East Grand Forks, Minn. - Jeffrey Bothun grew up ice fishing in portable houses because he liked the mobility the canvas shelters offered.

That was before he fished in a wheelhouse, the deluxe mobile mansions that have redefined the concept of ice fishing in comfort.

This winter, Bothun is hitting the ice in an 8-by-17-foot “RV Edition” Ice Castle, one of the top companies in the burgeoning wheelhouse industry. Manufactured in Montevideo, Minn., the aptly named Ice Castle has all the comforts of home, including toilet and shower, microwave, fridge, gas stove, two dinettes and enough bunk space to sleep five people comfortably.

When he gets to his favorite fishing spot, most often Lake of the Woods near Warroad, Minn., Bothun says he can have the six holes drilled and the house cranked down to ice level within 10 or 15 minutes. A 40,000 BTU forced-air propane furnace will heat the house to shirtsleeve temperature in about the same amount of time.

“All I wanted to fish was portables because you could move to where the fish were, no problem,” Bothun, 26, said. “Then you spend the weekend in one of these, and if the fish aren’t biting, you just crank it up and you go to the next spot.”

Now, Bothun says, he wonders, “What the heck was I doing in those portables?”

Growing market

Service manager at Grand Trailer Sales in East Grand Forks, the farthest-north Ice Castle dealership in Minnesota, Bothun is among the thousands of anglers who have splurged on wheelhouses in recent years. Popular destinations such as Lake of the Woods, Devils Lake and Upper Red Lake cater to wheelhouse owners by plowing roads onto the ice and clearing spots off the beaten trail for the houses to set up camp on the lake.

In many ways, the trend has changed the face of winter fishing.

“I don’t think we’ve seen the peak in terms of the wheelhouse craze,” said Henry Drewes, regional fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji.

Nowhere, perhaps, is that more apparent than Upper Red Lake, where DNR creel surveys showed anglers last winter for the first time logged more than 1 million hours on the ice.

Much of that time, Drewes said, was spent by anglers fishing in wheelhouses and staying right on the lake for two- to three-day stints.

“They definitely are driving the pressure” on Upper Red, Drewes said. “If you just look back over the last 10 years, we’ve probably gone – and this is going to be close – from a proportion of day use to sleeper houses where 10 years ago, 75 percent was day use and 25 percent sleepers.

“Now, it’s inverted so it’s 75 percent sleepers – and largely wheeled houses – and 25 percent day use. The proprietors up there, they’re on par with Lake of the Woods in terms of their ability to keep (ice roads) open and keep people on the lake even in the worst conditions.”

Versatile investment

Bothun says the design of his wheelhouse is particularly attractive because it doubles as a “toy hauler,” with a rear panel that folds down as a ramp for loading ATVs, motorcycles or other toys to haul inside the house during transport.

When he gets to his destination, Bothun says he even can tow the house with an ATV, providing he’s on an ice road or an area without too much snow.

While not a need this time of year, the wheelhouse has air conditioning and doubles as a camper for summer use, making it an investment Bothun can use year-round. Cedar siding on the walls gives the interior the feel of a Northwoods cabin, and snap-in covers conceal the holes when not in use.

Bothun says he plans to mount a flat-screen TV on one of the walls to pass the time when the fish aren’t biting or for spending the night on the ice.

On the lake, he says wheelhouses inevitably draw curiosity-seekers.

“People see them, and they just come,” he said. “I have a buddy who has a 30-foot-long Ice Castle, and no matter where we put it, people always stop and they want to see it, they want to look at it. They’re attractive.”

The wheelhouses also drive traffic to Grand Trailer Sales. Zach Finney, sales manager, said the dealership ordered 60 Ice Castles in April, and only 17 remained as of early this past week.

Finney, 26, says he expects the remaining houses will be sold within the next week or so. It’s a different market than the cargo and gooseneck trailers for which Grand Trailer Sales got its name.

“We’ve been showing them all day, every day,” Finney said. “It’s fun.

“I guess there’s a little bit of a risk jumping into (the wheelhouse business), but the market’s so strong. You hear it over and over. I think ice fishing’s bigger than summer fishing. It’s getting there anyway.”

Who’s buying

Finney says the typical wheelhouse customer ranges from farmers looking to fish in luxury to families. Prices range from about $6,200 for smaller, more generic models to upwards of $30,000 for deluxe models such as the 8-by-30-foot King’s Castle, a triple-axle palace with two sofas, an electric fireplace, an electric lift bed that raises to the ceiling when not in use and 10 ice fishing holes, to name just a few amenities.

Finney says about half the customers are within a 15-mile radius, with the remainder coming from other parts of northwest Minnesota, the Oil Patch and even Montana.

“We had a lady who was probably in her 50s, she was from North Dakota, come into the store here, and she said, ‘I want to see some of your Ice Castles,’” Finney said. “I showed her a 21-foot (Ice Castle RV), which was the biggest one we had at the time, and before we even got in it, she said, ‘I’ll take it.’ I asked if her if she wanted to see any others, and she said ‘No, this is the one.’

“She didn’t even ask the price, just, ‘We’ll take it.’ They came the next day and picked it up and were on their way to Lake of the Woods.”

Finney said there also has been a demand for wheelhouses with roomy interiors to accommodate Wii bowling on Lake of the Woods.

“There must be some huge Wii bowling league up there in ice houses because everybody wants a big, wide open house with a TV in front for Wii bowling,” he said.

Bothun, who planned to use his wheelhouse for the first time this weekend on Lake of the Woods, says he’ll be on the big lake most weekends from now through March and will keep the house on shore near Warroad during the week.

The infrastructure of plowed ice roads makes it easy to get around, he said.

“There’s so many more spots now that have plowed roads,” Bothun said. “Now, there’s public accesses with (ice roads) going to them. If you have one, you can pretty much get on wherever.

“If you do want to go fish a smaller lake that doesn’t have plowed roads, then it’s tricky. That’s probably the only downfall.”

As for everywhere else, Ice fishing has never been more comfortable.

“They’re nice,” Bothun said. “They’re luxurious. It’s a no-brainer. I notice more and more of them every year, and I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon.”

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