Winter Play: Ice fishing — learning family tradition hook, line and sinker

A reporter goes ice fishing
MPR News reporter Hannah Yang goes ice fishing with her father in-law Travis Robertson and husband Aaron Robertson on Roberds Lake in Faribault, Minn. on Jan. 22.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

Updated: 6:18 a.m.

As winter cold bites deep, MPR News is celebrating the best of the season through a new series called Winter Play. Our staff across the state set out to try a new-to-them winter pastime.

After years of my father-in-law offering to take me ice fishing — and me finding excuses not to go — MPR News said it was time to gear up for our Winter Play series. So, I finally accepted Travis’ offer. 

A person sets up a tent
Aaron Robertson, husband of MPR News reporter Hannah Yang, sets up a tent as they go ice fishing on Roberds Lake in Faribault, Minn. on Jan. 22.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

My husband Aaron and I meet up with Travis at Roberds Lake near Faribault, Minn.

The lake is completely frozen and covered in snow. It’s early in the morning and there are fish houses dotting the landscape. I silently pray as Travis drives his truck over the ice that I won’t take an unexpected swim. 

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Safety first

The Minnesota DNR says that you need at least four inches of clear ice to even just walk safely on a frozen lake. All lakes are different. So, if you plan to go, make sure you check for proper thickness. There’s no such thing as 100 percent safe ice, so be careful regardless.

We find a spot and get to work.

There are older fishing holes, so Travis pulls out his trusty sonar called a “flasher” that measures the depth of the lake and lets him know if there are any fish swimming around. He and Aaron then auger holes into the 15-inch thick surface. I’m amazed the ice doesn’t crack. Then, they clear the holes of slush and ice using a ladle. 

A reporter records a video
MPR News reporter Hannah Yang, center, records video as her father-in-law Travis Robertson, right, and husband Aaron Robertson skim holes for ice fishing.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

We pitch the tent, get the propane heater going and set our little fishing poles. I should mention that I’ve been fishing during the summer and enjoyed it, so ice fishing isn’t too different. It’s surprisingly warm inside the tent, so I get away with wearing a thick sweatshirt and sweatpants with some waterproof boots and thick socks. 

Two person set up a fishing pole
Travis Robertson, father-in-law of MPR News reporter Hannah Yang, sets up a fishing pole inside the tent.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

Getting the gear

You can go as cheap or expensive as you’d like for ice fishing gear.

Some grit their teeth and sit outside in the wind. Others get a tent like we do or even have fish houses. For me, I just borrow my bait and rods from Travis, so it doesn’t really cost me anything.

When Travis taught his kids — Aaron, Alli and Adam how to ice fish — apparently, he didn’t want to give them expensive gear to start out with either.

“I gave you the cheapest tools I could find — $2.50 Fleet Farm specials,” Travis tells Aaron and me inside the tent. “Because I know what you guys usually do. Bloop! ‘Oh, there it goes!’” He mimes dropping a rod down the hole.

A bobber sits in a hole
A bobber sits in a hole as MPR News reporter Hannah Yang goes ice fishing for the first time.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

In Minnesota, more people are fishing out on the ice. Fishing overall in the state rakes in $2 billion, and ice fishing is making up a large percentage of it now, according to Dean Paron, area supervisor of Finland area fisheries for the DNR. 

His advice for first-timers: You don’t need to spend a lot to enjoy the sport.

Some people spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on rods, electronics and luxury fish houses. Others prefer to use a simple rod and a bucket to sit while fishing in the open air.

“Start simple and see what you like,” Paron suggests. “As you develop your passions and as you kind of experience a sport, you slowly invest.”

The important thing to have is a fishing license. For this trip, I bought a three-day license for about $15 per person and I keep it on me at all times. Being caught without a license can lead to hefty fines.

Back to the action

Travis gives me some pointers. 

“You’ll see your bobber go up and down,” he says while watching me adjust my fishing line. “But, you don’t want to really do anything until it kind of really slowly goes down. That means (the fish) got it in their mouth really good.”

