What's inside a $41,000 ice shanty?
Jan 15, 2019 06:42AM
● By Editor
Lori Calaway is shown inside the17-foot Rustic Retreat Edition Ice Castle fish house. Photo: Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
By Rick Barrett of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - Posted January 15, 2018
Though the past few weeks have been mild, the onset of ice fishing season should be just a few weeks away. And with it comes the renewal of a pastime that is as much about camaraderie as it is about catching fish. For many, time spent in ice fishing houses is to be cherished, whether alone or with a crowd. And the houses themselves are as individual as the people who take refuge in them.
Luxurious ice fishing houses have become more popular in Wisconsin in the last couple of years. Ice Castle Fish Houses makes a range of models with names like the Stinger, the Otter Tail and the Walleye Tracker.
A 17-foot Rustic Retreat Edition Ice Castle fish house is seen at Lakewood Trailers in Lakewood. The $24,515 trailer has similar features to a traditional travel trailer except that it comes with six fishing holes in the floor and can be lowered so the chassis is flush with the ice. (Photo: Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
But Schultz's 21-foot Ice Castle "shanty" is something else.
Ready to liven things up? Flip on the LED party lighting and crank up your tunes on the outdoor speakers.
Getting closer to spring? It has a screen door to keep mosquitoes out. But in January, on a frozen lake, that shouldn’t be a problem.
To catch fish without going outside, there are seven lighted holes with lids in the shanty’s marine-grade plywood floor.
Drop an electric auger into the ice and drill away. Then lower an underwater camera into a hole and, on a big-screen TV, watch fish swim underneath the shanty.
Some Ice Castles even have an aquarium built into an inside wall so you can watch your bait minnows swimming around before they're put on a hook.
All of this, and more, from the comfort of a fishing shack that sleeps six and has a forced-air furnace, double-pane windows, ceiling fans, a bathroom with a full-size shower, a three-burner stove and oven, microwave, refrigerator and double sink.
In the spring, the fish house can be pulled off the frozen lake and used as a posh hunting shack with a power awning, a rooftop air conditioner, camouflage curtains and mattresses.
Weighing about 6,000 pounds, you wouldn’t want to leave this deluxe outdoors abode parked on thin ice.
“It weighs a little more than a pickup truck, so you’ve got to watch it,” said Schultz, an avid outdoorsman who lives near Oconto Falls.
But in the dead of winter, when the ice on some lakes is several feet thick, Schultz and his family head to northern Minnesota where the lakes are dotted with Ice Castles and a wide array of other shanties.
Fishing, Schultz says, is his passion.
Brett Drexler, general manager of Montevideo, Minnesota-based Ice Castle, said the company is starting to push hard into Wisconsin, and is having its best season ever.
"We are slammed right now with the holidays and people wanting their fish houses. I am under a lot of stress,” he said.
More modest shanties still the norm
But smaller, traditional ice fishing shanties still reign on Wisconsin’s frozen lakes, with hundreds of them covering waterways such as Lake Winnebago starting in January.
Many are made from old travel trailers that last checked out of a campground decades ago. Picture wall-to-wall shag carpeting and beer posters from the 1980s, and you get the idea.
“It’s like a little village out here,” said Dan Brokiewicz, nestled in his homemade shanty on Shawano Lake.
He paid $100 for the little shed 18 years ago and has since added a wood-burning heater that doubles as a cook stove.
Stoke the wood fire, and the shanty quickly warms up.
"That thing will cook you right out of here," Brokiewicz said, adding that he's also cooked grilled cheese sandwiches and heated pots of chili on the stove top.
It's not a fancy shanty, by any means, but the little ice fishing shack dutifully serves its purpose of keeping Brokiewicz and his buddies comfortable while they fish, play cards, listen to a tiny AM-FM radio hanging from the wall and swap stories.
"There are a lot of good memories," said Brokiewicz, from catching 32-inch walleyes to watching storms move across the lake to just sharing life with folks he's met over the years.
"My wife is part Norwegian, so she likes to fish. She's a pretty tough gal," he said.
The types of shanties vary widely, from portables with aluminum frames and lightweight fabric sides, to heavy wooden shacks that, once parked on the ice, aren't moved for the entire winter.
"You see some made from every piece of scrap wood a guy could find," said Brett Jolly, a fishing guide from Green Bay.
Village on the ice
Some folks prefer hanging with a crowd on the lake, hoping that schools of fish are attracted by the large amount of bait cast in the water.
One ice fishing resort in northern Minnesota has 80 miles of plowed roads, with street signs and speed limits, right on Lake Mille Lacs.
There are hundreds of shanties, clustered in neighborhoods, and local pizza places do a brisk business making deliveries on the lake.
During fishing tournaments in February, up to 6,000 people are out there, said Scott Peters, manager of Nitti's Hunters Point Resort in Isle, Minnesota.
"Guys come up here from all over the Midwest and down South," he said.
The resort has 14 plow trucks to keep the ice roads free of snow. Some people spend the entire winter on the lake, bringing their laptop computer and a mobile hot spot with them so they can work from the shanty or just stay connected with the outside world.
"They don't fish the whole time," Peters said.
Danger and death occasionally strike
Sometimes tragedy strikes the winter fishing scene, with fishermen falling through the ice and drowning or suffering a heart attack.
Experts say a frozen lake should never be considered totally safe.
During a February 2012 fishing tournament on Lake Winnebago, 36 vehicles broke through the ice. A year earlier, in one day, an Appleton man drowned on the lake and a dozen vehicles took an icy plunge.
On New Year's Day of 2018, a 27-year-old woman stepped outside for a cigarette at an ice shanty party on Lake Winnebago and was found dead some 15 hours later.
It was shortly after 1:30 a.m. and the woman, wearing only jeans and a light jacket, had attempted to make her way from the party to shore. The temperature was around 9 below, with a windchill of minus 20.
When she reached the snow-covered shoreline, police said, she may have injured her leg between two rocks. She was found dead from exposure to the cold.
Brokiewicz said he's known ice fishermen who have died on Shawano Lake. He carries two small, sharp spikes with him, on a rope, to pull himself back onto the ice should he ever fall through.
"If you're going to do this, you'd better be prepared," he said.
There's no cheap way out of ice accidents. If your shanty or vehicle sinks to the bottom of the lake, it could easily cost thousands of dollars to recover it. And state law says you can't abandon vehicles or shanties to the deep, although some people try.
In northern Wisconsin, ice fishermen have been on the smaller lakes for more than a month this fall and winter. The ice isn’t necessarily safe enough for vehicles or permanent shanties yet, if it ever is, but people have been hauling sleds and portable shanties onto the shallower bodies of water on foot.
John Andrew, a fishing guide in Mercer, in Iron County, said he won't take people out on the ice until it's at least 6 inches thick.
"That’s my personal rule … but there are fishermen out there,” he said.
And then there are those for whom the label "fisherman" is actually a stretch, at least part of the time. For them, a fishing shanty is simply a man cave on ice, a place to slip away for a few hours, put up your feet, and relax.
"I have spent many days in an ice fishing shack without ever drilling a hole," Jolly said.
"It's just awfully nice out there, having a cold beer, playing cards and hanging out with the guys. Sometimes a fish interrupts the fun," he said.