Wheelhouse Eating - Cooking on Ice

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Some of the best meals you’ll ever have are eaten outdoors.  In the thick of it, while back-country camping or cooking shore lunch on a rocky Canadian Shield lake.  Everything tastes better when you’ve hand-crafted it, worked for it.  Winter’s version of that in the North Country is a meal made on the ice, and with the advances in wheelhouses these days, our options are getting a whole lot better than just burnt wienies on an inverted sunflower heater. 

These days, more and more anglers have access to electric power on ice, a key cooking aid which removes some of the primal appeal, but makes up for it in opportunities to eat well.  Microwaves, refrigerators, and a myriad of appliances like crockpots, toaster ovens, and even blenders can make any ice house like your very own home kitchen.   Many wheelhouses already come with an oven, and frozen pizzas from them can certainly hit the spot.  Even when the crust is borderline burnt and the top is barely thawed, something warm to eat is always welcome.  That said, with a small bit of planning, we can do a whole lot better, for less money and effort than you’d expect.

Stock the Kitchen

First things first, you need to have some tools at your disposal, and on-hand staples are a necessity here just like at home.  Start with some basic cookware; hand-me-down skillets, a camping pot/lid, along with some measuring cups (dry and liquid) and silverware are a good start.  Ziploc bags, some paper plates, cups, and mugs are going to be needed too.  You’ll need knives to clean fish, cutting boards to fillet them on, and even some oddballs like can openers, kitchen towels, and hot pads.  The venerable crockpot is a great addition, but you can use the one from home in this application.  Then focus on some ingredients, mostly in the form of seasonings and spices, with most of the rest of the parts to any meal being something you’ll plan for on an individual basis.   

Cooking Fish

Put your fish-cooking gear together in a kit, as pots, stands, and the rest of the equipment is something you’ll likely be hauling into and out-of the fish house, rather than keeping as resident items.  I’ve cooked fish both inside and outside, and truly prefer doing the job on the open ice.  Some people complain of the smell of oil and fish, but the biggest issue I have is hot oil in an active environment.  Rattle reels go off, kids run to the bathroom, and the general chaos of a busy fish-house can make the scalding oil a scary proposition.  You’ll also make whatever mess there is from breading and crackling oil outside rather than in.  None of which sounds like great fun in high winds and cold temperatures on a pitch-black evening, but I’ve found it to be a small price to pay for a better and safer situation.  The key to frying quality fish is hot oil, so I prefer a cast-iron dutch oven to fry out of because it retains heat well, and make sure to use a thermometer for the oil and crank the propane just before you drop the fish in.

Oven Meals

For anyone who’s used a camper oven, you know that the heat comes from the bottom, in force.  Many a burnt pizza has been served from these types of ovens, and really the only solution I’ve found is severalfold.  First, find a rectangular pizza stone or similar buffer to put directly on the bottom rack.  Next, cook any items destined for the rack on a wire rack over a pan.  While this seems like a hassle, it’ll keep everything you put in one of these from burning on the bottom.  You’ll still get the crispiness and flavor, without the scorched flavor and overdone-ness. 

Getting Creative

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I’ve had some really great meals in fish-houses over the years, and among them have certainly been a good number of soups and stews.  Many of these can be made ahead and refrigerated or frozen, then simply dumped into a crockpot for warming.  A good many more have been homemade concoctions in the oven, steaks on an open grill outside, and especially morning diner-style breakfasts.  Coolers can be a great asset, especially inside your vehicle as they’ll keep items cold quite often without allowing them to fully freeze, so use that in your repertoire as needed.      

The best meal I’ve had on ice?  Well it would have to be the Kaiser’s ribs.  As in Kaiser Wilhelm II, German Emperor and King of Prussia.  Billy Lindner, famed photographer and Fishing Hall of Fame Member is a descendant of the personal chef to the Kaiser, and last winter he made his ancestor’s recipe for us on a filming and photo shoot.  Pork ribs, stewed in a rich and fragrant mixture of beer, broth, sauerkraut, and root vegetables were more than we could ever hope for after a long day’s work. 

Well, that’s about all I can remember (or disclose) about the Kaiser’s ribs, but I can tell you it beat any frozen pizza I’ll ever have by miles.  It also serves as proof that with a little bit of preparation and planning, you can eat as well or better in the fish-house than you do at home. 

