January 13, 2021
By Joel Nelson
Almost everyone's first ice-fishing experience is a stationary one. The spot is the spot, and we're taught to stay on it—even the same hole. So, I was confused when I first heard the term "scout house" in the mid-1980s on Minnesota's famed Lake Mille Lacs.
We were fishing in a converted camper and the action had been slow during the day, but we got word of a better daytime bite through a man referred to only as "Sanders." Some of the houses he had were more mobile than the ice-modified fifth-wheel-style campers 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 one of his several scout houses.
What happened next was a defining moment in my young ice-angling career. Crammed into the tight quarters, we caught 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 veteran. There were also no people. No trucks, no roads plowed to our location and no other fish houses within miles. These days on Mille Lacs there are fewer secrets—and more people—but the principle of a home base with a portable scout house works the same.
I've owned a drop-down-style wheelhouse for several years now, and it makes the perfect command center on the ice. Some drop-downs haul ATVs, UTVs, snowmobiles and more. Some have quick-raise-and-drop hydraulics. Regardless, the features that drop-downs afford an ice-angler—beyond simple creature comforts—make them well suited as basecamps. Big-screen TVs entertain, sure. They also offer an excellent picture of the action below the ice when paired with an HD underwater viewing system. Likewise, a cedar interior and ample storage seem like luxuries until you pull rattle reels and rod holders from shelves and mount them to those wooden walls for dead-set options.
The goal is to set your nerve center in a spot that attracts fish during low-light periods. At night, species like walleyes are on the hunt. They are chasing baitfish that become more active in slightly shallower locations than they occupied earlier in the day. If the quarry is panfish, especially in weedy scenarios, crappies and bluegills push out of weeds toward dark as predators like pike and bass reduce their activity levels. They feel safe to roam edges, where they'll ultimately connect with your presentations.
I employ a variety of live-bait and jigging options. The jigging is meant to attract, while the bait is intended to do the catching. Lipless cranks, rattling jigging spoons and fast-moving lures like jigging Raps catch fish, but often predatory species like walleyes visit for the flash and vibration, then stick around for the swimming shiners or fatheads. For panfish, the strategy is quite similar. Smaller jigging spoons attract lookers, and small tungsten fly offerings with wax worms or euro larvae yield biters.
It's convenient that fish tend to want to be at these more predictable locations both early and late in the day. It makes your waking and waning hours enjoyable in the comfort of a wheelhouse. After spending a few seasons in one, I do appreciate the niceties. Its added comfort might make the family more likely to fish with you, too. These factors can at times make it hard to venture onto the ice in anything else.
All that being said, there's a strong case to be made for having the ability to be mobile. In the early season, when drive-able ice doesn't exist yet, a wheelhouse is useless. It is equally irrelevant in areas that never see ice thick enough for larger vehicles. Additionally, daytime bites often require an exploratory fishing approach. If you're "ice-trolling," you're drilling a large number of holes and fishing as many areas as possible to locate active biters. In any of these scenarios, an ATV or snowmobile paired with a portable shelter better fits the bill.
Any serious ice-angler should consider investing in both setups. If you've already shelled out money for a dedicated wheelhouse, a small, mobile shelter should be attainable. Today's modern portable shelters are affordable and offer the intrepid ice-angler much in terms of mobility and functionality. Many options exist, but two main styles dominate: popup and flip-style shelters. Hub-style popups easily fit into any vehicle and generally offer a bit more space. Flip-style shelters are towed behind machines, offer ample storage and set up more quickly for even greater mobility.
No matter which style you choose, the strategy for fishing is similar to that in a more permanent wheelhouse. Look to raise a fish on electronics with an attractor pattern. Then drop down a less aggressive presentation.
Lipless cranks and other search-style baits excel at getting fish to reveal their locations on electronics. However, after a more aggressive bait fails to draw a strike, I'll often drop a flash-and-roll-style spoon tipped with a minnow head to tempt walleyes to eat. I consider this more of a finesse presentation. As it drops, it has a really tantalizing fluttering and rolling action to it. It doesn't generally attract fish from afar, but it can seal the deal on finicky biters.
Rattling spoons, on the other hand, are middle-of-the-road options. Tipped with live bait, these noisy lures offer elements of both an aggressive and finesse approach. For this reason, they can pull double duty during the middle of the day, filling both the attracting role of search-style baits and the catching role of more finesse presentations. They're a great starting approach for perch and walleyes.
MIX AND MATCH
In my experience, the ideal approach combines both a more fixed wheelhouse and a portable ice shelter, with the mobile shelter serving in a scouting capacity. So many times, I've seen wheelhouses or other stationary setups dragged to incredible fishing destinations, deployed on a likely-looking spot and left there for the remainder of the trip, whether fishing is good or not. Unsurprisingly, this is often not the best strategy.
Instead, concentrate on finding fish first. Pack light and use your portable ice shelter to cover water. Limit yourself to a lightweight auger option, flasher, a few rods and one or two tackle boxes that fit in a jacket. Then hit the ice.
More than anything, look for the presence of fish on the flasher. Once you have that, try catching a few to confirm you're in an area where you're consistently finding a desired target species. The last thing you want to do is drag your big house over for what ultimately ends up being a school of small perch. When you've decided you're on a good bite, set up your fixed basecamp. From there, take cues on what the bite is telling you. Fish will either want more aggressive or more subtle presentations.
In parts of the Midwest where wheelhouses aren't popular or aren't an option, use this same mobile strategy to find fish. Then camp on them. Deadsticking works just as well on the ice as in a large shelter, if weather cooperates. In fact, for both panfish and walleyes, some of the best presentations I had last year involved using deadsticks in rod-holders on the open ice. Watching rods can be a fun, stealthy way to catch fish you've found in prior days while hole hopping.
With so many anglers these days considering the jump to a wheelhouse, don't forget about how both permanent and portable systems can work together. Use each to its own advantage and maximize the fun and comfort along the way.
Hole Hop Here
Hardwater hot spots for mobile strategies.
DEVILS LAKE, NORTH DAKOTA
Devils might be the perfect lake for a wheelhouse/portable combo. Fish move to edges of reefs, underwater roadways and humps early and late, offering a permanent low-light bite. Meanwhile, daytime perch are always moving. Hole-hop to stay on roaming schools of massive tigers throughout the muddy basin areas.
GLACIAL LAKES, SOUTH DAKOTA
The Dakotas don't have the ice road infrastructure necessary for extensive wheelhouse traffic, but a growing number of resorts and fellow anglers plow roads on bigger lakes. Wind and blowing snow can cause issues here, and just like on Devils, you should roam during the day to get a mixed bag of species to eat. Some lakes like Enemy Swim and others can have a great daytime gill bite to park on, but using portables to find them always makes the hardside bite easier.
SAGINAW BAY, MICHIGAN
Sag-bay definitely requires a mobile approach. That's due to changing ice conditions in most years where snowmobiles and ATVs can tow portables to offshore breaks and hard-bottom transition areas where walleyes roam. Hard-side shacks are becoming more popular, but only in extremely cold seasons, so you'll have to keep roaming and drilling here to find your fish. Stop first at Franks Great Outdoors in Linwood, Michigan to check on ice safety and details about the bite before you head out.