When I think back on some of the portable shelters I've seen and fished in during the past five decades, it's hard to believe how far we've come. The changes in technology and performance rival those in other product categories such as sonar, digital mapping, and augers.
One of my first portables was a handcrafted, two-person, canvas-and-wood structure, secured at a garage sale. Its wooden base was heavy, and two people were required to heft it in and out of a pickup bed, yet the hinged wooden walls and canvas sides deployed in short order. As vintage portables go, it wasn't the worst outfit on the ice.
While fishing from a similar shelter one cold January night 35 years ago on a remote lake near Deer River, Minnesota, a cousin and I jigged crappies and sipped schnapps until one of us leaned too hard against a side brace. When the fragile brace snapped, the canvas collapsed faster than Ringling Brothers' main tent when the circus leaves town. Our lantern tipped, adding to the chaos, but we escaped the stricken shelter none the worse for wear.
Another memorable prototype, created in the late 1980s by a creative co-worker at Twin Cities Ford Plant, consisted of a blue plastic tarp stretched across a PVC skeleton. The contraption required almost as much time and effort to assemble as an F-150, and the tarp provided little insulation. But it was better than sitting outside.
Today, anglers have infinitely more options in cozy, nimble, well-appointed portables. To acknowledge these gains and help you choose the right shelters for your styles of fishing, we offer these observations and new product information.
A Guide's Perspective
Veteran ice-fishing guide Bernie Keefe of Granby, Colorado, also appreciates the progress shelters have made. "One of my first portables had a hard-plastic bottom and came in a suitcase," he recalls. "It was nice in cold weather, but the bottom was loud, the shelter wasn't comfortable or easy to relocate. Today's fishing shelters are so efficient, it's almost not fair," he says. "They're warmer, easy to use, and loaded with smart features."
Keefe connects clients with high-country lake trout on fisheries like Lake Granby, where run-and-gun tactics work best and easy-to-move shelters are a must. "You have to move often," he says. "Efficient shacks save fishing time and speed your search for the next bite." In pleasant weather, he may not set up shop until he finds fish. "It helps to have a fishing shelter that holds gear and tows easily or stays on the back of your snowmobile," he says. "Today's shelters are durable and work fine in harsh conditions such as strong winds.
"It's great to have heavy-duty fabric that won't crack or tear, poles that won't snap, and zippers that won't fail. Anchoring systems have come a long way, too. They're easier to deploy and far less likely to land you a starring role in your own personal remake of 'Gone with the Wind.'"
When selecting a shelter, he advises carefully matching its size, weight, and features to your needs, transport options, and style of fishing. "Every angler is different," he says. "Fortunately, there are enough options for us all to find what we want, provided we do our homework."
Hubs Versus Tubs
Matt Roberts, an ice-fishing specialist on Cabela's Upper Midwest merchandising team, notes the rise of hub houses. "Hubs offer a variety of benefits," he says. "Because you can fish with family and friends, the social aspect is huge. You can set up tables, chairs, heaters, fix food, and converse.
"But they're also convenient — light and easy to transport. They fit in a compact car. And once you're on the ice, hubs are easier to pull in a sled than many flip-overs, which is important wherever anglers walk to their fishing spots."
Roberts also credits improvements in construction for the growing popularity of hubs. "Pole systems have gotten easier to manage, and poles are more durable, as are anchoring systems. There also are more features, such as gear lofts and skylights."
He foresees even greater things ahead for both hub- and flip-style shelters. "There's certainly more innovation coming," he says. "Both styles are evolving faster than ever. I think we're going to see gains in durability, ease of use, and special features."
Choosing The Right House
Chip Leer, former guide and TV host, helps anglers find their ideal fishing shelter while working at sport shows and retail events across the Midwest. He applauds the proliferation in portables, but admits that shopping isn't as simple as it used to be. "Although ice anglers share common traits, how we pursue our favorite species varies a lot," he says. "Manufacturers are acknowledging this fact and expanding their selections. We now have hundreds of choices in portable flip-overs and hubs, not to mention wheelhouses, which is another subject entirely. Once you start accessorizing, your options expand. If you don't know what you're looking for, it can be intimidating."
Finding the right shelter, he says, requires a search. "Problems arise when people buy the wrong house for the wrong applications," he says. "Start by thinking about how and where you plan to use the shelter, such as targeting panfish in small, walk-in lakes versus chasing walleyes across miles of structure. Consider where you plan to store it, how you transport it, and how you tow it. Will you fish alone, with a buddy, or with a group?"
Other considerations include durability of tub, hub, poles, and shell, as well as weight and ease of deployment and take-down. "For many anglers, one shelter isn't enough," he adds. "There's nothing wrong with having a 1- or 2-person flip-over for when you want to stay mobile, and a 6-person hub for hunkering down over a hotspot and socializing with friends or family. Don't neglect details like seats, storage, lighting, windows, insulation, and anchoring."
The folks in Sidney have two new hub houses, the Wide-Bottom Thermal Hub Shelter and Six-Side Thermal Hub Shelter. Both bristle with durable materials, including rigid 11-mm solid-fiberglass poles, sturdy hubs, and double-zipper doors with reinforced stitching at points of stress. Their black and gray, 600-denier polyester shell is beefed up with 60-gram insulation and a 210-denier liner, which traps heat and prevents moisture from building up on the walls and ceiling.
Internal pockets plus a gear loft keep extra clothes, tackle, and other gear handy yet out of the way. Clear TPU windows and skylights with blackout covers allow a variety of lighting options, while a large snow skirt insulates and prevents updrafts. An oversized storage bag is standard, as are a set of 8 ice anchors and 4 tie-downs.
