GRAND FORKS — Brad Olson admits his two sons — Carter, 8, and Jackson, 4 — might be more passionate about ice fishing than most boys their age, but that didn't happen by accident.
They got an early start, they've caught enough fish to hold their attention, and their dad has fueled the fever by making the time on ice fun.
The boys even have been known to "play" ice fishing in their Grand Forks home, setting out the fishing gear just like they would inside the ice shack and pretending to catch fish on days when it might be too cold or stormy to venture out for real.
Carter was 3 the first time he wanted to go ice fishing, Olson says; Jackson started about the same age.
"From there it just took off," Olson, 37, said. "Jackson is 4, and he's absolutely obsessed with ice fishing. ... To say a 4-year-old lives and breathes ice fishing would be hard to believe for most people."
Assistant store manager at Cabela's in East Grand Forks, Olson says he approaches a day on the ice with his boys the same way a teacher might approach a classroom of young students.
"The big thing is snacks," Olson said. "You've got to have snacks and food to keep them entertained, but the most important part is just to have fun."
That means keeping the kids busy if the fish aren't biting, Olson says. And having a shack so everyone stays warm on the chilly days.
"I try to make it almost like a teaching experience, like a classroom," Olson said. "It's about having fun and having them realize you don't catch fish every time you go out.
"If they get bored, we'll sing songs, we'll talk about frozen fish, how they freeze and how they move around — kind of make it a learning experience."
'It's their time'
Other parents have similar stories. Loren Keizer of Detroit Lakes, Minn., took his oldest son, Lucas, 7, ice fishing the first time when the boy was 3 years old. This winter, younger brother Caleb, who's 3, has ventured out with Dad and older brother a few times.
Keizer, who lives in a part of Minnesota with an abundance of nearby lakes, says he generally targets panfish, which tend to bite more willingly than walleyes, when fishing with his kids.
He only takes the boys fishing for short periods of time to avoid burnout.
"You learn when you're fishing with kids that you almost have to make it so it's their time out there — not your time," Keizer, 34, said. "Sometimes, you've got to pack up and head home before you want to, but if you keep dragging it out and make them suffer through a tougher bite, and they don't want to be out there, you're probably going to lose the opportunity to have that lifetime fishing partner, too."
Parents also have to expect the unexpected, such as the time Olson took his youngest son on one of his first ice fishing excursions to Stump Lake with older brother Carter.
"Jackson bent over; I didn't know what he was doing, and the next thing I know there was a minnow tail sticking out of his mouth, and then I had to pull it out," Olson said. "He said, 'I eat minnow'; I said, 'no no.' "
Kids also seem to have a knack for stepping into ice holes. Keizer says it happened one of the first times he took his oldest son ice fishing to an area they accessed by snowmobile.
"He wanted to be right by Dad while I was drilling holes," Keizer said. "I drilled all four holes, and he was right behind me. I took a step back, he took a step back — and put his foot right in the one hole up about to his knee."
The rest of the story is familiar to many parents who take sons or daughters ice fishing for the first time.
"We never even got to wet a line that day," Keizer said. "We came out by snowmobile so it wasn't worth trying to get him dried off and warm. We boogied back to the access and called it a day."
Call it a lesson learned. Now, Keizer says, older brother looks out for younger brother when Dad takes them fishing.
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"He's very protective of Caleb," Keizer said. "Even if he's walking around inside the fish house, Lucas knows the result of getting a wet foot, so he looks out for his little brother, which helps me out, too."
Olson recalls his son, Carter, stepping into a hole on Devils Lake.
"Luckily, I brought an extra pair of socks," he said.
Teaching the kids to catch fish and watching them have success also is rewarding. Olson says he bought a flasher unit for his oldest son so the boy can see his lure and the fish approaching to bite — or not bite.
Keizer says he also has been teaching son Lucas how the electronics work. Watching a fish swim in to hit a lure on electronics is like the fishing equivalent of playing a video game — only better.
"The number of trips has increased every year," Keizer said. "Lucas is starting to pick up on things now. The first year, he saw I had a flasher with me so it was kind of a prerequisite to have one on the ice with him even though he didn't have a clue how to read it.
"This year, he's been asking questions and starting to see a few things. One time this winter, I probably spent 45 minutes where I didn't have my line in the water just to help him catch fish."
Run and fun
Fishing with tip-ups, devices with a flag that trips when a fish strikes, is another good way to get kids into ice fishing. There's no need to stare at a hole because the flag signals the strike.
There's also the fun of yelling "Flag!" and racing to the hole.
Braden Durick figured that out when he was 3 years old while on the ice with his dad, Brad, and a bunch of friends during a late-winter ice fishing excursion on Devils Lake. Now, the 4-year-old — who'll be 5 on Feb. 19 — pulls in pike like a seasoned veteran.
Between bites, he can run on the ice, warm up, take a break and watch a video in Dad's truck, or explore nearby for "treasure" — as the boy calls it — which could be anything from rocks or sticks to whatever he finds laying on the ice.
"I know he prefers ice fishing to boat fishing mostly because I let him run," Durick, 39, said. "I don't think I could get him to sit in a shack all day. He just likes to run around and do whatever it is he does, and I'm good with that."
Until recently, the boy was content with running to the flags when they tripped and letting someone else pull in the fish. That changed a couple of weeks ago.
"I think the whole ice fishing thing has gone very well, all things considered," Durick said. "I could care less if I pull in another pike for the rest of the winter based on how the last two weeks have advanced. He went from watching, to now I'm taking pictures, and he's telling the fish who's boss."
That kind of activity works up an appetite, and Braden during one recent excursion started the morning with Lucky Charms, and then he had bacon and eggs with the big guys about an hour later. During the course of the day, he chewed through four pouches of "Star Wars" fruit snacks, one cereal bar, one granola bar and two ham sandwiches.
He ate the third ham sandwich on the way home that night.
"Bring lots of food," Durick advises.
Another key, Keizer says, is taking the kids out on nice days and avoiding the miserable ones.
Patience also is a virtue, Olson says.
"Just have fun, and don't be so serious about trying to catch so many fish you have to brag about it," Olson said. "Have the experience to make lasting memories."
That's what it's all about, after all.
"I probably don't have the most normal children because they love hunting and fishing so much," Olson said. "But that's a good problem to have."