Among a truckload of techie ice gear today, you still can’t beat the 5-gallon bucket. You load it full of anything and everything—a few rods, bottle of Mountain Dew, scoop of minnows, a pile of panfish—and winter absolutely can’t break it. It’s got one beauty of a handle, too. And flip it over and take a seat.
I laughed several winters ago while watching some of the ice belt’s most ardent panfish anglers compete in the North American Ice Fishing Circuit Championship. Here were dozens of anglers who had access to the top tricked-out ice gear in existence. Yet, shuffling from angler to angler and hole to hole, I spotted more 5-gallon buckets than flashers and Fish Traps. What’s more, thanks to an impressive array of nuts, bolts, and brackets, many anglers had garage-rigged their sonar right to their bucket.
Where there’s a need, there’s always a way among ice fishers. Check Thorne Brothers’ annual Ice Fishing Houses Modification Event. Each fall, the Minneapolis-based tackle retailer hosts a funky sort of preseason get-together that showcases some amazing portable shelter customizations. You can’t believe all the multimedia mods—speakers, iPods, and other electronics paraphernalia, as well as sonar, lighting systems, underwater cameras, and GPS. Throw in a few rod holders, cup holders, and tackle and rigging stations. The only thing missing might be a recliner and remote control.
Radical Rod Holders
Ice anglers are an inventive bunch. In recent years, we’ve managed to engineer some of the coolest gear in the entire fishing industry. Beyond the occasional flasher mounted on the beer keg, I’m thinking of products like the original Rock ‘N Reel. I don’t recall the name of the friendly Minnesota gentleman who invented this extraordinary rod holder nearly 15 years ago. I just remember that on the ice we all called him T-Bone.
T-Bone’s Rock ‘N Reel, whose design has been repeatedly mimicked, relied on the rod and reel’s fulcrum, or balance point, to operate like a teeter-totter. Add an eyelash of extra weight to either side, and the device automatically tips up or down. The design apparently came into existence one night in response to a tough, super-technical walleye bite on Lake Minnetonka—a highly congested fishery near Minneapolis.
Cradled in the Rock ‘N Reel holder, the faintest down or rise bite disrupts the rod’s delicate balance, causing the tip to dip down or slowly levitate. It doesn’t lock the rod into the holder, rather allows it to rest on a notched arm, usually balanced on the front reel stem. Each combo has its own balance point. The design is such that even jarring strikes never knock the rod off the holder. The resistance of a pulling fish pins the rod to the arm. A lightly set drag allows fish to peel line and self-set the hook. It’s by far, the finest ice-rod holder I’ve ever used.
Original Rock ‘N Reels were often custom built depending on how well you knew T-Bone, and featured multiple configurations that could be mounted inside portable shelters, on buckets, or as stand-alone versions for open ice. One of the freestanding versions (which I still use) bears this statement:
“Rock ‘N Reel by T-Bone—Since 1999, the best way to ice the most finicky walleye. Built to last a lifetime and help you succeed! Not every one has one, but those who do, eat more walleye.”
For deadsticking walleyes and other species, the design remains a light-bite detecting machine. Perhaps you can still find one on eBay, but these days, try alternatives like the Multi-Flex series rod holders from Catch Cover (catchcover.com). Offered both for portable (frame-mounted) or permanent wall mounting in a larger ice shelter, Multi-Flex holders sport snake-like adjustable arms that allow for numerous rod positions, while the free-pivoting rod cradle provides a similar balanced strike-indicator system.
For those who fish rattle reels, Catch Cover’s Rattle Snake Reels have adjustable arms and a super loud rattle chamber. For motorheads, Expedition’s Hot Reel rattle reel looks like a sporty automotive racing wheel with tire, rim, and valve stem, which serves as the trip-trigger. Not just for looks, the Hot Reel can be mounted permanently on a wall of a fish house, on a strut of a pop-up shelter, or you can use it as a free-standing unit on the ice (expedition-outdoors.com).
Tactical Camera Displays
Passing time in your ice shelter, it’s easy to let your mind wander. Glancing at multiple LCD sonar, camera, and GPS screens, plus your rod tip and the hole all at once, it’s not so hard to imagine a military style “Heads Up Display” sitting before you— fish bogeys and other radar-detected objects lying directly in your line of sight.
This past winter was my first using Aqua-Vu Micro underwater cameras. The portability and versatility of these systems allowed for easy rigging inside my Frabill Predator. Screwed onto an Aqua-Vu Pro-Snake Camera Mount with a standard threaded camcorder style base, the Micro and highly adjustable bracket clamp easily onto shelter frames. You can position it in an array of tactical positions. What eventually worked best for me was to clamp the mount onto one of the upper horizontal frames so the Micro monitor hung at eye level. The camera cable could then be stationed at any depth and easily manipulated by fingers or a panning device such as a Mo-Pod.
