One House to Do It All? - 4-Season Buying Guide

A few years ago I took the plunge and decided to invest in an ice-house.  More specifically, a wheelhouse that could be taken onto and off-of any lake I decided to fish, for any amount of time I wished to stay.  At the time, ice-fishing was to be its primary use.  To date however, I’ve used it for family camping trips, trout scouting, turkey adventures, hunting-land reconnaissance, and yes, definitely ice fishing.  It’s even served as overflow sleeping for visitors when beds are full.  While I knew I’d use it for more than just fishing, I guess I was a little unclear as to the details.  Even though I did my research, I look back at how unprepared I was and what I know now.  Here’s what I wish I knew then, and how to get the most out of a 4-season fish house.

Whitewater014-2300.jpg

Versatility

As much as you may think this is your fish-house first, it’s hard to justify the price of a modern wheelhouse on a Midwestern ice calendar.  I’m not selling the wheelhouse short on its ice convenience, as its taken my family fishing to a new level, but even better if you can use it for all seasons.  As anglers, hunters, and campers, we tend to view our interests seasonally, and give disproportional credence to the immediate needs of that calendar month.  For example, ask me in May about ice-fishing, and I’ll find a way to turn it into a turkey hunting story. 

What does that mean for your wheelhouse purchase?  It means you need to train your brain to think on the year-round clock.  While it may be an ice purchase, modern wheelhouses are very much a 4-season RV, meaning you have to plan for spring, summer, and fall as much as you do winter.  With that in mind, make sure your wheelhouse is RVIA certified, which simply means it complies with RV safety standards adopted by law, and also means it jives with their liability insurance.  State parks and most private campgrounds require it, as I found out at a private campground full of massive RV’s and 5th-wheel luxury trailers.  As nice as my wheelhouse is, they looked down their nose a bit at our “fish-house.”  That certification eased their concerns and made our stay easy.

As I’ve come to find, it’s easier to fish out of a camper than camp out of a fish-house.  By that I mean it’s easier to swallow any slight fishing inconveniences for 3 months, than it is to do without for 9 months.  Of course, if you don’t camp, hunt, or otherwise plan to make use of it for any other reason than fishing, by all means deck it out as a fishing-only wheelhouse.  That said, before ownership, I would’ve said my priorities would be 75%/25% fishing over all other seasons, and now I’m 50/50 or even closer to opposite to what I thought when first buying.  Keep in mind that your motivating factors may change as well.

Features to Consider

Length and configuration are probably the first fork in the road, so think on this with some detail.  Longer is obviously more expensive and heavier, but also offers you the space you’ll likely want when camping with a family or hunting buddies.  That said, I own a 21 footer, and when hooked to my truck, the whole works is pretty long.  That doesn’t work very well in certain state parks, or even some northwoods campgrounds in tight quarters.  Many campsites are modeled for single-unit RVs, and while you can usually find a way to unhook the wheelhouse and back the truck in elsewhere, keep it in mind if you’re looking at a longer model and want to camp in more secluded places. 

 

Over 16 feet or so, and you’re probably looking at a hydraulic lift/drop system.  For ice and camping alike, this is a very worthwhile addition.  Make sure that the tongue has a hydraulic cylinder as well, so you can backup to it and easily hitch up, as well as drop and unhitch quickly too.  Mine runs on a key fob and is as easy as locking or unlocking your truck.

A big configuration concern is whether to go with a drop-down back door, or seal off that back end and add windows and a couch.  I’ve ran with both options, and this one really comes down to how much you’ll actually be towing an ATV or snowmobile in that toy-hauler back end.  Because I own an ATV, and it can go in ramps up on the truck, I can honestly say that I don’t miss my toy-hauler version save a few large ice-trips where it would be nice to take another sled or perhaps a UTV.  To each their own, but I have personally found the more roomy back end and a couch on that end wall to mean more space for fishing and camping.

Water and bathroom are another early consideration with any wheelhouse you’ll buy.  A few years in on my end, and I still don’t have a perfect answer.  So far, we’ve camped in places that all have good shower facilities, and bathrooms are readily available.  More off-grid stuff, and the shower/toilet combo would be a no-brainer.  For me, water is really nice to have, and makes your fish-house much more like a camper.  In the private campgrounds we’ve been to, full-time water hookups pressurize the system, and especially when paired with an on-site sewer drain, the system is ultra convenient. 