A person sets up a heater inside the tent
Travis Robertson sets up a heater in the ice fishing tent.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

And, of course Travis, being my father-in-law, makes time for jokes. 

“So, just to be clear… I don’t actually drink lake water, correct?” I ask, recalling his attempt at giving me a hard time as a first-time ice angler. 

“Well, first-timers are actually supposed to scoop out a thing of lake water and drink it,” Travis says sagely. I grin and laugh.

“That’s the good luck piece. But no, you don’t drink it,” he says.

A person cooks hot dogs in front of a heater
Travis Robertson cooks hot dogs in front of a heater during an ice fishing trip to Roberds Lake.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

For lunch, my father-in-law roasts hotdogs using the propane heater and an ice pick. It’s probably not a standard in the ice angler’s manual, but it gets a good laugh out of us.

There’s something about sitting around, waiting for something to happen that makes you tell stories to pass the time.

“My three kids decide to go out and play, and they have one of those spear holes,” Travis reminisces while Aaron laughs sheepishly.

“It wasn’t quite frozen back over again, and Aaron decided to jump on it. All of a sudden, they come running back to the tent, ‘Dad, Aaron fell in…’ ‘What?!’ Sure enough, he comes in, only one leg went through.”

Two person goes ice fishing
MPR News reporter Hannah Yang goes ice fishing for the first time with her husband Aaron Robertson and his dad on Jan. 22.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

Spirit of ice fishing

Travis has ice fished for more than three decades. His family was always into the outdoors whether it was hunting or fishing.

Despite the frigid cold and sometimes getting skunked — a slang term meaning you didn’t catch any fish during the trip —he says it’s all part of the experience. 

“It’s the spirit of trying to find the right spot at the right time,” he says. “You don’t know what you’re gonna get when you reel it up.”

Ice fishing was something Travis wanted to teach his children, and anticipates taking his grandchildren out some day to learn too. It’s not really about catching fish, Travis says, but spending time together as a family.

“Just getting all three kids out into the tent, just being outdoors was the main thing,” he adds.

A person hauls gear out of the tent
Aaron Robertson hauls gear out of the tent.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

This time, it’s our turn to get skunked. No bites. When it’s time to pull our lines and pack up, it’s time for, of course, my favorite part of fishing — unbaiting the hook. 

But, I did have a great time. Will I go again? Yes.

If you want to go

Where: There are so many different lakes around southwest Minnesota and beyond. It’s free to fish at a state park. To find a lake, the Minnesota DNR has a lake locator you can click on here.  

Some places you might even be able to borrow equipment to hit the ice. There’s also some ice fishing events and hands-on programs where you can learn to ice fish. 

When: All winter. But not all lakes are the same. Check regularly for weather updates, ice thickness and temperatures. You can’t judge the strength of ice just by how it looks.

Local climate conditions are different too. The DNR also has some safety tips you can read before heading out. Ice doesn’t freeze equally, so make sure you’re constantly aware of your surroundings. 

Length: For as long as you want your trip to be. We stayed out from 8 a.m. til noon. It depends on how long you want to be fishing for. 

How much: It can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be. I spent only $15 to purchase my three-day fishing license. There are licenses that cover the entire year that’s a little more expensive, but accessible.

My equipment and bait I borrowed from my father-in-law. Some spend hundreds of thousands on various rods, technology and shelter for their sport. So, it depends. The great part of ice fishing is that it can be pretty cheap and affordable, making it more accessible for beginners. 

What to bring: Wear warm clothes. Depending on your shelter, you might end up bundling up if you’re sitting outside on a bucket or you might just be comfortable wearing layers and waterproof boots and socks for sitting inside of a tent or inside of a fish house.

It can get pretty toasty depending on your heater. So, layer up! You might want to bring chairs if you want to sit on something more comfortable than a bucket. 

Bring your fishing licenses and make sure it’s someplace you can find it if you’re asked by a DNR conservation officer. They’re out patrolling, so it’s best to have it within reach. Same with your bait and fishing poles.

If you’re just getting started, go with some friends or family. It’ll help pass the time if nothing’s biting.