LAKE OF THE WOODS, Minn. – On a blustery Monday morning when the outside air temperature flirted with 10 below zero, Charlie Engen got out of bed, threw on a pair of shorts, stepped into his bedroom slippers – and started fishing.
Just like he’d done pretty much every morning for the past week while ice fishing in the deluxe comfort of his wheeled fish house set up off a plowed ice road on Lake of the Woods.
Engen, of Grand Forks, is among the growing legion of anglers who have embraced perhaps the biggest phenomenon to hit wintertime fishing since the advent of the ice auger: the wheeled fish house.
Complete with all the comforts of home, including a flat screen TV, Engen was spending the better part of two weeks camped out on the ice of Lake of the Woods in his 8- by 20-foot fish house on wheels.
A generator humming outside kept the propane furnace running and provided electricity for the lights, TV, microwave, coffeemaker and other amenities.
Aside from grabbing the occasional shower at a convenience store in nearby Warroad, Minn. – $7 gets you a hot shower and a towel, to boot – and perhaps a few groceries and other supplies, Engen had no reason to leave his deluxe on-ice accommodations.
Therein lies the attraction of owning a wheelhouse, he said.
“I guess just the comfort of it,” Engen said in a phone interview from his on-ice getaway. “When you can set your thermostat at 70 degrees and be in shorts, it’s kind of nice. Just being able to cook and take a nap or when you want to have extra people and the ease of it once you have it set up.”
Nowhere, perhaps, is the wheelhouse craze more apparent than Lake of the Woods and Upper Red Lake, where local resorts and ice road operators plow roads and driveways off the main road for the deluxe shelters, which can cost upwards of $36,000 for larger, more decked-out models.
That infrastructure of plowed roads, some of which historically have extended more than 20 miles on Lake of the Woods, is crucial for wheelhouses. Engen said he’s used his wheelhouse on Devils Lake, as well, but the ice road infrastructure isn’t as extensive. Devils Lake also “fishes” differently than Lake of the Woods, generally requiring a more mobile ice fishing approach to be successful.
Lake of the Woods is his choice for the two-week ice fishing vacation he now takes every winter.
“Upper Red Lake and (Lake of the Woods) are the two main spots because they kind of cater to wheelhouses,” Engen said.
Lake of the Woods is seeing even more of that traffic this winter because of heavy snow and slush conditions that have hampered ice road access on Upper Red Lake.
Lake of the Woods dodged the heaviest snow that hit much of the region in late December and has 2 feet to 3 feet of ice most places being fished, according to Lake of the Woods Tourism.
“The lake is seeing a ton of traffic from anglers in wheelhouses who would normally be fishing other places around the state,” Ben Huener, a Department of Natural Resources conservation officer in Roseau, Minn., wrote Tuesday, Jan. 21, in the weekly report from DNR Enforcement.
That traffic was especially apparent in late December, when heavy snow and not enough ice across much of the region sent wheelhouse owners to Lake of the Woods in droves. Nick Painovich, who owns Zippel Bay Resort north of Williams, Minn., with his wife, Deanna, said the line of wheelhouse rigs waiting to pay for the resort’s ice road access was at least half a mile long, at times.
He hasn’t tallied the exact number, but at least 1,000 wheelhouse rigs “and maybe more” accessed the big lake through the resort that weekend, Painovich said.
“There was just a wall of them out there, and they all have fancy lights on them,” he said. “You go out there at night, and it looked like downtown Minneapolis.”
Zippel Bay charges wheelhouse owners $20 a day or $40 for three days to access the special roads and driveways the resort plows and maintains on the lake for the deluxe houses, Painovich said. The ice road fee is slightly higher than it is for anglers who access the lake with pickup trucks and portable houses or small trailers, he said. Wheelhouses get a later start on the season at Zippel Bay because they're not allowed until the ice is safe.
“There’s getting to be more and more of them, no question,” Painovich said. “It has kind of evolved from the pickup truck guys with a portable (fish house) in the back.”
Rates and policies vary by operator.
“We charge a little more for them because they are more maintenance on the lake,” Painovich said. “We do make special driveways for those that want a special place, and there’s getting to be so many of them.”
