Breaking the Ice
Pursuing their passion, women are a growing demographic in the sport of ice fishing.
Some say fishing is the great equalizer. You don’t necessarily have to be of a specific athletic build to be good at it or to participate in tournaments, unlike football or basketball. This is one reason why high school fishing teams have started taking off.
When it comes to ice fishing, that hasn’t always been the case, and physical strength was historically a huge asset. That created a barrier for some women interested in going out on their own. The gear was much more cumbersome than it is today. Gas-powered or — even better still — lightweight cordless-drill and battery-powered augers to make holes through the ice didn’t exist in the days of old. Holes had to be chiseled by hand or hand-cranked with a manual auger. Depending on how thick the ice was, that could be quite a chore. Lightweight float suits and insulated boots to keep warm and dry were also nonexistent, and insulated portable pop-up shelters to shield us from the elements were things of the future.
Don’t Stop Me Now
None of those inconveniences stopped competitive ice angler Debbie Compton who hails from Kingston, Illinois. She found much of her success by moving about the ice and drilling as many holes as necessary to find the feeding fish — a trait she picked up from fishing with her father nearly 47 years ago. Back then, there weren’t many women out ice fishing, certainly not on a competitive level. Yet Compton, with her innate drive to win, got out there and went after it. She was on a team of seven Midwesterners who took home the silver medal in the 1992 World Ice Fishing Championship in Ontario, Canada.
Many advances in the sport are thanks to Compton’s good friend and teammate on that 1992 World Ice Fishing Championship team, Dave Genz. Genz is known by many as “The Godfather of Ice Fishing.” Some may not be aware that the revolution he began is thanks in part to the women in his family.
Dave’s late wife, Patsy, and their two daughters, Missy and Kathy, were guests on The Woman Angler & Adventurer Podcast. Patsy recounted the story of how the first portable fold-up ice shelters came to be. She was the one behind the sewing machine, tirelessly putting the canvas together for each one after Dave came to her with the idea. One became two, two became six, and the next thing you know, the operation had become too large for Patsy to handle in just less than two years.
“This lady here deserves an awful lot of credit for what she did,” said Kathy proudly of her mom. “Not only did she sew all those fish houses … she, in her 40s, went back to school and got her college education so that she would be able to do the bookkeeping for this business.”
Genz’s innovations in the sport didn’t stop with the fold-up fish houses, which became known as the Fish Trap and are still around today and marketed by the Clam Corp. He also introduced the Ice Box, a portable sonar holder for ice fishing, and other rod and reel innovations. “Dave could not have done it without Patsy,” Kathy stated.
In football, concussions are a significant concern. In ice fishing, you have to be concerned about the condition of the ice. One phrase you’ll never hear Dave Genz use is “safe ice.” Compton agrees. She recommends being careful, never going alone, and always having your safety gear on and ready.
Love at First Cast
Perhaps no one is more aware of the dangers of ice than die-hard ice angler Hannah Stonehouse Hudson. In 2013, Hudson’s husband, Jim, experienced a fatal ice-fishing accident when his snowmobile plummeted through the ice on Lake Superior in Bayfield, Wisconsin. However, she was determined not to let fear hold her back from “her favorite thing in the entire world” and the sport that Jim introduced her to.
Hudson knew the moment they met that she was going to marry Jim. He was a beloved Bayfield native and a police officer who became a very successful ice-fishing guide. Being Ojibwe, he had a spiritual relationship with Bayfield and Lake Superior, aka Gitche Gumee.
She recalls her very first experience ice fishing, which was with Jim back in 2004. They went out of Ashland, a town near Bayfield, targeting smallmouth and whitefish. They took out on a snowmobile about 2 miles from shore and were fishing on 10 inches of ice. After being curious about the sport for some time, she was just excited to finally be out there. They jigged for a while, and after the bite turned off, they decided to pack it up and head back, except the snowmobile wouldn’t start. At first, Hudson thought Jim was joking, but he wasn’t.
They had passed only one shack on their way out, and Jim asked Hudson to walk back to it. It was nearly a mile away. When she arrived, a guy stereotypically walked out sporting union suit long johns and a “Grumpy Old Man” hat.
Before she’d left Jim and the disabled sled to make the long trek to the lone shack, Jim had warned her not to let the man drive his truck over there. However, after Hudson passed along Jim’s words of caution, the well-intentioned stranger insisted it would be fine. Not knowing enough about ice at the time, she got in the truck. As they approached Jim, Hudson could see him waving his hands, and then heard him yelling to jump out! So she jumped out of the truck and quickly realized the ice was spider cracking all around them. Hudson started booking it toward shore on foot.
