December 09, 2021
By Matt Straw
So you want to be an ice fishing guide? Think about it. You get up at 4 a.m. and drag yourself to bed between 10 and midnight, depending on how many fires need putting out. Every day. Seven days a week, if you’re lucky enough to book the trips. That’s after perhaps having to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for equipment—snowmobiles, ATVs, trucks, depthfinders, rods, reels, cameras, augers, tip-ups, hubs, wheelhouses, and portables.
Famous Green Bay guide “Bret Alexander has this huge building at Sturgeon Bay,” says In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange. “Wheelers. Vehicles. A wall full of rods and reels. Dozens of Vexilar FL-28s. Fish cleaning spot. It’s like an industrial warehouse.”
“It’s a three-acre gravel lot where we keep our 36 houses,” Alexander says. “The building is a 40- by 80-foot insulated, heated structure with a fish-cleaning facility inside. Gotta have heat for machines, to melt the ice off. We’ve learned through the years how to make things easier. We have 15 Clam portables in there with two 26-foot trailers we can put all the machines on. We have houses we keep on the ice all winter. It takes two days to get everything down to the ice and two days to get them off in March.
“We have two Polaris Scrambler four-wheelers and four Can-Am Defender six-passenger UTVs,” he says. “We have 400 jigging rods for the ice—mostly Mags Custom Rods from the Upper Peninsula. Reels are mostly Abu Garcia. Normally we show up at the building at 4 or 4:30 in the morning to start sorting things out and make final preparations for the day. At the end of the day, we take an hour or more after we’re done to put batteries on chargers and get everything ready for the next day. We take 80 to 120 people out per day. On Saturdays it’s generally 70 to 80, on Sunday 20 to 30. Weekends are big. We do some corporate stuff during the week with seven guys helping—all licensed guides. Each guide works 4 to 5 houses each day. There are days where we put 300 miles on a Can Am, shuttling people out and dropping them off.”
Sound like fun yet?
“We guide 2,500 people per year on ice, mostly several groups of 2 to 4 at a time,” Alexander says. “All 36 houses are booked on Saturdays. We take out 80 to 90 groups a week, mostly for full days but we do some half days. A lot of people buy a two-day package deal, which includes lodging. We charge $275 per person. In two months of ice fishing I can make more than I make spring though fall.”
As Alexander arrives at his warehouse every morning, guide Tony Roach is arriving at his pole barn a few hundred miles to the west in Minnesota. “I have a giant pole barn,” he says. “What’s nice about ice fishing is how comfortable it is now. But comfort on the ice is an investment. We have Otter portable fish houses and Yetti wheelhouses—enough shelters for 30 anglers per day that we load up and haul. Most people don’t realize how much work it is. We start at 4 in the morning getting all the machines loaded with rods, Marcums, augers, batteries, and fueling the rigs. Then we procure bait. We’re always taking care of bait. It’s constant. My guys are good—we all take turns babysitting the various minnows, waxworms, and maggots we bring, making sure they don’t get too cold or too warm, and the minnows have enough oxygen. The new aerators are great—all the brands are good now and that makes things a little easier.
“It’s nice when we can bring the Yetti wheelhouses, which are almost as easy to use as portables,” he says. “Otter portables are nice because you can throw a lot of gear in them and I like to keep moving. Those peak feeding windows shrink up in mid-season, so I like to keep moving—putting on miles and burning gas. We don’t want to wait for the fish to come to us, and when the weather is bad we need shelters. After January 15, mobility plays a big role in our strategy. Prior to that we might set up on structure all day, because fish keep biting.”
Guiding on the Great Lakes presents special problems. Wind moves ice. And a moving field of ice is an irresistible force. “You best know what you’re doing,” Alexander says. “The ice is constantly shifting. It’s probably the most dangerous thing I’ve done in my life and I was a firefighter for years. The first week you really have to be on your A game. Every 10 feet you drill. It’s a full two-day deal just checking initial ice conditions. It can go from 6 inches to 2 in 10 feet so we take a ton of precautions. Thermal pockets will sit for 4 or 5 days. When you get 10 to 12 inches everywhere you’re pretty safe. But the ice moves. Pressure cracks need bridges. Some days, blowing and drifting snow covers the pressure cracks. You have to go out at 2 or 3 a.m. to check these areas with a spud. Clients go out at 5:30 a.m.
“I’ve seen just about everything,” he says. “You play the wind. We’ve never had any clients in real danger, but last year a ship came through, wakes shook the ice pack and a crack opened up 100 feet away. We had to play the jigsaw puzzle to find places to cross. It took a few hours of running around to find safe places.”
Then come repairs. “In the average year, I spend $15,000 to $20,000 per year,” he says. “Even though we trade out Can Ams every two years, the wear-and-tear is tough, and we buy new, which means $4,000 in depreciation per year.”
Roach’s expenses depend on the year. “With a lot of snow and slush, you’re talking transmissions in trucks, ATVs breaking down, snowmobiles needing repairs,” he says. “When you have extreme cold or extreme snow, you break stuff. When things aren’t extreme you don’t break things as much. Plows, hydraulics, that sort of thing. And we’re always pushing the limit. I spent two days plowing a road on a lake last year and that’s hard on stuff. When you have 3 feet of snow, it’s hard to break trails. I wanted to get those Yetti wheelhouses out there, and it was a lot of work and time lost, as well as repair costs.”