Ice Fishing's Top 5 Upgrades

Ice fishing is likely the fastest growing segment in all of sport fishing.  That’s in no small part due to the development in creature comforts that have fundamentally changed the mechanics of the sport.  A five-gallon bucket has turned into any number of portable or permanent structures with a built-in seat.  The massive, exhaust-spewing power augers of old are now odor-free, lightweight electric powerhouses that drill many dozens of holes on a single charge.  Bib overalls and flannel have given way to ice-specific suits that are ergonomically designed for the rigors of the sport. 

Maybe all you’ve added to the arsenal in the past few years is a couple jigs, or maybe you’re coming back into the sport after a hiatus of a few years.  Even if you keep your ear to the ice every season, it's often wise to let first-year products enjoy a few cycles before investing in a dead end.  That said, each of the categories below are tried, tested, and true technologies that I see only advancing rather then retreating. 

Here’s a top-five list of the best categories to upgrade this year if you’ve been reticent to get on the modern ice bandwagon:

1.        Electric Auger – Today’s electric augers are major contenders in the space.  Unless you’re drilling in extremely thick ice, or hundreds of holes per session, you may likely already own one.  No mixed gas or smoke-filled permanents are another major advantage of the tech.  Add to that, that trend towards lighter-weight options, and you’re no longer looking at 40 pound steel grinders that you have to prime, pull, and maintain a carburetor on.  Click “on,” and flick a switch to drill. I’ve been using this electric auger for the past few years with great results.

 

2.       Custom Ice Rods – Go ahead, live a little.  More importantly, take the species and situation you face most often, and select an appropriate tool for the job.  These days, custom ice rods are expressly made to solve problems on the ice, and give you, the angler, the upper hand.  Whether you fish shallow water for gills, or deep rock lakers, there’s a custom rod for you that will be lighter, more sensitive, and plain catch more fish than any of your other sticks combined.  While they can be expensive, they’re a mere fraction of their open-water counterparts, and worth the money in my opinion. I helped design and develop the Croix Custom Ice Lineup by St. Croix Rods. Check them out here, or read up to find the perfect CCI for you!

 

3.       Floating Ice Fishing Suit – Whether you tempt the fates with early and late ice excursions or not, talk to 10 ice anglers and each of them will have a different story about ice that should’ve been safe and wasn’t.  For your troubles, you’ll get a bib and jacket combination that holds tackle boxes and bait pucks exactly where you’ll need them, and will have padding in the places an ice angler requires.  Not to mention, with venting technologies and the quality of garments out there, you’ll be comfortable no matter the temperature. I wear the Striker Predator bibs and jacket for safety as much as comfort.

 

4.       Digital/Lithium Sonar Technology – I’m a big fan of the analog units out there, as they’ve stood the test of time and caught gobs of fish doing it.  Still, the advantages of digital sonar can’t be ignored.  Customizable views allow you to set up a screen however you like, while maximizing the real-estate offered for only the fish-catching information that’s interesting to you.  While you’re at it, you should power your electronics with a lithium battery.  All the rage in everything from electric cars to power drills, your electric ice-auger has one because of the incredible long life, weight savings, and cold-weather performance.  Lead acid batteries for fish-finders will likely soon become a thing of the past, as manufacturers are now starting to sell their electronics with lithium power onboard. I run both the Lithium LX-7 for a combination of hole-hopping and stationary fishing, and hole hop almost exclusively with my Lithium M5.

 

5.       Shelter – No matter what your budget, there’s a great shelter upgrade out there waiting for you.  From fully thermal hub-style portables, all the way to fully decked out wheelhouses, there’s never been more choices on the marketplace than we have right now.  On the upper end, with increased materials costs, borrowing rates, and tariffs, wheelhouses and the like will probably only continue to go up in price so this could be a good year if you were already budgeting for one.  On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got incredible performance fabrics and thermal insulation that makes hub and flip-style shelters remarkably durable and easy to heat. I run an Otter XT Lodge and have been really liking the side-entry feature on the X-Over editions. For the hub angler, the XT Lodge Hub has been perfect for my family.

While a part of me loves the nostalgia of frozen days gone by, ice fishing is more enjoyable when you’re warm and comfortable.  Catching fish while doing so has no doubt led countless new people to the sport.        