In addition to a sonar unit placed near a separate fishing hole, the Micro allowed for instantaneous viewing without sacrificing shelter space or convenience. Noteworthy, too, are dual sonar-viewing systems from MarCum Technologies, which offers its combo LX-9 unit and Vexilar, with their flasher-camera Fish Scout system.
For realism, screen history, and other factors, I prefer LCD sonar over flashers on ice, and this past winter I used a Humminbird 597ci HD Combo. In addition to flasher and real-time sonar modes, the 597 features built-in GPS LakeMaster mapping for tracking your location on most lakes. It’s a tremendous multi-functional ice unit, and one that provides diminutive yet critical screen details.
Ice industry innovator Brian “Bro” Brosdahl, who’s fished Humminbird and Aqua-Vu for many years, this past season devised a system he calls multi-viewing. Using the same Pro-Snake bracket mentioned above, he mounts an Aqua-Vu Micro Plus DVR camera to the side handle of his Humminbird carrying case. When not in use, the Pro-Snake and Micro fold up and store inside the sonar bag. To view underwater, he pivots the arm and flips the monitor open.
“I like to multi-view to get the fullest understanding of what’s happening down there,” he says. “I use the sonar’s cone angle as an early warning system showing me when fish move into the area. In shallow water, I down-view with the camera and watch each fish’s reaction to my bait. In deeper water, I quickly switch to side-viewing to scan the entire area, or even up-view in dense vegetation. There are times when I don’t need to use the camera, but it’s always there yet never in the way.”
The other benefit of multi-viewing, Bro explains, is the ability to grab the Micro cam and set out in search of fish. “The Micro has a little screw-in mount that allows quickly detaching and separating the two units. I can grab the cam—which has its own built-in power source—and go into rogue fish-finding mode on the ice. For that, the Micro is irreplaceable.”
The Bug-Out Bag
Grab-and-go also applies to interchanging units between shelters, ATVs, and full size trucks. Jim Edlund, another Central Minnesota ice junkie, coined the term “bug-out bag” to describe his system of transferring a sonar unit (or camera) between multiple platforms, including open water. Mounting different brackets from Humminbird and RAM Mounts on his snowmobile, truck, portable, and boat, he uses his Humminbird 597ci unit no matter where he’s fishing or his mode of transportation.
The 597 features a quick-disconnect mounting system, allowing for instant swapping of units between different bases. In his truck and snowmobile, he pre-rigs the appropriate mounting bracket and adds a Humminbird cigarette lighter power adapter and a spare transducer, so all he has to do is disconnect and grab the monitor unit, and then click it into another mount.
A similar system of switching your sonar quickly between vehicles and shelters can be done with other units, including Lowrance, Vexilar, and MarCum. Edlund, however, says the quick interchangeability of his 597 is what sets his “bug-out” system apart.
The same program also applies to underwater cameras, such as Aqua-Vu’s Micro, which sports the same female threaded base as a camcorder or GoPro. Using a Pro-Snake or similar mount, it’s quick and easy to mount a Micro or a point-of-view (POV) cam to film the action—either above or below the ice. For shelter rigging, the Pro-Snake is the most economical option. For rigging cams in a permanent shelter, ATV, snowmobile, or truck, RAM Mounts offers options with threaded male ends and various bases, including suction cup for windshields or U-Bolt for ATV handlebars. Check rammount.com for options.
So far, I haven’t seen a 5-gallon bucket mount on the market, other than the occasional homemade jobber. Nor have many companies been brave enough to try to improve on the classic ice fishing tote. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
More Sweet Shelter Mods
The classic “ice boat” design sports a flip-over style tent and swivel seats. My current favorite is Frabill’s Predator. From there, rigging your sled is all about matching the way you fish.
Clam’s Jason Mitchell X shelters have an integrated baitwell, sled lights for illuminating the fishing area and charging lures, plus a power port for charging cell phones or running a GPS. Finally, an emergency tool kit facilitates minor repairs.
Other accessory mods improve vision, convenience, and fishability. Clam and HT Enterprises offer several LED lighting options, such as models that clip to the inner frame of your shelter. Clam offers a light and fan combo for air circulation. Frabill also makes a super bright Shelter Light Bar that clips to any shelter frame and runs on 6 AA batteries, as well as the Min-O-Life Bait Station sporting a rectangular low-profile design that fits snugly inside any shelter and provides aeration for hours. Meanwhile, for climate control, Mr. Heater still keeps fingers toasty without melting your boots.
Also available from Clam, Frabill, and Otter are various shelter organizers, hang hooks, and cargo nets. Frabill offers specialized Recon and Trekker Max gear shuttles for organizing and storing bait buckets, rods, tackle, and electronics. Otter’s Sportsman’s Caddy attaches to an Otter sled-rail and has built-in cup holders, bait tray, and tackle and electronics storage.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt contributes to all In-Fisherman publications and reports on tackle and equipment trends on ice and open water.
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