According to babynamespedia.com, the name Wilhelmina’s origin is Germanic, and its use, Dutch, English, German, and Polish. It is a two-element name from wil and helm with the meanings ‘will, desire’ and ‘helmet, protection’ respectively.
There really couldn’t be a better name for Art Graves’ new amphibious ice fishing vehicle, a U.S.-manufactured Wilcraft. It’s the first of its kind around Our Lakes and going out fishing in it is a little like taking Dad’s T-Bird to the drive-in, it’s amazing but it can be hard to “watch the movie” because everyone keeps coming over to checkout your sweet ride. “We named her Wilhelmina before we even took delivery, it just seemed to fit.”
Graves, who recently retired from a lengthy career in manufacturing management, and his wife Grace (a retired nurse), moved to the Napanee River about five years ago. With two grown sons now on their own leading productive lives, they bought their dream property and have steadily set about making it an idyllic, outdoor lover’s paradise… especially during ice fishing season. Nowadays Graves spends long hours in the summer at the local golf course as an assistant greenskeeper, but he’s off all winter giving him plenty of time to get out chasing the walleye. Despite their riverfront location, it’s not without out its challenges.
“The ice is very tricky in a few places on the river including right out in front of our place,” he explained. “You can be going along with eight inches and a few feet over it’s only two. The current is just so strong in some areas.”
Part of their retirement dream involves fishing as much as possible and when they first arrived in their forever home, Art figures he was able to make it out three or four times a winter. “I had a four-wheeler and if I trailered that to Deseronto I could take that out there as long as the ice was in good shape. I also had a toboggan I would just pull by hand sometimes depending on the conditions.” Either way, it was a lot of work just to get ready to go out hunting big Quinte ’eyes and he found himself passing up on fishing opportunities if weather conditions weren’t beautiful. “Usually beautiful weather isn’t typically the best time to be fishing either, so I wasn’t doing myself any favours in that department.”
He started looking for a better way to ice fish. That’s when he came across North St. Paul, Minnesota’s Tom Roering and his invention, the Wilcraft. The company strives to continually revolutionize the sport of ice fishing and they’ve certainly done it with their ingenious design.
Wilcraft stands for Water, Ice, Land craft and it can safely operate in any of these applications or a combination of all three. Development of the Wilcraft began in 1998 and by the end of 2004, Roering was able to introduce his company’s design. It was immediately well received by the avid ice fishing community in his home state. Manufacturing began in 2005 with the first unit delivered in January of 2006.
Among the first to fish from one were the Martinsons. Son Kenny writes, “My dad, John Martinson, was one of the first guys lucky enough to own a Wilcraft. His involvement with Adaptive Sportsman put him in touch with the inventor, and without this machine, I don’t think he would risk going out on hard water. Ever since his accident, which left him confined to a wheelchair, he would always otherwise pass on the ice fishing season.” The younger Martinson adds, “I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for giving him a tool to pursue an old passion! This machine virtually eliminates a risk that would keep him locked up in a house if you guys never came up with this idea. It gives him freedom, even in the dead of winter!”
The biggest draw for Graves too was the safety aspect. If you break through it not only floats, it’s extremely stable. It also has the added ability to travel across the open water propelled by its oversized rear tires, and then climb back onto any solid surface.
With climate change our winters have become less predictable, which has made ice conditions far more treacherous than they once were. “I grew up cottaging on Buck Lake and we’d ice fish for trout every winter back in the ’70s and early ’80s before they closed the back lake winter trout fishery entirely. Back then I used to take my pickup truck out on the ice and fish from the back in a lawn chair. You’d never catch me doing that nowadays.”
Riding in a Wilcraft feels a little like being in an airboat on wheels in that it’s floorplan is so open and the seats are situated to the rear, just in front of the engine. When you arrive at your spot and flip the full stand-up height, insulated top up and switch on the overhead led lightbar, anglers sit at opposing ends, each with access to two built-in holes of their own. There’s plenty of room for a propane heater, dual electronics, gear, snacks and what have you.
Since getting his Wilcraft just ahead of this season, Graves has already been out more than a dozen times and is getting his technique dialed in. “Grace’s biggest so far this winter is over 10 lb. and mine is 8.7 – both of those went back down the hole to swim another day. All but one of the fish we’ve caught have been 3 lb. or bigger. It’s been a great start to 2022 fishing-wise and it’s wonderful that my wife now feels safe and comfortable enough to come out with me on the ice, too.” She always loved to fish in their boat during the warmer months but winter was not her favourite. She’d always get nervous with all the noises the ice makes. She could never relax and enjoy the beauty of their peaceful surroundings and focus on the fishing the way she would in the summer. “We love fishing together now year-round so we can spend our golden years together doing what we enjoy most whenever we want.”
Beyond just safety, the Wilcraft makes it more convenient to get out onto the frozen water with all your gear. It’s comfortable to fish in the harshest weather this area can muster even in the dead of winter. You can quickly move to a new location without losing valuable fishing time. It also makes it possible to extend your ice fishing by up to a month on either end of the season depending on what Mother Nature throws our way in any given year.
“I took my nephew out a couple of weeks back and it was easily -25C with the windchill out around Bethany and Deseronto, he’d never caught a walleye ice fishing in his life,” said Graves. “It took us 15 minutes to go from our shore to our first spot about two and a half miles away. In less than five minutes we were setup and fishing. Within 15 minutes it was about 18C inside the Wilcraft and not long after he had his first winter walleye, a 3.4-lb. beauty that he took home for supper the next night.”
Later on that trip they met up with Edward and Chris from Sydenham. Edward had fished previously with Graves to checkout Wilhelmina for himself… he ordered his own the same day. “It’s the ideal thing for ice fishing and there’s nothing cheaply done on it,” said Edward. “I like to fish for lake trout in the winter out off Amherst Island. The ice there is crazy; you can be jigging away looking beside you at open water not far away – this is the perfect thing for getting out there and fishing safely. You never need to set foot outside on the ice if you don’t want to.”
On the ride home from fishing with his nephew, having zipped through what was at times very deep snow, over an open water pressure crack and through slush deep enough to choke out most four-wheelers, Graves was flagged down by another local ice fisherman, Brian O’Neill, wanting to checkout the Wilcraft. Graves invited him over to see it in the warmth of his garage. Within an hour or so a post popped up on Facebook from O’Neill, “Nice machine. Great guy. Look forward to another chat.”
The Wilcraft isn’t cheap, mind you. Graves said he bought the loaded version with all of the extra bells and whistles and it came in at US$28,800.
That’s a big leap for some folks to take considering there’s no dealership in Canada where would-be buyers can check it out for themselves.
“My first trip out I went with my neighbour Tommy and not long after we started I caught a nice chunky walleye… we joked it was an expensive fish! Well with how many we’ve caught this season so far it’s down to under $1,670 Cdn. a fish already and that number drops every time I go out!”
If you are seriously considering investing in a Wilcraft, Graves’ advice is to start by checking out the website, https://www.thewilcraft.com/, where you’ll find answers to a lot of common questions. If you’re genuinely interested one at that point, he is more than happy to meet up on the ice for you to have a look firsthand and answer any additional questions you might have.
“I love meeting my neighbours and fishing with other people.” You can connect with him on Facebook through Bay of Quinte Walleye 360. Just look for the Wilcraft posts and tag him in a comment. If you like what you see at that point, he suggests calling Roering directly at 651-653-0534 and let him know Art Graves sent you.
“He’s an amazing guy to deal with, he’s clearly passionate about his product and never sacrifices quality during the manufacturing process. This thing is built to last forever.”