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What you Need to Know about Custom Ice Rods

Featured -  Croix Custom Ice  by St. Croix Rods  Photo Credit -  Matt Addington Photography

Featured - Croix Custom Ice by St. Croix Rods

Photo Credit - Matt Addington Photography

It’s usually easier to view changes to a sport like fishing looking backwards, rather than in the present or especially future.  That’s why it’s difficult to call the custom ice rod boom we’re seeing now a revolution, given pioneers in the rod-making business like Thorne Brothers have been doing it for decades.  Yet, for as long as a these tools have been around, it seems that only in recent years are they gaining widespread acceptance throughout the ice belt.  That’s likely due to a number of factors, not the least of which is increased interest in the sport the last 10 years or so.  Having fished and followed this trend over the years, and in designing a number of custom ice blanks myself, I think it’s time we discuss their popularity, and why they’ve become such a hot-ticket item in today’s ice market.

First off, we’ve been here before in the open water side of the world, and the development of customized rod blanks to approach specific situations, lure types, and species is certainly not a novel idea.  I went to college in the mid-late 1990’s less than an hour from the St. Croix Rods factory in Park Falls, WI, and they along with G. Loomis were some of the early leaders in the space.  Around that time, higher modulus carbon fiber, which was lighter, stronger, and more sensitive, saw more widespread use and adoption in such companies.  As anglers realized their benefits for all kinds of applications, it set off a flurry of designs, lengths, and actions, which became more feasible to build due to the new materials and methods.

Yet in the ice rod market, true customized rods were all that was available in the beginning, where anglers would describe lengths, powers, and actions, along with thread colors, blank preferences, and custom signatures or artwork.  These were hand tied items, not mass-produced, but careful creations of a few talented artisans.  Today, that workmanship still exists, though be wary of the term “custom” and how it’s used.  True “custom” ice rods are a razor thin percentage of all custom ice rod sales, as most are rarely built to a customer’s individual input and specs for a number of reasons. 

First and foremost, that process is slow and requires much more time and effort as rod builders labor over lengths, guide-spacings, various colored threadwraps, and the like.  Then, they switch out and build something else completely different.  That’s why instead of being truly custom, they’re instead “customized” to fit sweet spots in power, length, and action that are more popularly saleable to the general fishing public.  It allows ice rod companies to build up inventory, and sell to the retail environment.  Even the most fervent of custom shops sell relatively few true customs, as it’s difficult to charge what it takes on a per-rod basis for that level of service. 

That doesn’t make the majority of these not-so-custom creations less desirable however, far from it in fact.  Most are still handmade and are major upgrades from your traditionally mass-produced ice rod.  At this point, I’d have a very hard time going back to stock rods, given the way these customized ice rods cover the full breadth of species and applications I love to fish.  Whether a true custom or customized, I’ll be taking advantage of new offerings and technologies in this space for some time to come.

Glass rods eventually gave way to solid carbon blanks, and carbon is still today the most heavily used material in custom ice rods.  These blanks are typically ordered in by an overseas manufacturer, and in some cases ground to spec depending on the rod being built.  Just like many years ago in the open water market, there’s only so many ways to mill these down to achieve differing powers and actions.  It’s a well-understood process, and some great rods feature solid carbon designs.  This year, the advent of tubular (hollow) design, which has proven so popular with the highest-end rods on the open-water side of the market, has been brought to custom ice rods by St. Croix via the Croix Custom Ice (CCI) lineup.  The result is an even lighter and more sensitive blank than other high performance custom ice rods to date.  I anticipate the exploration into tubular ice rod design to be in its infancy, though increased attention to ice anglers and their needs will surely lead to rapid development and possibly even different materials and methods.

All of which is a long way of saying we live in a great day and age of ice angling.  Just as we’ve grown accustomed to technique-specific live-bait and jigging rods on soft-water, we’ll become just as spoiled with sight-fishing and spoon rods for the hard-water.  The result will be just as impactful as it was 20 or so years ago for me the first time I picked up a rod designed for properly fishing a jig.  I learned feel, mental mapping of the bottom, current, and sway, all while being able to detect bites and drive a good hook home with much more effectiveness.  All of these attributes led to a better presentation, and thus, more fish both detected and landed.  It’ll be the same for a whole new generation of ice anglers that embrace today’s customized ice rods.  Eventually, they won’t remember what came before them, and likely won’t fish with much else.            