Then there’s the uncertainty of weather and staying on the bite through all the micro seasons winter encompasses. “That’s the biggest challenge,” he says. “Ice bites are up and down depending on the time of the season. Early season tends to have the best bite , but it’s a challenge because we’re loading ATVs and snowmobiles and pulling Otter sleds instead of pickups and Yettis. So we work as a team—2 or 3 working with customers and 1 or 2 out hunting for fish.”
Roach maintains a few different snowmobile and ATV options for customers. “But most have their own gear now,” he says. “Ice fishing has grown so much. I used to have to provide each customer with everything. People even bring their own tricked-out wheelhouses now. It’s not a small portion of the clientele—they all have electronics, rods, reels, even if they come from southern Iowa and Illinois and Missouri where there is little or no ice most years. They come here, then go to Canada, the Dakotas, Montana—they’re ice anglers. I was on Lake Winnipeg in March running into customers of mine from south of the ice belt.”
Ice fishing expenses extend beyond winter. “I’m prefishing in fall for winter,” he says. “It’s a constant year-round focus on finding fish. Some lakes are historically better panfish lakes, some are better walleye lakes, some are consistent and some come and go. Bluegills, crappies, perch—we’re hunting everywhere. I use every opportunity I can to find fish when I’m not guiding. My son is my exploration partner and he’s really into it.”
Alexander still has some gas-powered Jiffy Pro 4s, but started using electric Strike Master units, he says. “They’re unbelievable—lighter, just as fast, and we don’t need to haul tanks of gas around,” he says. “We can punch 100 holes per battery. With spare batteries, we can punch hundreds of holes per day. Every day, we drill four holes in each shack plus 15 to 20 outside each shack—about 400 holes per day.”
Roach depends on electricity, too. “I can drill 100 holes or more with my StrikeMaster Lithium 40V before switching batteries,” he says. “We might spend three quarters of the day looking for fish. Most days, one of the guides is out there drilling, hunting for the next spot. The biggest challenge is staying on fish and staying on the bite. You have more tools in summer—trolling, casting, pitching, drifting, bobber fishing. In winter you’re limited to vertical fishing. With big temperature swings, it can go from -40°F to 30°F in a day or two. A couple years ago it went from 40°F to -42°F in two days. That has a huge impact on success. You have to work harder and drill more holes to find fish because they’re not coming to you.”
With a big pressure change or snow event, Roach recommends targeting predators before the front and perch after it passes. “Those post-front conditions offer a day to go after panfish,” he says. “Even after a nasty cold front, a few days of stable weather gets walleyes feeding again.”
Alexander guides on Green Bay exclusively. “We offer trips for walleyes and whitefish from early January through early March,” he says. “We hunt trophy walleyes by Oconto for last few weeks of March, but whitefish are the targets for about 80 percent of our trips all winter. Whitefish are our bread and butter. We rig up rods with 40 to 80 feet of superline with fluoro leaders for jigging with plastics. All we need for whitefish most days are Jigging Raps and Keitech 2.8-inch Fat Impact swimbaits on a Keitech Round Tungsten 1/4-ounce jig. We work both presentations quick with fast little hops and pauses. Whitefish popularity has really exploded the past several years.”
Roach guides on a variety of lakes in Minnesota, a few new waters every year—lakes large and small—primarily for walleyes and perch, but he books quite a few trips for bluegills and crappies after walleye season closes. “Most people want to fish walleyes until mid-February,“ he says. “Then it’s perch, panfish, or a combo. It’s getting more challenging to find jumbo perch. I think we’re on the upswing again. Size was smaller for several years, but size structure is coming back. I love fishing for perch, so we spend lots of time drilling holes to find them. We work harder to find and stay on perch than any other species, which is why I like my MarCum. Perch are serious roamers.”
Though most people bring their own gear, Roach is prepared to totally outfit anyone who asks. “Rods, reels, shelters, electronics, even clothes,” he says. “If they don’t want to bring their own stuff, we tell them they don’t have to. Some show up in t-shirts and jeans.” Ice suits—yet another expense. Roach has sponsors for rods, electronics, and shelters, though, so don’t feel too bad for him.
Starting out, sponsors are hard to come by. It takes time to develop the kind of trust and reputation earned by professionals like Alexander and Roach. “I’m so busy year-round, I literally don’t have time to approach potential sponsors,” Alexander says. “But it works out because most of them have approached me. I’m fortunate to have all my sponsors in place.”
I asked Alexander why he wanted to be an ice-fishing guide. “Sometimes I wonder,” he laughed. “Ice fishing was always something I did growing up. I knew that if I was going to make it working full time I had to do the ice thing. It’s over half my business. It’s brutal work—fatiguing on the body with super long hours. Few people can do this. I’ve got people that want to buy the business and I’m over 50 now, so I think about it. I finally had to start taking a couple days off during the week because it takes me two days just to get everything set up for weekends.”
“My passion is fishing,” Roach said. “When I first started, people rented houses, but very few people were guiding. I love to fish year-round and I saw an opportunity with the ice-fishing industry growing. I hoped to stay busy all year, but winter was a real question mark. With advancements in technology and with the sport becoming more comfortable and easier, my business started to grow by leaps and bounds. The popularity is nothing like it was 16 years ago when I started out.”
Hauling gear through slush and drifts—they don’t want to talk about it, but they get stuck out there sometimes. Backbreaking work daybreak to dark, constant repairs, babysitting bait, fuel expenses, orders for new equipment—the list goes on and on. Still want to be a fishing guide?
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw is a multispecies angler, decades-long writer for In-Fisherman publications, and a National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame inductee. He lives in the heart of Minnesota’s ice country.