When it comes to fishing, Chip Leer is one of the most recognizable faces in the upper Midwest, promoting the pastime both summer and winter through television, sports shows, in-store appearances and tournaments such as the Cabela's National Walleye Tour circuit, for which he serves as emcee.
A Minneapolis native, he has been fishing northern Minnesota most of his life, guiding on waters such as Lake of the Woods, Kabetogama, Leech Lake and numerous smaller bodies of water. He also promotes ice fishing products on behalf of such companies as Otter fish houses, Strikemaster ice augers, Marcum Electronics and Northland Fishing Tackle.
Leer talked to Grand Forks Herald outdoors writer Brad Dokken about trends in ice fishing, the sport's popularity and some of his favorite hard-water destinations.
Here's an edited transcript of that conversation.
QUESTION: What's your first memory of ice fishing?
ANSWER: I seriously started ice fishing, I'm going to say, in the early '80s. Some of my earliest memory of it is tip-up fishing for pike with a buddy of mine. It was the old mentality -- you set up some tip-ups, we always called it the "trap line," we hunkered down in the pickup, and we just watched the flags. That was our entire ice fishing experience.
We also rented a couple of sleepers on Lake Mille Lacs back in the day. I just remember being out there in blizzards and the doors wouldn't stay shut and it was miserable.
The thing I remember most about early ice fishing memories is lack of fish. And I don't think it was until the mid-late '80s when I got up and started living year-round on Lake of the Woods, when I was living on Oak Island and running around on the snowmobile that I finally started putting two and two together and went "Wait a minute, you drill a hole in the right place at the right time and this can be pretty darn productive."
Q: I'm sure in the early days it was probably a clip-on depth finder, a pointed wooden stick and pulling fish up hand-over-hand.
A: If I recall, that was high-tech (laughs). The thing that really inspired me ... my first couple of years that I lived on Lake of the Woods, I guided there in the summer, and I went back to Minneapolis in the winter. My winter job was working for Paul and Greg Thorne at Thorne Bros., and this was in the days there was a guy that was running around building these little fish shacks in his garage and trying to sell them to Thorne Bros., and he called it a Fish Trap. That's how I met Dave (Genz, who's considered the father of modern ice fishing). I was working in the shop and him coming in with that little Fish Trap and talking to him.
That info I learned in the store with Dave trying to sell his Fish Trap, well that's what kind of inspired me to go "You know what? I need to stay up at Lake of the Woods. I don't want to come back to Minneapolis and work in a sporting goods retail store; I've got to stay up there all winter. There's fish to be caught."
Q: Genz's Fish Trap and mobile approach to ice fishing really changed everything, didn't it?
A: Absolutely. Dave changed everything. It wasn't a group or anything, it was Dave. I'm forever indebted and inspired by Dave. He's the one who actually stood there and said there's a different way to do this, and nobody else had come up with that yet.
Q: What made you keep coming back to ice fishing even though you didn't catch fish those first years?
A: To survive the upper Midwest winter, you've got to do something, and that was the something that I wanted to do. For lack of a better term, I didn't have a whole lot of choices of what to do in the winter, and if you wanted to stay active and go do something, that was it. And everybody I knew liked to fish, and my buddies all liked to fish.
We were so naive on where, when and how to catch them -- that was the biggest challenge. We didn't know; we were just throwing darts, and the problem with the early days is you really only threw one or two darts a day. You'd drill a few holes and throw out some tip-ups and you either got lucky or you didn't. And it took a lot of years before we started figuring out there's a system to this that can be a lot more productive than what we're doing.
Q: What kind of questions do you get the most from ice fishermen?
A: Everybody wants to know: "What do you do to make a fish bite?" And I still think most people look at this backwards. It's a lot easier to go find a biting fish than it is to force the fish to bite. One of my big first lessons in the world of ice fishing was, go find aggressive fish, go find new fish, go find your own fish. That mentality is still the most productive way to catch fish in the winter vs. trying to change a fish's mood.
Q: That's really where electronics comes into play.
