Wheels on Ice
Written by Star Tribune   
Friday, 24 December 2004 09:35
First came the plywood ice fishing shack, cobbled together with leftover wood and tar paper, swabbed with white paint and towed with wood skids onto the ice.

Then came the portable ice shelter, a tent-like structure made of aluminum tubing and cloth and pulled on a plastic sled -- lightweight, collapsible and very mobile.

The next evolution borrows the best from both: the mobile ice house on wheels, some complete with kitchen, bathroom, bunks, heater, solar panels and a TV -- a virtual RV camper on ice.

Except these "campers" have ice fishing holes in the floors and fold-up wheel systems so the houses can be lowered to the ice, then raised back on the wheels when it is time to move. They range in price from about $3,500 for a basic shell to more than $17,000 for a virtual mini-RV complete with everything but a pail of fish.

They combine the comfort of a permanent ice shack with the mobility of a portable house.

And more are popping up on Minnesota lakes every year.

"It's a growing market, and people are wanting bigger and fancier ones all the time," said Stephen A. Wegscheid, 38, of Dent, Minn., who has been making his Trophy Fishouses for the past five years.

"There's a lot of demand," said Rich Ring , 57, of Kingston, Minn., who has been making his King Crow mobile ice fishing houses for about 20 years. He sells up to 50 a year.

"When I first started, there were two of us in the whole state of Minnesota making them," Ring said. "Now there's probably 30 companies building them. They're popping up all over the place."

While no one knows how many of the wheeled ice houses are being towed onto Minnesota lakes each winter, one thing is certain: More of them are. The number of licensed ice fishing houses has more than doubled over the past 30 years, from about 60,000 to nearly 157,000.

The appeal of the fancy ice houses on wheels is simple:

"Comfort," Wegscheid said. "They want to basically have a camper on ice. They want to be able to sleep, eat and live out there -- and fish."

Wegscheid sells about 30 ice houses each year. They range from 12-footers costing about $7,000 to 16-footers for $10,000, depending on amenities. Wegscheid, Ring and many others custom build many of their houses, adding or subtracting items such as stoves, cabinets and bunks, depending on the desires of customers.

For $6,800, Wegscheid offers a 12-footer, completely insulated and finished with a dinette booth, bunks, furnace, solar panel (to recharge batteries), TV antenna, rod holders, lighting, carpeting and six ice holes. Winches raise and lower the house onto the ice.

On the other end of the spectrum is a $17,000 20-footer that sleeps four, has a bathroom (with a chemical toilet), two bucket boat seats, a kitchenette, a tandem axle and electric hydraulic system that, with a push of a button, raises and lowers the house.

"It's the biggest I've ever built," he said. "But I'll sell it this year, and next year I'll probably build a $20,000 house."

His houses have removable trailer tongues and winches, so the houses can't be stolen.

Ring sells a bare-bones 12-footer for $3,500. But add insulated floors, thermopane windows, a heater and carpeting, and the cost is about $5,500. Beds, cook stoves, cabinets and electronic fish-alert systems can bump the price to around $8,000.

Ring and Wegscheid also sell parts for do-it-yourselfers. They use aluminum RV siding for their houses; others use vinyl, steel or fiberglass siding.

Who are buying the wheeled houses?

Ring said about 75 percent of his customers are middle-aged or older, and about 25 percent are people under 30. All love to ice fish.

Said Wegscheid: "A lot of young families who grew up ice fishing want to introduce their children to it, with comfort. And a lot of older and retired people buy them. It appeals to so many people."

The larger houses tend to be left on lakes for longer periods, the smaller ones are used for a day or weekend. The end wall of some houses flips open so the houses can be used to trailer ATVs or other equipment.

Some buyers are using the fancier ice houses as temporary hunting shacks or as mini-cabins. "They are versatile," Rich said.

"That's happening more, especially for the nicer camper-like houses," Wegscheid said.

Clearly, there's much more to this than ice fishing.

"I don't think anyone is going to buy a $10,000 fish house and catch enough fish to justify it," Rich said. "It's a sport. It's for people who want to go out Friday night and not come back until Monday morning."

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