December 25, 2023
Upper Ice Belt lakes have become hardwater campgrounds for permanent fish-houses—generically referred to as “Ice Castles.” The origin of the genericized term starts with a small Minnesota-based company called American Surplus & Manufacturing (AS&M)—originally in the shed and doghouse business—who were asked to build 10 sheds on wheels around 1996. They sold right away, and the Ice Castle fish-house was born.
Over time, Ice Castle designs got more elaborate with feature-rich interiors offering ice anglers a place to not only fish, but sleep, and stay comfortable despite the weather. Now—with dozens of hard-house manufacturers—there’s little difference between today’s permanent fish-house and a deluxe RV—holes in the floor withstanding.
Prior to the birth of modern hard-houses, resourceful ice anglers cobbled together hard-sided skid shacks and everyone else pretty much fished from flip-over style portables, beginning with Dave Genz’ original “Fish Trap” design.
Then the portable hub came along, changing everything. With its easy-to-pop-up, hunting-blind tent-like design, hubs offered anglers more room than flip-overs. Soon, hubs started getting large—then really large—i.e. Otter Outdoors’ Vortex Monster Lodge, which I purchased last year to test over the course of the winter camping-style, fishing and sleeping overnight in Northern Minnesota January temps well below zero for up to a week at a time.
What follows is a summary of lessons learned “ice camping”—a way to not only save money on lodging—or having to purchase a more expensive permanent house—but also as an entire “system” that can get you fish hard to reach with modern, road- or plow-dependent hard-houses, typically only mobile with a 4WD truck.
In Part 2, we’ll also explore new hybrid options—unique designs that are a step above portable hubs but aren’t quite elaborate permanent shacks, either.
The premise is mobility. With literal cities of hard-houses appearing on classic fish-producing lakes over the past few years—everyone jockeying for prime positioning over textbook structure. What can today’s angler do to find fish away from the crowds and still fish comfortably overnight—or longer?
As an ice angler who’s trying to find smarter and more spacious ways to "ice camp" with friends and family, my mission during fall 2022 was to purchase the largest hub-style shelter made, which led me to the 132 square foot Otter Outdoors' Vortex Pro Monster Lodge.
Learning from what I’d seen other hub ice fishing campers do (i.e. Canadian YouTubers Jay Siemens and Clayton Schick), I planned to lay down an interlockable foam exercise-mat-style floor over the ice for use with cots for sleeping and fishing through extended family and buddy forays on the ice. We ice camped last winter on Minnesota’s Lake Winnibigoshish, and in windy, west-central Minnesota—the longest trip a total of five days living out of a hub.
Although both Eskimo and Clam offer suitable, large hubs, one of the attractions to the 2022-2023 Otter Vortex Pro Monster lodge was a redesign featuring a full-size, pole-stabilized door on one end rather than a triangular door you had to crouch through (and possibly trip over) to enter.
Featuring an expansive 132 square feet of fishable space, the giant Otter Monster Lodge will accommodate 6-8 anglers without bunks and gear. Ceiling height is 79 inches (roughly 6 feet, 6 inches) and wall height is 68 inches (over 5-and-a-half feet). We typically used the Monster Lodge with two or three cots—and still had plenty of space to fish.
One attribute of this hub is it’s easy for one-person to set-up (simply drill in one corner ice anchor and proceed to popping open the sides and tops), doesn't weigh much at 73 pounds in a sled with harness—even less in a sled behind a snowmobile, ATV, or in the back of the truck. As mentioned, it’ll accommodate a couple cots—and eve a dog. With its ample ceiling height, it would accommodate (and probably offer more fishability) if you purchased double-decker, dormitory-style bunk cots from Cabela's.
Wanting something similar to a hard-house—but more mobile—I customized my hub with a 1-inch-thick exercise-mat floor that I Gorilla-taped into larger, numbered sections for easy assembly. To keep the massive area toasty, I ran an 18,000 BTU Heat Hog propane heater with low-oxygen shut-off but also keep two carbon monoxide detectors on at all times. I ran the heater on low to bring the ambient temperature inside the hub to around 50 degrees; it was connected to a 20-gallon propane outside the hub. I clamped rattle reels in the hub corners to keep lines down while sleeping—which did occasionally produce fish
For cooking, I first arranged the hub to accommodate a small table and propane cooking stove on one of the narrow ends, but soon decided to use a small hub just for cooking, leaving more room for cots and holes to fish. Plus, we noticed if both the portable, propane heater and stove were on simultaneous, the CO2 detector would go off.
As far as a makeshift bathroom, I utilized a lightweight Ice Runner 1-man flip-over Escape to serve as an inexpensive outhouse placed behind the larger hub. Outfitted with a sturdy Standsport portable bucket toilet (300-pound person capacity), we had a suitable restroom.
Ice Camping Equipment List:
• (1) Otter Outdoors Vortex Pro Monster Lodge Hub
• (3) 1-inch thick foam tiles (18 square per package, 72 square feet) ProsourceFit Extra Thick Puzzle Exercise Mat
• (2) Teton Sports Outfitter XXL Camp Cot Sleeping Pads
• (2) Cots and sleeping bags
• (4) Productive Alternatives Rattle Reel Clamp Mounts/Reels
• Catch Cover Slush Bucket
• (1) Heat Hog 18,000 BTU Heater, hose, and (2) 20-pound propane tanks; Note: For those especially wary of propane/CO2 poisoning, look at Winnerwell’s small- and medium-size Nomad wood burning stoves and accessories.
• (2) Carbon Monoxide/Fire Detectors w/digital read-out
• Norsk Lithium 32Ah battery and Norsk LED strip lights/dimmable LED Lightbulb
• Battery/USB-rechargeable fan to circulate heat/airflow
• (1) Ice Runner 1-man Flip-Over Escape portable fish-house for restroom
• 5-gallon bucket and toilet seat (w/bags and paper) or Stansport portable bucket toilet
• Propane cooking stove w/small folding table
Lessons Learned Hub Camping:
• Orient your hub with a narrow end into the prevailing wind.
• Set up your hub first, then lay down your floor tiles, not the other way around.
• Wherever possible, set up your hub on snow to provide additional ground insulation and prevent water from pooling up through tile seams.
• Use a Catch-Cover Slush bucket or similar apparatus to drill holes, preventing water and slush from entering the hub.
• Do not settle for foam exercise-tile mat tiles less than 1-inch in thickness; I tried everything from 1/4- to 3/4-inch along the way, eventually settling for the thickest mats I could find. Thicker floor mat tiles provide less thermal bleed into the snow and ice below, thus reducing water building up under the tile floor.
• Keep all vents open and crack a couple windows even when using obligatory CO2 detectors.
Is hub camping fun? Absolutely. Is it a little bit of work? Yes, but the rewards are many. First, given negligible weight you can pull your gear out by foot in a couple sleds and fish early- or late-ice, something you cannot do with heavier permanent fish-houses. Secondly, you can get away from hardhouse crowds when the ice is thicker, and snow and slush prevent anyone else from getting off resort road systems if they don’t have their own V-plow.
Here's Part 2