The first time I’d heard of a “scout house” was in the late 1980’s on Minnesota’s Lake Mille Lacs. I was fishing as a boy with my dad and his buddy in a converted camper that we comfortably spent a few nights catching fish in. Action there was slow but somewhat steady, though we had word of better fishing through a man referred to as “Sanders” that had several permanent houses across the lake. Some of those houses were more mobile than the overnight 5th-wheel style campers like the one we were staying in, and we eagerly headed to the edge of some mud flat on the north side of the lake to sit in the scout house one evening.
What happened next was a defining moment in my young ice-angling career, as we cramped in tight quarters to catch a mixed bag of walleyes and jumbo perch, literally one after the other. No flashers, no GPS, and really no clue to the bite other than the intuition of a Mille Lacs Lake veteran whose name may or may not be real. Maybe the more important “no” is that there were no other people. No other trucks, no roads plowed to our location, and no other fish-houses within miles. These days on Mille Lacs there’s fewer secrets, and more people, but the principle of a scout house is just as valuable there and across the ice-belt.
Last year was my first owning a drop-down style fish-house, and it really opened my eyes to that style of ice angling. I’ve fished out of many of them previously, but until you own one and starting living the realities of where you’ll be fishing, how you’ll get on, and most importantly the safety of your rig on ice, it’s difficult to predict in advance many details of your winter fishing. After spending the season in one, I must admit, the creature comforts along with the fact that your family is more likely to fish with you, can make it hard to get out on the ice in anything else. In fact, I know a fair number of wheelhouse owners that have gotten rid of their old portable shelters.
That’s where the road forks however and I’m reminded of the scout house scenario above. There’s quite the lull, especially early-ice, during the many weeks where wheelhouse anglers are waiting for driveable ice, yet there’s ice enough to walk and potentially use ATV’s and snowmobiles on. That’s where even the most fervent hard-house owner should consider a flip or pop-up style portable shelter as their scout house of choice. Owning one without the other seems a bit limiting to me, especially given the relative cost differences between the two groups. It’s easy to spring for a small portable shelter after you’ve spent a big chunk of change on a permanent house of any style.
My experiences with the wheelhouse were unsurprisingly that the best fishing I had came on spots that I had put some time into scouting and fishing previously. That was true for the spots I came to later in the season, but also spots that I fished within days of one another. That means for anyone dragging a wheelhouse around, a portable shelter of some kind is just as valuable an asset, especially if you’re fishing a few days in a row.
So many wheelhouses are dragged up to incredible fishing destinations, plopped down on a likely looking spot, and ridden out for the remainder of the trip whether fishing is good there or not. With hydraulic or crank-up features, snap-in hole covers, and quick cutting electric augers out there, why not setup with the hope of finding something better? Better yet, plan and expect to move. We all know it’s easier to transport and setup a portable than to drop and bank a hardside, so hit the lake this winter with plans to explore the space outside of your hard-sided house.
Another alternative that makes the scout house such a deadly part of the 1-2 punch, is that you can use it for more than just finding fish. I can think of many scenarios last winter when the hardside bite was all about camping out during low light periods, but fish could be had during daytime with a bit of mobility. That way, you don’t have to necessarily move the big wheelhouse to stay on the fish, rather, you fish early and late out of it while enjoying a day-time bite elsewhere. That can include other lakes for panfish, or even a break from the wheelhouse on shore. My observations have been that too many people hole up in their drop-down fish house and miss out on all the other great fishing to be had in an area.
Of course, take heed to ensure that your mobile approach is truly mobile, as the last thing you want to do with the scout house is weigh-down that side of your angling experience as well. Pack light, bring a smattering of what you’ll need, and make sure to make mobility the primary focus here. Limit yourself to a lightweight auger option, flasher, a few rods, and one or two jacket sized tackle boxes. More than anything, you’re looking for the presence of fish on the flasher. Do your best to catch a few to confirm that they’re a target species so you don’t drag the big house over for a school of small perch. From there, take cues on what the bite is telling you.
With so many anglers these days are considering the jump to a wheelhouse, don’t forget about how both permanent and portable systems can work together. Use each to their own advantage, and maximize the fun and comfort along the way.