Thankfully all ended well, and they were able to get the snowmobile loaded onto the guy’s trailer and hauled back to shore. Afterward, the man said that he didn’t realize there were only 10 inches of ice. He had a secondary fuel tank on his truck that was nearly full and was surprised they hadn’t gone through.
Despite that eventful first ice-fishing experience and the tragedy of Jim’s passing years later, Hudson still has a love for the sport. She was excited when the idea to hold a women’s ice-fishing event on the sixth anniversary of Jim’s accident came up. She couldn’t wait for the opportunity to introduce other female ice anglers to the town that took such good care of her after her husband’s death. Bayfield, to this day, still holds her soul.
After that big women’s event in Bayfield, Hudson recalled, “I could see where he passed away from the spot we were in.” Going into it, she wasn’t sure how she was going to handle it all, but she ended up feeling nothing but joy. She said, “He is always with me. He is always with his friends. He is part of Lake Superior. It is him. To be there and realize I have moved forward in life in such a good and positive way, and I was introducing people to a body of water that he introduced me to, that was incredible.”
Start of Something New
Another women’s ice-fishing event sprung up organically via social media just a couple of years ago called Ladies Midwest Meetup. Outdoor enthusiast and Wisconsin native Alicia Thompson (@alicia_joy_outdoors on Instagram) is the woman behind the event. Thompson grew up fishing solely with men, mainly her dad and uncles. Even as she grew older, all her outdoor experiences were with the guys.
She’d been following many amazing outdoorswomen on social media when one day the idea popped into her head to see if any of them would be interested in getting together to go ice fishing. She had no set expectations going into it. Yet, before she knew it, other ladies started messaging her back, saying they were interested. Thompson immediately got to work putting it all together. The next thing you know, 23 ladies of all experience levels gathered to ice fish on a lake in a small northern Wisconsin town. One had even traveled up from as far away as Missouri to join in on the fun.
The Missourian was Allison Ezell. Ezell had never been ice fishing before and happened to hear about the event through a friend. Right around that same time, her boyfriend was returning from a trip to Wisconsin. She told him she wanted to do this, and he encouraged her to go. The idea of trying something new in an environment of all women, even though they were strangers, felt safe. Though, admittedly, she was a little concerned about feeling like the new kid, thinking that most of the ladies would already know each other. As it turns out, most of the ladies had come by themselves and were all meeting each other in person for the first time.
The event quickly took on a natural mission of connecting, learning, and exploring. The more experienced ladies jumped into the teaching role, and everyone walked away with new friendships and knowledge. Those who attended had such a great time that they wanted to do it again the next year, including Ezell.
The following year it more than doubled in size with 54 ladies gathering to take over Little Round Lake in Hayward, Wisconsin. Ezell landed a very nice 14-inch crappie (that nearly got away), and more lifelong memories and friendships were made.
“When there’s like 50 women out on the ice, and we’re all within eyesight and earshot of each other, there’s a lot of support in the way of whooping and hollering,” Ezell says. “They catch a fish; they hold it up in the air, everyone’s cheering, especially when [tip-up] flags are going up. Anybody who can just drop their stuff to run over there and watch to see what they pull up.”
Ladies Midwest Meetup has been so successful Thompson is planning not one, but two events in 2021. One of those events will be held in Minnesota this time around.
Land of 10,000 Lakes and Women Anglers
Minnesota is home to the longest-standing women’s fishing organization in the nation. Women Anglers of Minnesota (WAM) got inducted into the Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame in 2019. Jessi Havemeier is the current publicity director for the organization and a strong independent woman and ice angler. She does everything from building her own rods to tying her own jigs to drilling her own holes in the ice and cleaning her own fish. Each year the organization hosts an instructional Ice Fishing 101 event where members new to the sport can learn from more experienced anglers in the group. “You could just see the pride on the ladies’ faces as they drilled their first hole,” said Havemeier when reflecting upon last year’s event.
Ice fishing has come a long way since the early days. It’s much more accessible now. If these ladies can do it, you can do it. If you’re a woman who is new to ice fishing or wants to try it for the very first time, advice from these amazing women is pretty consistent across the board.
Go with someone who has the experience and you’re comfortable with, whether it’s someone you know personally, or hire a guide. Use their gear so you can find out what you like and what works for you before you start investing in your own equipment. Join a group of like-minded women in your area, such as Women Anglers of Minnesota. Remember always to keep safety at the top of your mind.
Finally, WAM member and ice-fishing mentor Katie Halverson adds, “My mindset will determine the outcome of my trip. If I have a positive attitude and go out with the mentality to learn from my experience, it will set me up for success whether I catch fish or not.”