The Scout House Concept

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.      

2018 - The Year to Buy Big-Ticket Items?

Photo Credit - Ben Larson - In-Depth Media Productions  Products featured:  Strikemaster Solo Lazer , and the  Otter XT Pro Resort

Photo Credit - Ben Larson - In-Depth Media Productions

Products featured: Strikemaster Solo Lazer, and the Otter XT Pro Resort

Big expenditures in hunting and fishing tend to be rare for most people.  For the most part, the outdoors has always been a rather humble sport, available to all in some form regardless of social status or financial means.  Growing up, squirrel hunting economics were driven by the best deal you could get on a brick of .22 ammo.  Trout and panfish didn’t seem as picky as they are now and crawlers were free to pick.  Even deer hunting was done with a hand-me-down Bear with poorly fletched aluminum 2117’s that flew just as crooked as they were bent.  

Today, we spend more on that which we enjoy, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.  Gear and gizmos that expand the experience or otherwise make for a more enjoyable outing aren’t taboo in my mind, provided they don’t determine the pleasure you take away from doing what you love.  The trick for almost all of us is always getting the most for your buck, and doing without until the time is right. 

Given what I’m seeing in all aspects of the outdoors industry, that time may be now or at least very soon for big-ticket purchases.  I’m talking about the many-hundred or multi-thousand dollar ones.  Boats, fish-houses, trailers, and even rifles or bows.  While I’m not involved in the day-to-day operations of all categories of outdoors manufacturing, it doesn’t take somebody plugged-in to know that the world is looking to be more expensive for years to come.  Here’s just a few of the indicators and reasons why. 

Anything metal from deerstands to augers like this  Strikemaster 40V  will be more expensive by this time next season.

Anything metal from deerstands to augers like this Strikemaster 40V will be more expensive by this time next season.

Raw goods and materials costs rise over time, and tariffs are at least in the short-term, influencing prices of steel and aluminum.  That is not an indictment on anyone or a political stance; it’s a material reality that makers of anything metal are facing right now.  When their costs go up, yours will inevitably creep upwards as well, the degree to which depends on timing, inventory, and a host of other variables that are more difficult to predict.  While these source materials may drive the largest portion of future increases, there’s other factors at play as well.     

Consumer buying behavior has also changed from what we’ve come to know over the past few decades, even the past few years.  The brick and mortar retail market has contracted somewhat, and online sales have shifted business models for retailers everywhere.  Amazon and other internet power players have aided in an overall loss of retail floor space, and in-turn our local hunting and fishing re-supply efforts have changed as well.    

With consolidation comes a lack of choices, and typically increased cost of all products.  Many goods that ship well or are relatively low-cost will always be somewhat price-protected, but larger, more expensive items you’d likely want to see in person before buying will still need to live in the retail spaces we’ve always purchased from.  Even those that buy shotguns, ice augers, or fishing electronics online have likely spent some time in person with that product, whether out with a buddy or in taking the time to stop by an industry show or sport shop.

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Especially with larger items, service provided by retailers is still vital to the help that consumers need with those products.  These days you can buy anything anywhere, but not knowing how, when, or why to use it defeats the purpose of purchasing it in the first place.  There’s also the fact that things don’t always work as advertised and may require additional work or maintenance that keeps people happy with shops that do a good job.  That said, even though your average hunter or angler may be buying at an independent retailer or other local store for whatever level of service they provide, the product itself is not immune to price increases due to overall market consolidation.         

Lastly and perhaps most importantly is the topic of financing a large purchase.  We live in a time where borrowing money is extremely cheap, especially compared to previous decades.  Especially in boats and fish-houses, financing options will play a big role for customers everywhere.  With recent indications that the Federal Reserve Bank may increase its benchmark borrowing rate several times in the next few years, you’re likely to pay higher interest on any large item you finance moving into the future. 

All of which is not a cry to dig up the coffee can in the yard and throw your money at a large hunting or fishing purchase!  I will however, make no hesitation in saying that if you are buying in the foreseeable future, you’ll likely pay more the longer you wait.  It’s true that no one can fully predict the future here, and markets are fickle, with complex factors at play which can always reverse trends.  Not to mention, often the best time to buy something big is simple.  Do it when you’re ready. 

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