The resort provides free parking on Zippel Bay for wheelhouse owners who want to leave their rigs when not in use. That’s safer than leaving them unattended on the lake itself, where heavy snow or ice heaves can cause problems, Painovich said.
“We have over 100 them lined up down here now,” he said. “We keep the snow blown away from the hitches so if they show up, they just need to hook up and go out again.”
The ability of wheelhouse anglers to stay on the ice multiple days has factored into fisheries management, especially on Lake of the Woods, Upper Red and other destinations that provide managed access, said Henry Drewes, Northwest Region fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota DNR in Bemidji.
Two decades ago, the average ice fishing trip length in a permanent house or portable shelter was five hours, Drewes said. This winter likely will be an exception because of the snow and slush, but the average fishing trip length on Upper Red Lake in recent winters has approached 36 hours, he said.
Lake of the Woods and Upper Red both had more than 2 million hours of angling pressure last winter, based on results from DNR winter creel surveys.
“They typically arrive Friday evening and they leave Sunday morning, and they have lines down most of the time,” Drewes said. “Are they as effective as somebody in a portable bopping around? Probably not on a fish-per-hour basis, no. But the total hours they have lines down adds to the fishing pressure and the harvest.”
Historically, winter fishing pressure on Lake of the Woods was limited by availability of lodging, especially during weekends and holidays, Drewes said. Lodging on Upper Red Lake other than rental sleeper houses has always been in short supply, he said.
“Now, it’s basically just limited by the ability to get on the lake,” he said.
The DNR only began requiring wheelhouses to have shelter tags in 2017. The numbers don’t specifically break down wheelhouses from traditional houses – or “skid houses,” as Drewes calls them – but resident shelter license sales increased from 39,973 in 2016 to 50,368 in 2017, DNR statistics show.
Nonresident shelter licenses more than doubled, from 481 in 2016 to 999 in 2017, based on DNR license sales statistics.
Minnesota doesn’t require portable shelters to be licensed.
“I think I can say with confidence the number of wheelhouses is far greater than the traditional skid houses,” Drewes said.
To handle the increased ice fishing pressure, Upper Red Lake routinely has lower limits in the winter, Drewes said. On Lake of the Woods, the DNR last March reduced the aggregate winter walleye-sauger limit from eight to six, of which no more than four can be walleyes, same as the summer limit.
“It’s a new dimension for us fish management-wise,” Drewes said. “As pressure and harvest goes up by whatever means, to maintain the health of that fishery, you have to probably look at bag limit or length limit or season adjustments. Those are our tools.”
Painovich, who has owned Zippel Bay Resort since 1977, said he hears occasional complaints from locals about wheelhouses and the potential for problems such as overharvest or trash left on the ice.
Zippel Bay Resort provides garbage receptacles at no charge for wheelhouse owners and other anglers to dispose of their trash, and the resort encourages people to use them, Painovich said. Containers also are set up at access points along the south shore of the lake through “Keep it Clean,” an organization created by Lake of the Woods Tourism, the Minnesota DNR, the Lake of the Woods Soil and Water Conservation District and Friends of Zippel Bay State Park.
“I know some of the locals were grumbling because they couldn’t even get to the gas station over the holiday weekend to get gas because (wheelhouses) were backed up” on the road, Painovich said. “Some of the community, I don’t think cares for them, but you know everybody has a right to fish public waters.”
Wheelhouses “trickle through here pretty good,” he said, but the barrage that descended over the holidays isn’t the norm.
“I think a lot of people were saying, ‘Wow, how bad is it going to get?’ ” Painovich said. “But it was an exception to the case because everybody from Mille Lacs was up here and everybody from Red was up here.”
Despite the management challenges, the DNR’s Drewes said he’s seeing more families on the ice, a positive trend likely driven by wheelhouses.
“I know over the last few years, when I’m out in my portable, I see more kids, I see more dogs,” Drewes said. “It just looks like with all the creature features, it becomes more of a family event as opposed to the old musty skid house with particle-board walls.”
Many anglers justify the purchase by saying they can use their wheelhouses as campers in the summer, but Drewes said it’s a trend fisheries managers never could have predicted.
“It’s a big expense, like owning another boat,” he said. “I do think there’ll be a cap to it somewhere. I don’t know when or where that will be, but like with a lot of recreational vehicles, they do hit a limit.”