A: Yep. Whether it's new underwater cameras or a flasher, I think that either way, they help you read a fish's mood.
Q: Say I'm looking at getting into ice fishing. What do you recommend in terms of equipment?
A: You can do it as basic as you want. They sell rod-reel-lure-jig kits for $25 that are actually pretty decent. That same gear 8-10 years ago was probably $100. For $25 you, can get what you need.
Obviously, you've got to have a way to get through the ice, and the first important piece is electronics. Learning how to read electronics and find fish quickly will determine whether you really enjoy the sport and hold onto it long term or don't. Anybody can throw line out there, but being able to have a piece of electronics and watch a fish react to how you jig, that's what will turn into wanting to do it longer.
If you really want to catch something, you really need a piece of electronics. It will tell you whether your lure is hanging below the fish, above the fish, near the fish or there's no fish -- period. And you don't have hours on end to bask in 85-degree weather; this is winter, the elements can be a little bit harsh, your ability to move in comparison to summer is limited. You need to spend as much time in the most productive water as you can find, and the best way to shorten that curve is a piece of electronics.
Q: What's the next big thing on the horizon and where can the industry go from here. Is there much left to conquer?
A: I think we're on the cusp of some change in terms of batteries. I think you're seeing more and more electronic or battery-operated augers on the market now. I think as batteries are getting stronger and lighter and have better ability to withstand cold temperatures, that's the kind of stuff I would see coming.
I don't think you're going to see a dramatic overnight change, but I think that over a period of years, we're going to see it. Plus, it's an alternative -- there's no exhaust, there's no pollutants whatsoever. I think you're going to see that.
Q: How do you explain the popularity of ice fishing?
A: Part of the success of ice fishing is the whole social aspect of it. A group can go ice fishing and catch fish, have fun, get outside, beat cabin fever, have a barbecue, do whatever you want to do and at least get outside and enjoy winter.
Q: Is there a typical ice fisherman or is it a broad demographic?
A: I think it's a lot broader than anybody is willing to acknowledge. One of the neatest things is there is a wave of young people ice fishing. You're seeing a lot of college-age, early 20s-age kids really into ice fishing, and I think that is because the overall cost is nominal.
Q: Do you have a favorite species, given the choice, when you're ice fishing?
A: Lake trout -- hands down, no ifs, ands or buts about it. It's partially what I get to fish the least, but lake trout is my favorite just because it's the biggest, it hits the hardest, it's the most fun and the fight is incredible.
Q: Pick five ice fishing destinations and explain what puts them on your list.
A: My top two right out of the gate are going to be Lake of the Woods and Lake of the Woods. And here's why: I'm just going to say the northern portion, the islands portion, of Lake of the Woods because of the diversity. There's crappies, there's walleyes, there's trout and it's a phenomenal place to fish. Two is probably Lake of the Woods' Big Traverse, in (Minnesota waters). It's a phenomenal fishery. You seem to be able to catch fish all the way through the year and especially early in the season, a chance at a true trophy walleye.
The third is walleyes on Lake Winnipeg and the Red River (in Manitoba) -- river early, lake late.
The last two are regions. I'm going to say northeast South Dakota and the whole Glacial Lakes region over there as four, whether it be Waubay (lake), but that whole Glacial Lakes region. And there isn't any one lake over there; there's a whole bunch of small lakes over there.
And there's right around home here, all the small little lakes that are scattered essentially between the Iron Range as far north as Hibbing all the way down to Detroit Lakes; there's just a whole bunch of stuff that's less than a couple of hours' drive from my home here in Walker, and there's thousands of options of places to fish.
Q: There's still something really cool about watching a fish come up through a hole in the ice, though, isn't it.
A: What's magical about ice fishing is when that rod's thumping away and it's down the hole and the hole may be just a little bit covered in slush and you really can't see what the heck you got going on yet. That and the fact you did it on such a limited space ... look at the size of the lakes we fish and narrowing it down to 8 inches can be a bit of a challenge and when it all comes together and works, it feels pretty darn good.
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