Luxury on ice

From two-by-fours to two-storey RVs: the evolution of ice fishing shelters

Photo: Yngve Ask / What ice fishing looks like to the fish.

Photo: Yngve Ask /
What ice fishing looks like to the fish.

John Erik Stacy
Norwegian American Weekly

The formula for a basic ice fishing house is half-inch plywood held together with two-by-fours at the corners.

Get five sheets of plywood. Cut one of the sheets in half to make four-foot squares that will become the roof and the floor. Make “skids” out of two-by-sixes and make a sub-floor between these out of two-by-fours. Put the floor piece of plywood on top of the skids and slap up the whole pieces of plywood walls using the absolute minimum of two-by-four structure. Build a support for the remaining four-foot square roof.

Of course, before this you’ve had to cut in a door on one of the walls. You will also have to cut holes in the corners of the floor to fish through. You may want tack some tarpaper over the roof. Then there is always the possibility of a small stove, but that’s getting pretty fancy.

Most of the ice fishing I did in my life was from a hut that followed this formula. Some were “doubles” that were clad with eight sheets of plywood and had six holes in the floor to fish through. Some days you fished outside the house, but the hut became your little winter cabin, and you kept a parking spot on the ice next to it.

Wayzata bay on Lake Minnetonka grew a little city of ice-fishing houses every winter. You had to buy a license for your hut, but by January it seemed like half the town had hauled them from Wayzata Beach out on the ice and across the bay to the Crappie hole near Spirit Island. A road on the ice formed from the comings and goings, and some might even smooth it with a blade on their pickup truck. There was also a fairly regular drone of snowmobiles playing on the lake, maybe doing jumps on the pressure ridge that formed every year between Spirit Island and the mainland. Driving your car on the ice and doing doughnuts was also a lot of fun. Except for the snooping of game wardens in their brown cars, it was Country Boy Heaven (even though we lived in the suburbs).

For an exotic (though we thought a bit pricey) weekend there were rentals on Lake Mille Lacs. These were unmitigated luxury. Some were two-stories, with a sleeping loft above. There was even electricity and a refrigerator! But the fridge didn’t fit a full case of Grain-Belt, so we still used our coolers with snow and ice to supplement (beer outdoors freezes in about 30 minutes). Even a born-and-bred Minnesotan might let his guard down when things are this cushy. Heard tell of a guy who walked out at night in the blowing snow and couldn’t seem to find his way back. Lucky his buddies were still conscious and formed search party.

The ice-house rental business on Lake Mille Lacs is strong to this day. But, given you have the means, it is also possible to own this level of ostentatiousness. For this you want a specialized trailer.

I once worked with one of the pioneers in car-trailer ice-fishing houses. Harald Ilaug from Montevideo, Minn., was the designer and builder of these elegant units. They were fully insulated and heated. An ingenious lever system allowed them to be lowered from their wheels to sit directly on the ice. They were fully mobile, and in the 1980s I towed one the 200-mile trip to Walker, Minn., for the Eelpout festival on Leech Lake. Nowadays there are RV-like versions, and some trailers that seem to have copied the Ilaug lowering wheel for planting the house right on the lake.

So the all-the-comforts-of-home trend in ice fishing shelter is here to stay. There are, however, purists who seek to get out to remote places and on thinner ice. For these die-hards, the shelter of choice can be a tent specially made for ice fishing. Lacking a tent, at the very minimum you should have a thick snorkel parka, good mittens, and Sorrel boots. It is a good idea to smear your face with Vaseline if there is any wind. You will also need something to sit on, and, to give you added protection from the ice below, you should have a sheet of cardboard or something under your feet. Then, with your Swedish ice auger, fat head minnows, lead sinker and bobber on your line you can start pulling out the lunkers.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 17, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.