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  • Patrick Durkin

Old Skis, Rebuilt Shanty Highlight Icefishing Season

Updated: Mar 13

After sliding my old golf clubs into the truck’s back seat with my ancient downhill skis last spring, I silently thanked them for their long-ago service and hoped they found new owners who enjoyed them.


Their next stop was my daughter Karsyn’s garage sale, where my wife, Penny, affixed them with $5 price stickers. I assumed I’d never see the old toys again.


But those Kastle skis from 1960s Austria returned home three nights later. No one at the garage sale wanted them. Even for $5. Not even for free.


I felt humiliated on their behalf. But I felt grateful by January when they aided my ongoing icefishing rebirth. Among my failings as a 1990s father was that I seldom took my three daughters icefishing when they were young. I worked most weekends the past 30 years, often compensating for time spent hunting the previous months.


That might explain why friends snicker these days when seeing my vintage icefishing gear. They respect my weathered Beaver Dam tip-ups but look askance at my early 1970s “Mendota rigs,” whose large circular reels resemble home-movie reels for 8mm film. I explain that these deep-water perch rigs were likely conceived in Sweden, but no one seems impressed. One young man even said sarcastically: “I really like the crank knob. It looks like something off the cabinet in my grandpa’s workshop.”


Yep, much like my musical tastes, most of my icefishing gear remains locked in the Watergate era. My gear was still relevant in 1980 when I returned from the Navy and icefished Lake Poygan northwest of Oshkosh the next few years. Then Penny and I bought our first home in 1985. Careers, three girls, and home remodeling projects converged, and my icefishing missing years began.


Among the artifacts surviving that hiatus is a portable fold-down shanty I built atop two 2-by-8 runners. It stands 6 feet tall when open, and its base is 6½ feet long and 4 feet wide. I made its roof and sidewalls from cotton-duck canvas, so it weighed about as much as the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty.


When I opened my shanty for inspection in December after 30 years hibernating in our garage, I discovered two foot-long holes in the canvas, courtesy of paper wasps. Guilt swept in when I couldn’t guess when the damage occurred.


To be clear, I didn’t totally abandon icefishing from 1985 to 2020. I just tagged along with indulging, well-equipped friends or readers most of the time. My return to regular action started about two years ago when I bought a deep-sided Otter icefishing sled on clearance. My icefishing interests were rekindling, and I started to modernize.


I returned to the ice alone in early March 2021 and knew I had been away too long. I couldn’t wait to get back into it late in the year. When deer season ended in early January, I ordered dozens of tungsten icefishing jigs from Widow Maker and Northland Tackle, and several spools of braided line for my tip-ups. Weeks later I bought two custom icefishing rods from Joe Swanson at Gold Standard Outdoors.


In the meantime, I explained my shanty troubles to Elliot Adler when meeting for coffee in Eau Claire. He sent me to his friend Jon Myre, a canvas-sewing guru across town. Myre sewed a new roof and walls for my shanty from a strong, featherweight 300 Denier fabric. After removing the old cotton canvas and attaching Myre’s handiwork, I was impressed how much easier I could set up my rig, lower it, and lift it into my truck. Those chores suddenly made me feel 37 years younger.


But by then I also noticed my Otter icefishing sled dragged like a barge when pulling heavy loads in deep snow. I felt like an aging slump-backed mule when harnessed to the sled. Then I read about the “Smitty Sled,” which is basically two skis with an elevated platform that keeps the “barge” above the snow. The Smitty Sled had credibility. It was trending on Facebook, Instagram and icefishing forums.


In fact, my friends John Maier and “Dreadlocks Dave” Burgess raved about the Smitty Sleds they built. And depending on who’s raving on “The Original Smitty Sled” Facebook page, these rigs make pulling chores twice to a hundred times easier than a standard icefishing sled.


My mission was clear: I had to build one. My long-forsaken downhill skis, so widely scorned and ridiculed by garage-sale patrons and used-sports gear stores, found new life as the foundation of my Smitty Sled. All I had to do was attach 6-inch high 2-by-8 uprights to the skis, connect them with two 2-by-4 crosspieces, mount four screw-eyes for tie-down straps, and ratchet my Otter sled to the Smitty’s raised deck.


Two hours after entering my workshop with the skis and removing their 50-year-old bindings, I pulled my new Smitty Sled into the backyard for its shakedown cruise. It handled the overloaded Otter barge just fine. Next, I fastened my reborn fold-down shanty atop the Smitty. It carried that load easily too.


Two weeks later, the Smitty worked great on Idaho’s Lake Cascade, even after I secured its rope to an ATV and dragged it for five days and many miles in a mostly futile hunt for trophy perch.


The only problem, of course, is that I didn’t finish all these building, remodeling, updating and field-testing projects until early March. Judging by social-media, many ice-anglers were already chasing perch and walleyes from boats when I returned home from Idaho.


And judging by the warm forecasts for mid-March, I might only get onto the ice two or three more times before conditions turn unsafe. That’ll mean putting all my icefishing gear back into storage until December.


When winter trips north again this year, I’ll endeavor to reclaim my status as a serious icefisherman.


Now, if I can only get better reading these new-fangled sonar screens.

A pair of 60-year-old downhill skis find new life as the runners on a newly built “Smitty Sled” for icefishing.

— Patrick Durkin photos

Lightweight 300 Denier fabric (black sides) reduced the weight of this homemade portable icefishing shanty, which was built in 1980 with heavy cotton-duck canvas.

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