From staff reports

Under the ice, the fish are biting. Cross-country skiers are traversing the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. And snowmobiles are humming through the forests. Sure, it’s cold outside, but there’s no better time to enjoy Leelanau County’s pristine beauty.

Since the mid-winter freeze is here, and since Empire and Glen Arbor’s “Winterfest” celebrations return this weekend, we decided to chat with Wayne “Soni” Aylsworth, whose all-season apparel outfitter, Empire Outdoors, is wrapping up its first year in business.

An Empire native, Soni, his wife April, and their three kids (Lexi, Blake and Corbin) returned to Leelanau County for good in July 2013, after 10 years in Detroit. Empire Outdoors opened last spring on M-22, next to the Empire Lakeshore Inn. Soni, whose mom Diane owns Diane’s Hairstyling, had grown tired of the Sunday night drive back downstate after visits “home” nearly every weekend to fish and hike. His great-great-great grandfather, George Aylsworth, reportedly came from North Manitou Island and was Empire’s founding father.

Glen Arbor Sun: What are Empire Outdoors’ key services and deals this winter season?

EmpireOutdoors-IceShantySoni Aylsworth: Ice Shanty Rental, ($50 a day during the week & $75 a day during the weekend) comes with rods and reels, minnows and heat; two shanties on Little Glen Lake and one on South Bar; Redfeather snowshoe rentals and sales; Striker Ice floating Winter Jackets and Snow Pants and really warm Marmot Winter Gear; Polar Max undergarments (really warm and Wicking) that are made in North Carolina; super warm Fox River winter socks made in Iowa; Laundromat wool products handmade in Nepal; Eskimo ice fishing products, and other ice fishing gear. Also, live bait sales! I didn’t skyrocket my prices, I’m comparable to all the big box stores. This is due to the fact that I want to offer quality products at reasonable prices. I don’t like it when I get gouged, so why would anyone else.

Sun: How has this winter treated you? Slow to freeze, but now solid winter temps, right?

Aylsworth: In November it seemed as if we were going to have an epic winter. Unfortunately we lost most of the ice on the local lakes until January. Now all the local lakes are ready to be fished. There’s plenty of ice on both Glen Lakes. As far as sales go, I didn’t have very high expectations. People are still learning about us and what we provide. I’m always looking to provide what is needed by the public. Please tell me what you want and what you think would sell for the outdoor world.

Sun: Tell me about the ice fishing / ice shanty experience? If you were to describe the sport/activity to someone from, say, Haiti, how would you tell it?

Aylsworth: Ice fishing in Leelanau County is like no other! Glen Lake is considered one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. In the ice shanties you can see the bottom and sight fish. That means you can see the fish bite your bait. The shanties are fully equipped: they even have propane heat, so there are days when the shanty feels like a sauna. You look into the hole and see the beauty that God has created for us fortunate individuals. Everyone has to try it at least once.

Sun: Do you name your shanty? What sort of personality does it have?

EmpireOutdoorsAylsworth: Haha, no I didn’t give the shanties names like we all name our boats. But now I think they need to be named! I have never thought of a personality for them, but now that I think about it, the orange shanty has a calming factor to it. The multi-colored shanty has a more rugged feel, and makes you feel like a true fisherman. The third shanty was built by my grandfather and myself and feels like a true Northern Michigan shanty. This shanty is not as extensive, but it catches a lot of Northern Pike!

Sun: Where are the best places to ice fish? (If you’d rather not answer the question, be vague!)

Aylsworth: On the ice! I’m kidding. In southern Leelanau County, there is Little Glen for Perch (PLEASE don’t drill holes near the permanent shanties); they are hitting minnows. Big Glen is a bit harder to find the spots do to its size, but the perch are hitting minnows and wigglers. The trout are hitting big blues and Jonah Jigs. School & Bass Lake have a lot of pan fish. In Lime Lake there are perch, but somewhat hard to find if you have never fished it. North and South Bar Lakes have a lot of pike.

Sun: What are you most excited about for the upcoming Empire Winter Fest?

EmpireOutdoors2Aylsworth: The Sled Race, at 12:30 p.m. on Wilco Rd. Empire Outdoors will be utilizing a sled that was made in the early 1900s by my great grandfather, Alonzo Aylsworth. This sled used to go from the top of the winding hill, down to the beach when my grandfather was a young kid. I’m also very excited that I’m able to be a direct part of this event. I remember while growing up this event used to gather many people together. One of my goals is to bring this back to Empire for the community and for our youth.

Sun: What was it like to return home to your native Empire? Did it go as expected? What were highlights? Or lowlights?

Aylsworth: I never really left. I always said that I was visiting the Detroit area and lived up north. It is true that more time was spent downstate, but the family and I were up here almost every weekend and holiday. My expectations are always high, but being able to start a family business in a place I love to be is exactly what I wanted. I won’t be a millionaire, but I will be just as happy if not happier.

Sun: It’s great to have Mom, and her business, right down the block, right?

Aylsworth: Having my mother down the road is great. If I have anything to do she normally comes in and runs the shop during the off-season. My mother has always been there for me and always will be. She is the strongest lady I have ever met.

Sun: What are you, and Empire Outdoors, excited about for 2015?

Aylsworth: I’m excited about opening up the garage as “The Beach House” this summer. This will allow us to have more retail space in the main shop. We have some really cool t-shirts and sweatshirts coming this spring. New designs that people have never seen. The new roof will also be a change for individuals driving through. Hopefully the changes will be enough to get people to stop in and do some shopping. We will still offer the charter fishing on Watta Bite & Finicky. If you have never been on Lake Michigan fishing, you don’t know what you are missing.

Check out Empire Outdoors on Facebook here.