Keep in mind, most state parks do not have water hookups or sewer at the campsite.  Some don’t have power either, though many do.  At which point, you’re filling a small water tank and filling a grey-water/black-water tank that needs to be emptied at some point.  If I was looking at camping primarily at state parks, I personally would not opt for a bathroom and water hookup in my fish-house, and just make use of the on-site facilities.  You’ll save money and the hassle of having to maintain the system.  That said, if you’re like me and doing a mixture of off-grid hunting, private/public campgrounds, and ice-fishing, water and bathroom is worth its weight. 

You could always go with the portable dry toilet systems too and forgo the water AND bathroom.  They’ve come a long way in terms of both cost and convenience.  You can also shrink your bathroom into just a closet and have more storage and shelving for the rest of the house.  My dealer tells me that interest in either is still split, and he sells about 50/50 between bathroom and water vs. none.

Once You Buy

WI 071-9824.jpg

Now that I’m an owner, I’m realizing that planning and organization is everything.  Effectively, my Yetti has two-seasons, fishing, and everything else.  Early on, I pre-measured most holds in the fish-house, and found small tubs and organizers that fit into each compartment.  I’ve got a set for ice and a set for camping.  Moving day in the spring involves getting all of the fishing tubs and baskets out of the fish-house and into the garage, while moving the camping organizers inside.  Rod holders and other fishing paraphernalia comes off the wall, and the water system is hooked up to a hose and purged of winter anti-freeze.  The reverse happens each fall as I prepare for the fishing season. 

You’ll find that no solution is bullet-proof, and you often sacrifice either convenience or money to find what works best for you.  Still, purchasing with versatility in mind, while organizing everything down to winter vs. all other seasons has truly made our fish-house a full season camper.   

Muddy Water Magic

Just about everywhere in the Midwest, it’s been the year of the monsoon.  Continuous thunderstorm action paired with seasonally high water levels have brought about some spotty fishing, depending on where I’ve been fishing and for what species.  Of course, fishing dirty water is always a reality during certain times of the year, but we’re more often used to seeing it in the springtime as meltwater combines with spring showers to both raise water levels and make them more turbid.  Big rainfall events can certainly happen during any time of the year, but by the end of July and into August, we’re looking at max evaporation and typically both lower lake and river water levels.

I’m still hoping for lower river water into August, but it remains to be seen whether we’ll ever get it.  I’m a big fan of chasing smallies and walleyes on smaller rivers during the later summer and into fall.  Most years, those fish have limited options for where they can be, based so often only on water level.  This year, it seems that just as levels start to approach “normal,” we see another gully-washer that muddies up the moving water and shuts down fishing.

While it’s usually sound advice to user louder baits, both from an audible and visual perspective, there’s more to muddy water than simply throwing a rattling crankbait.  Another play altogether is to avoid it when you can.  In bowl shaped lakes especially, shoreline runoff and debris can be a shock to any fish’s system.  Evening thunderstorms can often foil the following morning’s fishing in the shallows.  Not only is the fishy waterscape rearranged, but water temps have often changed, requiring fish a bit of time to recuperate.  In these scenarios, I like to move deeper, where local fish are less likely to be affected by all of the rapid change.    

The exception to that rule is in moving water, especially in lakes.  Rivers all the way down to small trickles that output into a lake are now alive with flow.  The resulting current breaks and seams create logical places for fish to rest, while having a steady conveyor of food headed their direction.  This is even more true when there’s access to deep water.

River fishing can be a different scenario, as more underwater real estate means more possible places for fish to hide.  It also means the upsetting of the norm and puts fish off of the daily patterns they’d grown accustomed to.  In these scenarios, just like in ponds and small lakes, I like to head to the depths to mess with fish that aren’t as bothered by the fish in shallow that see so much difference from day to day.  Another play however, is to look for those same current seams as in lakes with rivers dumping into them.  Mudlines setup in some systems, and stream color variation can often mean gradients in temperature that draw in certain fish. 

Case in point would be river pike that appreciate cold water, but love the security of a little color to the water.  Cold, spring fed streams adjacent to larger rivers can be a hotspot for big pike during any part of the open water period, but are especially attractive when a good mudline sets up.  It allows them to hunt well and be comfortable doing it.  Walleyes and smallies are much the same as they can position themselves in cooler, slower water while having access to what the big muddy is moving downriver. 

Dirty water in river situations usually means higher water, but it also means faster water.  You need to consider what your bait is doing when moving along much faster.  It often means re-tuning crankbaits so they don’t blow out, and selecting slightly heavier jig sizes to stay down in heavy current.  That’ll usually influence your rod selection too, as most medium light walleye rods won’t handle the weight of a ½ oz. jig or more very well.  That’s when some specialized sticks can really yield dividends.

