was fine by me, as the drive was beautiful, and it gave me a chance to scout a few spots for the return trip.  Where I would fish, for how long, or where I’d end up was anyone’s guess, and I was satisfied to let the day take me wherever it led.  That alone is refreshing in today’s day and age of chock-full online calendars and commitments.     

I didn’t have a boat hooked on back, no fancy electronics, scores of rods, or hundreds of pounds of tackle.  I had a small travel rod and a single river box I’d put together.  Staples from jigs and plastics to #5 Shad Raps, and a few terminal tackle pieces.  It would likely be tough to find fish, trying places I’d never been before along the Namekagon, and small lakes I’d seen dotted along my route.  Heck, I wasn’t even targeting a specific species, I was just casting to cast half the time.  Explorer fishing, without a plan or purpose, really suited me that day. 

I started along a river, watching canoers plunge through some rapids as I fished back-eddies and current seams from my shoreline perch.  Poor planning and overall ambivalence to the days fishing plans left me without proper footwear or clothing to even get in and wade, so I was fine with creeping down back-trails and sneaking wherever was dry.  As the well-worn lanes narrowed to paths, and eventually just game trails, I was lured further by the thought that maybe, just maybe, no one has ventured this far in years, and I’d come to a miraculous pool of unfettered smallmouth just around the next bend.  No such pool was around the corner, but I did see a number of smallies blowing up on dragon-flies.  They didn’t like what few topwater options I had in my river-box, but it sure was fun to try.

Next stop was a river bridge with too much current, and the one after revealed too much shallow water for my liking.  I was looking for something in between, but fishing new places always involves some strikeouts.  Like the next two spots, which were just boat landings that had some small gills and crappies visible from the dock, but nothing going elsewhere.    

This kind of fishing is about checking on new leads too, so I headed north and off my route home to a lake rumored to have some gargantuan gills from this past winter.  I found the lake, and even fished it from shore a bit, looking for any sign that might confirm or deny their presence.  Another miss, and time for a break, so I stopped at a small corner bar near the lake to see if I could chat up any locals.  Aside from the bartender who’d heard that “there’s fish in there” but had no idea as to the size or speciation, there was only an old man sitting at a picnic table. 

He offered only vast generalities, and a bit of red-herring to throw any self-respecting angler like myself off the trail.  That said, he did lament the fact that the lake at one-time had a fishable walleye population, at least until “somebody probably caught two of them and called everyone they knew.”  I suspect he was talking about the bluegill bite in code, but it was fun sharing a birthday beer with him somewhere in the middle of Wisconsin nonetheless.

I pointed the car towards home, tempted to think poorly of the overall fish-count from the day, and disappointed at first that I hadn’t brought the boat, made a call to some friends in WI, or otherwise just prepared better for my excursion.  But I had a great day, and really enjoyed the break from constantly being “on-point.”  I fished casually, enjoying the pursuit without letting it dominate the day.  I didn’t cast gruelingly till last-light as mosquitos feasted on my blood-smeared face, grimacing in focus for the next heroic fish-hoisting moment.  I flicked a few ticks off me and just fished, then drove home.  Anti-climactic, perhaps, but it’s been the best fishing trip I’ve had this year.