December 21, 2020
By Doug Stange
It’s been quite a journey since the early 1980s, chronicling the changes on the ice-fishing scene, with sonar applications changing, from the initial use of open-water units modified for ice fishing, to the sophisticated options we have today, designed specifically for the task—sonar and LCD screens, and units with built-in GPS and mapping, not to mention housings that allow combination use of an underwater camera. Enter, too, most recently, Garmin Panoptix LiveScope, a potential game changer, which allows anglers to drop a transducer down a fish hole and see off to the side.
Meanwhile, we have ice rod applications that are every bit as sophisticated as those for open-water fishing. We have clothing—boots and suits and more—on par with space-suit technology.
Methods and means for getting through the ice have progressed from hand augers and spud bars to gas engines and four-stroke options. These days, various electric-powered units are all the rage. And so much more, including the vast changes in methods of travel on ice, as well as the evolution of shelter portability, which is, in part, the focus as we continue here.
In the beginning, shelters were built at home, often not much to look at, but functional once they were on the ice. Mostly, though, they were hard to move. The fish had to come to you. And we all know how that goes most of the time.
Dave Genz’s vision was of a small, portable one-man combination sled and shelter that could be pulled where you want to fish, with a top that popped-up-and-over to shield the angler from the elements. Inside, in relatively cozy conditions, the angler monitored a portable sonar unit. Not only could one see the bottom and read depth, the angler could also see a lure in relation to fish—and could monitor how fish respond to lure choices and the chosen methods of moving them. Just as importantly, it was relatively easy to move the shelter to go to the fish. Genz deemed his portable unit a “bass boat on ice.”
Soon various portable pop-up shelters from several companies flooded the ice scene. Multiple-person options hit the market, too. The ice world became quite a mobile place.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Anglers wanted more room and more comfort, especially for forms of fishing like tip-up fishing for pike and other species—sit-and-wait situations—as in evening bouts with basin crappies or walleyes along a drop-off edge. Larger pop-up designs called hub shelters filled that need. They weren’t as mobile as the smaller pop-ups, but they were more mobile than the old anchored-in-place shacks of the past. With a heater going inside, anglers kept the elements at bay and had lots of room to operate.
Another crucial change was taking hold. Anglers who used Global Positioning System technology on open water were using it on ice. GPS units, including handheld models, became more accurate and sophisticated. Mapping chips also become so accurate that anglers could in short order find just about any structural element in most major bodies of water. Spots that once took years for anglers to find, mark, and understand, could now be found in a moment by any angler with a GPS and a good map—or a mobile phone with a map app.
More recently, who could have predicted the full-circle move back to larger, seemingly more permanent, shelters? Enter the age of the wheelhouse. If the original single-person portable shelters were bass boats on ice, these new wheelhouses are plush yachts. Many of them have living quarters to include a kitchen, dining room, and beds, and amenities like TVs and satellite radio, and even on-demand underwater camera viewing to go with your fishing. Pricier models sell for more than $40,000, and double as travel trailers during the off-season, complete with air conditioning.
And, despite their size, these babies are mobile. Single or double axle, they pull easily and tow well behind a four-wheel drive truck. They aren’t just made to settle on a spot or two on one lake but to go anywhere in ice country one weekend, and head to another area the next. On any given Friday afternoon along major routes heading north to lake country in states like Minnesota, the traffic in trucks towing wheelhouses is almost the equal of that which transpires before major vacation events like deer hunting season.
The impact on lakes is historical in many cases. On major lakes like Mille Lacs, for example, the wheelhouse migration is dependent on ice formation and on ice road openings from resorts.
For several weeks to a month, as ice thickens on the lake, major flats and gravel areas well off shore are immune from the wheelhouse migration. Anglers can only reach these spots via four-wheelers, snow machines, or SnoBears. Traffic usually is light and anglers find most major spots untouched, save for another angler or two.
But when ice thickness reaches about 14 inches, the race is on, as trucks pull wheelhouses out into what will soon be wilderness no more. Again, using GPS and mapping, a wheelhouse can settle onto a key spot and stay the weekend. Or, if the fish aren’t going, it’s simple to move and settle onto a new spot. In the past, most ice excursions were day-long affairs. A wheelhouse stint often lasts 48 to 72 hours of non-stop angling. With impressive numbers of wheelhouses on the ice, it’s a fishing pressure phenomenon many lakes haven’t experienced before.
As always, anglers are left to adapt. We aren’t just pursuing fish, we’re also competing with other anglers for spots. Arriving at a spot, it’s up to us to judge how heavy the pressure on the area has been and how recent. If several wheelhouses and perhaps other shelters are still in the area, we must decide whether to move on down the lake or to set up on peripheral areas. If no other anglers are present on a spot, but from the remnant number of old cut holes it looks like there’s been recent heavy pressure, one can at times tell how recent the pressure has been by opening old holes.
And so it goes in ice country. More anglers spending more hours on the ice. Spending more on tackle and other equipment to make their fishing successful and enjoyable. Positive news so long as fishery managers can make sense of the increasing fishing pressure and figure ways to keep fish populations sustainable. Meanwhile, it becomes ever-more important for anglers to help sustain those resources by harvesting the fish they catch selectively.