WINNIPEG -- Manitobans are looking for new activities to partake in this winter as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to roll on.

Health officials have said people should still enjoy the great outdoors during these times, and that was seen in the summer when more people were buying bikes, and exploring the province’s parks.

Now with the colder months, the new hobby that is seeing an increase in participation is ice fishing.

"I do quite a bit of ice fishing myself and I have seen a huge increase in the number of people who are out ice fishing this year," said Chris Benson, who is the program and events coordinator for the Manitoba Wildlife Federation.

The province said as of the end of December, 163,000 angling licences have been sold in Manitoba, which is an eight per cent increase compared to the previous year.

"That number does take into account a drastic reduction in sales of non-resident licences due to the border being closed. Sales of licences to resident anglers have increased almost 16% (using a 5-year average)," a spokesperson for the province said in an email to CTV News.

Benson believes the reason for the increase is because people can't do other things they enjoy such as going out for dinner or seeing a movie.

"People are looking for other opportunities to have a weekend out with the family and engage in a fun activity."

He noted that even before the pandemic, fishing was growing in popularity in the province.

"(The pandemic) has taken it to the next level. Anyone that has the opportunity to go out and look at some of the common areas where people ice fish … they will find there is a lot more people taking part in that activity."

Barret Miller is the tourism and custom programs coordinator with Fort Whyte Alive, and he also noted that this winter compared to others, the sport has become more popular.

"We are always a place that hosts ice fishers every year but I have seen a little bit of a bump, especially since the holidays this year, of ice fishers," said Miller. "What I have been seeing is folks who are trying it for the first time or for the first time in a long time."

Miller said during a normal year, Fort Whyte Alive would be able to provide some instruction and programs for people about ice fishing, but due to health restrictions, it isn't possible right now. He did note that staff are still showing guests the best and safest places to go enjoy some time ice fishing.

"If you're a person who really needs a reason to do something, ice fishing is a great reason to get outside."

For those who are looking at taking up ice fishing, Benson has some tips, which starts with following public health orders and not gathering with large groups outside of your household.

"Getting the bare necessities, an ice fishing rod, some bait, obviously some warm clothing because it can get cold here in Manitoba and even a shelter if you can afford it," said Benson.

He said it is important that people are safe while ice fishing and that they should check ice reports before heading to a location and he noted that the ice fishing community is always willing to help out new anglers and they can provide a lot of advice on the sport.

"A lot of anglers are happy to drill holes for new people that are coming out."

While ice fishing is taking off, it is still a struggle for some businesses that offer people the experience of the sport because of the current health restrictions in Manitoba.

Mathew Hobson, who operates Icebound Excursions, said when the season started, his company had received double the number of pre-bookings compared to the previous year, but unfortunately not many followed through on the bookings because of gathering size limits.

Icebound Excursions takes people onto to Lake Winnipeg using a vehicle called a SnoBear. The SnoBear is lowered onto the ice and people are able to fish from inside the vehicle.

Hobson said the problem with that is it doesn't allow for physical distancing.

"We're restricted to only people from the same household renting," said Hobson.

He hopes that if and when the restrictions are changed, more locals will start booking times to try ice fishing.

"If those are lifted, we are extremely confident we can fill that.

"This is the prime time for fishing … Lake Winnipeg is a bucket list destination for people."

Benson said if people have the chance, they should try out ice fishing as it is a great chance to get outside and enjoy nature.

"Being outside is fantastic, and hopefully at the end of the day, you catch a couple of fish to eat."

Before anyone starts ice fishing, they must first have a fishing licence which can be purchased on the government's website.