Live bait gets a bit trickier in river situations too when there’s so much current.  Most often, fast water means more snagging up, both on the new debris being washed down and the fact that your bait ends up settling in to more sticky situations when you have less control over it.  Minnows are heartier than crawlers, and leeches do pretty well in current as well if that’s your persuasion. 

That said, fast, dirty water is a great time to try hard and soft baits alike, given the vibration and colors they sport.  Crankbaits are great search tools in lakes and rivers both during dirty water periods, as fish have an easier time finding them then traditional lures and more subtle offerings.  Even plastics give off vibration, especially boot-tail and large curly-tail varieties.  Of course, both offer the advantage is really bright colors that can also help fish find your offering. 

The next time you show up to the landing and find all kinds of floating debris up shallow from the previous night’s storm, consider a few refinements to your approach before focusing on your traditional summer tactics.     

11703519_1131140123568413_8935016228819049237_o.jpg

How Deep is Too Deep for Mid-summer Walleyes?

Walleyes spend the better part of their summer season in deep water.  Provided there’s enough oxygen at depth, they happily enjoy cooler water temperatures and the bevy of bugs and other bait that congregate on deep structure.  Older fish in certain lakes, learn to key in on larger bait stock.  That could mean ciscoes and whitefish, or suckers and even bullheads or rough fish depending on where you’re fishing.  That still puts them deep, maybe coming up occasionally to feed before sinking back down.

Depth however is a relative term, depending on the lake you’re fishing.  On Minnesota’s Upper Red Lake, 10 feet of water and deeper is considered quite deep.  The same is true in the prairie pothole region where there’s plenty of great little walleye holes that never make even 20 feet.  Then again, there’s great walleye lakes like Vermillion, where walleyes can be found in excess of 50 feet of water.  Of course, your favorite walleye lake may be at either end, or anywhere in between.

While the depth of walleyes may be relative to the system in which they live, their ability to survive summer capture at those various depths is not.  Most fish caught in 30+ feet of water will likely die as the result if water temps are at their peak.  Brandon Eder, Assistant Area Fisheries Supervisor for the MN DNR’s Waterville Office confirmed this in a recent conversation while adding, “No matter how slowly you reel in fish from that depth, there’s still likely going to be some trauma.” 

Throughout the walleye-belt then, there’s plenty of catch and release fishing that might as well be catch and kill.  Not that there’s anything wrong with eating a walleye either.  I love ‘em, and prepare them a bunch of different ways.  However, there are plenty of lakes that mandate release of walleyes a certain size, and anglers should know some ins and outs of how depth can affect the release of walleyes during the summer.  Eder suggests, “Be prepared to keep your first 6 fish regardless of size (depending on the regs) and then quit or go shallow.”

There’s a pile of factors that influence walleye mortality, with depth of capture being only one of them.  Hooking method, or how deeply into its mouth a walleye eats the bait is a big influencer, as is the use of live bait vs. artificials, but those are often related.  Water temperature is another factor, and warmer temps see fish that simply don’t release as well and survive.  It’s why catch and release walleye tournaments aren’t held as often in the deep summer, and why you should consider eating the fish you catch when water temps are the hottest of the year.  Extended or prolonged handling of a fish outside of the water is yet another factor that affects mortality.

Many of those factors an angler can directly influence, especially in the summer as you can’t control the water temp.  Without switching away from live-bait, circle hooks vs “J”-hooks, and pinching down all barbs, what’s a catch and release angler to do?  The answer is to change the depth at which you’re fishing, and to know what depths are likely lethal, and which are not.

Barotrauma is a big word with a relatively simple meaning, especially as it pertains to walleyes caught at depth.  It affects all living things, but with walleyes swimming rapidly from deep water, it refers to physical injuries caused by water pressure.  Quick ascent means a swelling air bladder, which can push their stomachs out, bulge their eyes, and ultimately cause deadly injury.  Releasing those fish at the surface, in extremely warm water may make the angler feel good as they swim away, but may not lead to survival.    

One solution to the problem of fish barotrauma has been “fizzing” – the act of releasing that pressure with an accurately placed hypodermic needle into the swim bladder of the fish.  Of course, “accurately” is the key, as stabbing a fish with a needle indiscriminately, can further exacerbate the problem.  Eder says, “I don't like the idea of anglers running around poking walleye with needles.  It's hard to get the right spot in perfect conditions and even tougher in rain, wind, or after dark.”