Built for 3 or 4 anglers, the Wide-Bottom Thermal Hub Shelter weighs 39 pounds, stands 80 inches high, and has an 89- x 89- x 99-inch footprint. The Six-Side Thermal Hub Shelter has a 10-foot 5-inch diameter and 78-inch ceiling. This insulated hub offers 65 square feet and holds 5 to 7 anglers. It weighs 45 pounds and collapses to 77 x 13 x 13 inches, easily portable. cabelas.com
A force on the frontlines of ice-fishing, Clam celebrates two decades of Ice Team with a limited edition, custom design on two of its most popular shelters — the Legend XL and Voyager flip-overs. Both have a fresh look and new features. The Legend has a rugged 900-total-denier fabric, thermal skin, underseat gear hammock, RPSX Rapid Pole Slide Extreme system, center console, battery bracket, light stick, and travel cover. There's also a deluxe swivel seat that slides back and forth and left to right.
The Voyager has the same tough fabric, gear hammock, Extreme Pole system, and thermal skin. It also offers front and rear access doors, 2 deluxe swivel seats, and accessories such as light sticks, 51- x 14-inch overhead mesh storage, runner kit, center console, travel cover and rod holders.
On the hub front, Clam debuts the Escape Ice and Refuge Ice. Both set up and break down quickly and easily, and feature extra-large hubs the company claims are the toughest available. They have flex-tested 11-mm poles, triple-layer corner pockets, and an internal anchoring system.
Both shelters also feature over-sized skirting for easy banking; a cavernous carry bag; and a new color scheme that includes "cracked ice" accents and trademark blue sides, capped with a black roof to absorb heat.
The Escape features 600-denier fabric, a pack size of 74 x 14 x 11 inches, and weighs 47 pounds. Deployed, it stands 90 inches tall at the center and spans 11½ feet in diameter. That's 94 square feet of fishable space, enough to comfortably house 4 or 5 anglers.
The 4- to 6-person, 64-square-foot Refuge Ice Thermal is hewn from fabric with a total denier of 900. It weighs 49 pounds, stands 82 inches, covers 96 x 96 inches, and features Full Thermal Trap technology that retains heat and limits condensation. clamoutdoors.com
Otter adds to its portable palette with three hub-style shelters — the XTH Pro Cabin, XTH Pro Lodge, and XTH Pro Resort, all with Otter's ThermalTec 600-denier layering system that has a light- and wind-blocking outer shell with quilted thermal lining. The 3-layer shell retains heat while reducing condensation. Xtreme Duty 11-mm poles, reinforced corners, heavy-duty hubs, and dual-coil zippered entry door boost durability.
Bonus features include wide-bottom storage pockets, removable TPU windows with insulated covers, interior rod and tool holders, overhead storage netting, propane hose ports, exclusive 3-point Ice-Lock corner anchoring system, anchor tie-down kit, heavy-duty nylon wind anchor straps with adjustable quick release buckles, and a poly-lined, 900-denier carry bag.
Largest in the fleet, Otter's 6-sided XTH Pro Resort offers 101.5 square feet. Designed for 6 to 8 people, it weighs 53 pounds, stands 82 inches high, and stretches 131 inches wide, yet collapses to 78 x 14 x 14 inches.
The 4-sided XTH Pro Lodge accommodates 4 or 5 anglers with 64 square feet of space, weighs 42 pounds, and is 76 inches high with a 99-inch hub-to-hub width. At 32 pounds, the 36-square-foot XTH Pro Cabin houses 2 or 3 people, stands 70 inches high, and 78 inches wide. otteroutdoors.com
Eskimo designed its new two-person Grizzly flip-over to give anglers a bulletproof base of operations. The heavy-duty, roto-molded sled shrugs off bumps, scrapes, and drops. It has deep runners for easy sliding and straight-tracking, built-in slots for inserting your own 2 x 4 framework for custom organization, and is 70 x 36 inches in size, so it fits in most truck beds. Its square-aluminum tubing frame snaps into place quickly and stands up to strong winds. The shelter is cloaked in Eskimo's new 900-denier, 4-layer, insulated StormShield fabric that locks in heat while minimizing condensation.
For comfort and convenience, the shelter's Versa swivel seats are mounted on a sliding rail system, which moves side-to-side, back-to-front, and flips up to access gear in the tub. The Grizzly has an oversized rear door for speedy exits and entries, and its side windows are secured on top with hook and fastener tape, and zippers to block light when you're sight-fishing. geteskimo.com
A pair of flip-over Pro Series Shelters flesh out Frabill's large family of portables. Designed with the aid of North-Woods guide Brian "Bro" Brosdahl and Green Bay guide Dale Stroschein, the Model 2255 Bro SideStep Shelter and Stroschein 1350 Shelter are flush with features.
Both are built on a rugged, thermo-formed base with durable, easy-to-deploy frame, and encased in a 600-denier tent with fully quilted insulation. Designed for solo fishing adventures, the Stroschein version offers 11½ square feet of fishable space while the Bro SideStep has 20 square feet and accommodates two anglers. The Stroschein shelter features a Pro Series Camo exterior and Boat Seat on Trunk seating, while the Bro model flashes Arctic Camo colors, has the company's Modular Seating System with two Frabill Boat Seats, and offers SideStep entry. frabill.com
Tipping the scale at just 29 pounds, HT's one-person Quik-Shak is one of the lightest new portables. Completely self-contained with no loose parts, this fishing shelter has a metal pop-up frame, full floor, 4 anchors, 300-denier polyester shell, 4 draped windows, webbed storage pockets, and a fold-up seat. It stands 60 inches high and measures 45 x 28 inches set up. It folds flat to 3½ x 28 x 45 inches and slips inside a suitcase-style bag with traditional handle and shoulder straps for carrying. htent.com
*Dan Johnson of Isanti, Minnesota, is a longtime contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media.