(Supplied by Get Fishin' Rentals - image credit)
Starting a brand new business during the COVID-19 pandemic isn't a common occurrence.
Having that business flourish is even rarer, but that's exactly what's happening for Jim Waltner.
After working in the Pacific Northwest for the past 15 years, the avid fisherman was ready for a change.
"One of the advantages this year is COVID, and more people have time on their hands and they want to use it together as a family since they can't travel or anything," Waltner said.
Seeing the growing demand for outdoor activities in Alberta over the past year, he dove in, launching Get Fishin' Rentals in Edmonton this past December, which he hasn't regretted.
"There's a lot of people that are getting out on the ice a lot more than in the past," he said.
"That was the whole idea of me starting up the business."
In particular, ice fishing is seeing a heyday right now, attracting a certain type of angler eager to get out into nature and challenge the elements.
Waltner estimates interest in the sport has increased up to 40 per cent over the past year.
"Sometimes I think they're crazy with the weather, but that's part of it," he joked.
"In a way it's more challenging because you have to wait for the fish to come to you, not like summer fishing where you can go to the fish or find them on a fish finder, which is easier."
Jason Cooper is a senior fisheries biologist with Alberta Environment and Parks, and he says recent data shows resident sport fishing licence sales for the 2020-21 season in Alberta are currently more than 315,000.
That's an increase of more than 30 per cent from 2019 sales.
"We've certainly noticed the number of ice fishing shacks is quite a bit higher on at least some of the central Alberta lakes this year. Again, that's attributed to people wanting to spend the time out on the great outdoors taking up ice fishing maybe for the first time," Cooper said.
When Get Fishin' Rentals opened late last year, they were the only outfit offering fishing gear for rent in Edmonton.
In light of pandemic-related economic stresses, the idea of trying gear before buying it has kept a stream of new customers coming in ever since.
People are able to place their orders online and pick them up from Waltner's COVID-compliant garage.
"It's a type of product that if you were to buy everything to go out ice fishing, you'd spend over a couple thousand dollars. I can offer a complete package with a tent, fishing poles, tackle and even fish finders for about a hundred dollars", he said.
"It saves people a lot of money that want to try it, but have never done it before, and I'm finding I'm getting a lot of families doing that this year."
Waltner says there are many popular trout lakes within an hour of Edmonton that see a lot of winter anglers, including Pigeon Lake, Gull Lake, Sylvan Lake and Buck Lake.
To enjoy a day on the lake, at least four inches of ice is needed to walk on and 8-10 inches to drive on.
During this cold snap, most of the ice in the Edmonton area is about 15-18 inches making it safe to head out on, even with minimal experience.
Just don't forget to properly prepare for the sub-zero temperatures, which can feel more extreme when out on the ice.
Waltner says pop-up shelters that can go up in mere minutes are very popular right now.
"It's really important to be protected from the weather, so I'd say make sure you have a shelter, warm clothes and then some sort of heating source to protect you from the elements," he recommended.
However, many anglers have taken to social media to complain that COVID-19 restrictions are cramping their style right now. And Waltner says he's heard many tales about wardens handing out fines to people in the same shelter space from different households.
"You know you go out ice fishing with a couple of buddies, relax and spend the day in a tent," he said. "But if you're caught right now the way the restrictions read, you can each pay a $1,000 fine if you're not from the same address. So I'd like to see them loosen that up."
Alberta Parks has also introduced new rules this year to deal with the issue of abandoned ice shelters, something that's historically been an issue on certain lakes in Central Alberta.
Anyone who leaves their shelter on the ice for longer than 24 hours must label it with their contact information and ensure it's removed before the end of March.
In the meantime, to help plan your next ice fishing adventure, visit mywildalberta.ca for tips and regulations.