Another solution in the form of recompression devices may pose some freshwater promise, as they have gained greater acceptance in coastal areas.  These tools can simply be an inverted barbless hook secured to a line with a weight that takes the fish to bottom and releases it with a sharp snap of the line, or a jaw clamp that releases similarly.  The general idea of both being that the fish quickly gets back down to a depth that allows air bladder pressures to recede, and ultimately supports its survival.  For rockfish specifically, studies have shown 80%+ survival rates.  While I’m not aware of any similar research on walleyes, the decompression devices show greater efficacy overall.

Of course, you could always just limit your fishing north of 30 feet, or make sure that you are legally able to take and eat fish of any size for the lake that you’re fishing.  If a limit is what you’re after in those depths, stop fishing once you’ve hit it.  Eder also mentions, “If you are on fish over 20" you should leave so you don't kill more than your 1 over 20".”  All of which means that if you’re putting the hurt on big fish deep, consider switching tactics, locations, and potentially lakes.  Focus early and late when fish are more active shallow.  Break out some slip-bobbers and camp out on a rock pile, or drag some spinners or rigs along a weedline. 

There’s lots of ways to get your ‘eyes, but this summer when temperatures climb, do your best to respect the resource by going easy on those deep fish.

2019 ICAST Takeaways

The International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades (ICAST) is a fishing show like none other.  Held in Orlando, Florida’s Orange County Convention Center, and playing host to nearly 15,000 buyers, media, and exhibiters from across the global sportfishing industry, ICAST is the fishing industry’s equivalent to the Super Bowl.  As a member of the general public, unfortunately, not everyone can attend.  Only those with a material connection to the recreational fishing industry may participate, but everyone into fishing certainly benefits, and anyone interested in overall fishing trends can learn from what the annual show offers.

Exhibitors from the fishing industry’s most iconic brands man massive booths to display new product offerings for 2020, have reps on hand to meet and discuss new business, and overall help to answer questions about their full lineup of products.  That’s interspersed and directly next to inventor types with a brand new product idea that are just getting started, along with every company and any fishing-associated category in between.  You’ve got massive and corporate, as well as tiny and family-owned. 

There’s a pre-show tournament, on-the-water demonstrations, and even a state of the industry address highlighted by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.  From there, manufacturers, retail buyers, media types, and reps explain their products while launching new ones to be considered for any of the 29 different “Best of Category” award honors.  These new product awards are voted on by credentialed buyers and media from around the world, and this year over 1000 products from more than 300 companies vied for top spots.  A “Best in Category” award is usually a competitive grab, and an incredible honor that usually means a well-thought out idea executed in the form of a product that serves a real need.  Many of the best lures, lines, rods, reels, electronics, and apparel that we use today were once ICAST “Best in Category” winners.

What does this matter to your average angler?  More than you might think.  ICAST is produced by the American Sportfishing Association (ASA) – a non-profit that shares a stake in promoting sportfishing as part of our national heritage.  ASA does work on Capitol Hill and throughout the country to ensure policies that promote clean water and better fishing.  Beyond that, ICAST is a bellwether for changes in the sport, angler’s interests and attitudes, along with a great preview for what’s to come.

Last year, ICAST was very much the year of apparel.  New rainsuits, performance wear, and UPF shirts dominated the landscape.  This year, was the year of the trolling motor with several new entries into the market from Garmin and Lowrance.  More importantly, as the competitive landscape crowds in each category, we’re reminded that retailers don’t always carry all products.  They need to stock their shelves with products that sell, preferably at sizeable margins.  That may or may not always reflect angler interests in needs, so it’s important to know that in our shrinking world of online purchases and web reviews, you do have options.

I think it’s also important to note that due to the size of each of these launches, along with the sheer number of products in the marketplace, it’s easy to get confused as to which reel does what, what rod does that, etc.  That’s where the reverse statement regarding retail is true, in that a good retailer with strong product knowledge and good employees can help you navigate the mess to find the best.  There were plenty of retailers from big boxes to independents doing their very best to stay up to date with orders and product knowledge. 

Still, specialization is here to stay.  Where it was once a challenge to find a good and specific “bass plastics” rod, you now have separate rod offerings for swimbaits, ned rigs, and wacky worms each.  That trend has continued throughout all categories and will likely only get more specific, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially as people get more particular in their tastes.  You see it too in electronics, as manufacturers continue to push the limits of technology given specific interests of certain anglers.  For example, some of the trolling motors released at 2019 ICAST now not only spot-lock, follow contours, and navigate to existing waypoints, they offer suggested routes via “auto-guidance.”  In theory, it’ll be a smarter-than-average buddy that runs the trolling motor for you.  Too good to be true?  Maybe, but it’s an example of where things are likely headed.

