If your only knowledge of ice fishing is via dispatches from Lake Wobegone, you may need to update your mental imagery. No longer is it lone fishermen perched on plastic chairs over a hole in a frozen lake. Like camping, the sport has gone glam: there’s an event called Tip Up Town that rolls a carnival, concert stages, an ice slide, and tons of other entertainment out onto frozen Houghton Lake in Michigan. In recent years it’s become so popular it’s called the Bonnaroo of Ice Fishing. You can even have a pizza delivered directly to your ice-fishing hole. Angelo’s Party Store, located on Houghton Lake, will snowmobile out onto the lake with pizza, wings, and even beer in tow. “The only thing we don’t deliver is liquor,” says storeowner Lou Tomma. The service is still a hit, he says—no one wants to leave their spot just because they’re hungry.
Ice fishing seems like a super-niche market, but it’s actually growing. Tony Roach, a professional ice-fishing guide, says this is due in part to advances in outdoor technology and the proliferation of new gear that makes long days on the ice comfortable—even fun. Specifically, Roach says, more people are fishing from semi-permanent hardside shelters. They're primarily made to protect from the elements, but some come with the option of wood-burning stoves, cushioned seating, microwaves, even televisions. “It’s amazing the meals some diehards cook up in their icehouse,” he says. These days, outings are sometimes nothing more than an excuse to tailgate on ice, says Jason Schroeder, a Wisconsin native who's been ice fishing since he was a kid.
One recent February morning on Vermont’s Waterbury Reservoir, a group of chefs gathered for perhaps the most gourmet of these tailgates ever hosted—in the form of all-day fishing and charcuterie. “We were all just so sick of the standard wine dinner,” says Will McNeil, one of the chefs and owners of Hen Of The Woods in Waterbury, Vermont. So when Barnaby Tuttle, a winemaker from Oregon, asked to set up a tasting, they decided to take the whole experience outside. “We pulled a sled out on the ice with all our stuff and snacked on rabbit pâté, liverwurst, and wine.” Not a bad update to Lake Wobegone.
Putting your picnic on ice is a skill that’s useful whether you’re fishing on a frozen lake or just going DIY with your après-ski. So we asked this hardy bunch of amateur and professional ice-fishing tailgaters for their best tips. Here’s how to pull off your own perfect lake-top feast.
Bring a Cooler
It seems counterintuitive, since keeping things cold on the ice isn’t a real concern, but it’s actually for keeping your beer warm. “If you don’t bring a cooler and it’s really cold, your beer can freeze,” says Schroeder. Beer slushies in negative temperatures is a fast track to hypothermia.
Plan to Eat More Than Your Catch...
“It can be difficult to clean a fish out on the ice, especially if you’ve been drinking,” says Mike Larson, a Michigan native who has been ice fishing since he was a kid. And, you know, there’s always the chance you won’t catch anything. Make sure you’re prepared by packing some sort of other food.
...And Make Sure It's Something Warm
“Sometimes when it’s just me, I’ll pack a sandwich and that will be it,” says Larson. But if you’re going to stick it out for a few hours, having something toasty—be it a thermos full of chili or a small grill and a few brats—goes a really long way.
Choose Things You Can Eat with Gloves On
Avoid things that have tricky wrappers and messy sauces, or that require supreme dexterity (think: no crabs). Taking off your gloves in negative temperatures is a bummer and you’ll often find yourself opting to skip out on the food versus going au naturel in the cold.
For the Ultimate Experience, Build an Ice Fire
If you’ve got more than 18 inches of ice beneath you, Schroeder says you can safely grill over an open flame. “These are some of the best meals you’ll ever have,” he adds. To properly build a fire on top of the ice, follow these steps:
- Pick a spot as protected from the wind as possible. Closer to shore will be less windy than out in the middle of the lake, Schroeder says.
- Remove any snow from the ice. You want to be building directly on the ice.
- Build a solid base of logs so that your fire is elevated. By the time these bottom logs burn, your fire will have enough momentum to stay lit.
- Bring a windproof lighter if possible. If you run out of fire starting material, seek out dry birch bark, which Schroeder says is highly flammable.
- Relax in the glow of your handiwork and add venison sausages as necessary.
Drink Whatever You Damn Well Please
The ice fishermen we polled were all over the map in their drinking choices. Larson drinks craft beer in real life, but opts for something with more of a frat party flair—PBR and Busch are his two faves—when on the ice. Schroeder packs craft cans from one of his local breweries, Ale Asylum. McNeil, meanwhile, goes for wine. “Whites are a good choice since temperature matters less,” he says. But, he says, you should really drink whatever makes you happy.
Disregard Happy Hour Etiquette
A frozen lake is a time vortex when you’re ice fishing—the actual hour becomes irrelevant. “Ice fishing is one of the times my dad will break his no-beer-before-5 p.m.-rule,” says Schroeder. Don’t worry about what your watch says—the ice is cold and the fish are biting, so crack open that beer and enjoy it.