For me, the greatest takeaway is that the industry is full of people that for the most part, are passionate anglers in their own right.  Different than a trade show for your average widget or product X, ICAST is abuzz with anglers just like yourselves that happen to partake in fishing for both business and pleasure.  Flights to and from are loaded with boyhood fishing legends, reps, and manufacturers.  Dinners out are with the people that shape the direction of the industry through the products they pioneer.  Uber rides, airport shuttles, and lunch are split with competitors and cooperators alike.  In my experience, just about all of them are simply happy to be doing what they do, and anxious to continue working at what they love. 

The St. Croix Rods team after another 3-peat Best In Category ICAST awards.

The St. Croix Rods team after another 3-peat Best In Category ICAST awards.

The Perfect Time to Try Plastics

Water temperatures have started to level off towards their summertime highs throughout most of the Midwest, and if you haven’t already been hucking plastics, now would be a great time to start.  Usually, I’m looking for 60-65 degrees in most of the lakes I’m fishing to signal the pairing of jigs especially with more plastics than live bait.  This goes for crappies, walleyes, and smallmouth alike. 

That doesn’t mean I’m a plastics-only purist.  We had the water temps on Lake of the Woods recently to support a good plastics bite, but the deep fish still required us to use the salted shiners that are so prevalent up there.  Try as I may, with a number of styles, deep jigs with those mushy minnows drastically outperformed any rubber baits I dropped.  Therein also lies the problem for those who’ve never given plastics an honest measure.  There’s certainly times were live-bait can outfish plastics, but year after year I’m encountering bites when the reverse is just as true, and the sooner you come to believe it, the better angler you will become.    

For most fishing methods stationary, live bait can have a distinct advantage.  With live minnows, crawlers, or leeches, you’ve got all kinds of natural materials that fish have been pre-programmed to love.  Blood, oil, scales, and perhaps most importantly, the all-important profile, shape, and action.  “There ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby,” I think is how it goes.

All of which flies out the window when fish are active, aggressive, and particularly shallow looking for food.  Perhaps that’s why bass plastics have been widely accepted and used for decades.  Those bass anglers who incidentally catch ‘eyes, pike, and even panfish, can tell you that active fish often don’t discriminate.  Wacky rigged or dropshot walleyes anyone?   

Live bait’s effectiveness also falls off when you’re dragging around baits at any speed.  Pulling spinners and crawler harnesses around is great for all kinds of species, especially the ones you’re not targeting.  Some days on the river especially, you can catch up to a dozen other species on crawlers before ever catching a walleye.  That’s when artificial copies of the real thing can offer a great advantage.  Plastic crawler or leech imitations abound, and most of them will have a much more pronounced movement in the water.    

The action of the bait then, especially when retrieved or trolled, can have a significant impact on the bite.  Paddletails, split tails, curly tails, ringworms, and other various plastic styles each have their own distinctive movements in the water, offering far more attraction than the live bait that so often ends up dead on a hook.  These tantalizing motions offered by all of the plastics designs these days offer anglers a multitude of means to attract a fish, especially in clear water when visual cues can be the strongest ones fish respond to.

Of course, the allure of plastics goes far beyond the visual in terms of a fish’s interest level.  While it’s true that the color combinations and ability to match the hatch, or completely defy it, is very simple with today’s plastics, so often we forget about the subtle vibrations that plastic can emit.  A 5” curly tail grub emits a pretty good thump as that tail wags side to side, and especially during late fall frog bites, there’s plenty of river walleyes that have used their lateral line to find those “loud” plastics.  Of course, paddletail or boottail varieties come to mind as a great emitter of vibration and “feel” to the plastics game as well.

They’re colorful, offer some bait-like sensations in the water, and even trigger some strikes due to their unique movements.  All of which sounds like a list of attributes you’d like for any bait ever, regardless of species you’re targeting.  The last variable that I think is the most important however, is the fact that plastics fish fast and cover water.  More fish per bait means less dipping into the crawler box, leech bag, or minnow bucket.  Which in turn leads to more casts.  It also leads to the ability to progressively dial up the level of the trolling motor and cover more water.  Especially during this time of the year, any lake, river, or streams biological production is running at high gear, and fish need to eat.  They’re aggressive, and often willing to chase, so you’ll simply run into more of these kinds of fish by putting more casts in front of them. 

Live bait will always have its place and time in my mind, especially early and late in the year.  There’s also times and species that require it during tough bites or poor weather conditions.  That said, for your average summer day out on the lake, if you’ve been reticent as a walleye or panfish angler to focus heavily on plastics, let this be the last year you miss out. 

Photo Credit - Matt Addington Photography

Photo Credit - Matt Addington Photography