Published December 14, 2008, 12:00 AM

Fishing house evolution

Brian Brosdahl’s been an ice fishing fanatic since he first pulled a fish through the ice more than three decades ago. But there’s no denying, he says, that ice fishing today is a lot more comfortable than it was during those early winter excursions.

By: By Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

Brian Brosdahl’s been an ice fishing fanatic since he first pulled a fish through the ice more than three decades ago. But there’s no denying, he says, that ice fishing today is a lot more comfortable than it was during those early winter excursions.

The homemade portables they made out of canvas and scraps of lumber were a far cry from the high-tech shelters now on the market.

“We had a lot of stick-built houses,” said Brosdahl, 42, a Cass Lake, Minn., fishing guide both summer and winter and one of the most recognizable pitchmen in the industry. “We designed them so you’d flip them out of the truck and go.”

Things changed in a big way in 1980, when ice fishing pioneer Dave Genz introduced the first flip-top portable. Known as the Fish Trap, Genz’s invention combined mobility and portability with a design in which the canvas and the framework of poles supporting it folded into the base of a sled for transport.

Those early Fish Traps featured a wooden base, but molded plastic became the standard by the late 1980s.

Genz’s Fish Trap might have been the first truly mobile portable on the market, but it wouldn’t be the only one.

As another winter fishing season gets under way, that’s readily apparent.

While several portable fish house manufacturers – Clam, Frabill, Otter and Eskimo among them – feature the flip-top design in some form, there have been subtle refinements over the years. Perhaps the most significant, Brosdahl says, is the introduction of insulation, using either Thinsulate or some other material, between two layers of canvas to keep heat in and cold out.

Brosdahl is lead pro staff for Frabill, a Wisconsin-based company that’s emerged in recent years as one of the big players in the winter fishing industry.

His obvious choice for insulated comfort is Frabill’s “R2-Tec” series of insulated houses. The three-person R2-Tec features Thinsulate and is available in three models ranging in price from $899 to $1,299, depending on the features.

“The price point is up there, and it’s not as attractive in this economy,” Brosdahl said. “But whenever it’s on the ice in cold conditions, it’s an instant sale.”

Clam markets an insulated house, the Fish Trap Thermal X, and NorPac, a lesser-known player in the industry, offers a house that also features Thinsulate insulation.

Another trend to surface in the past couple of years is the emergence of “cube”-style houses that pop up like portable tents and fold into backpacks for easy transport.

Eskimo’s “QuickFish” series, Clam’s new “Cabin” shelters, and Shappell’s “Ice House” series all feature the pop-up design.

They don’t have floors, these houses, but stakes that easily screw into the ice will hold them in place even on windy days. And flaps that extend onto the ice from the base of the canvas walls can be covered with snow to keep out the cold.

Models that hold two or three people are the standard, but Clam’s new “Command Post” and Eskimo’s “QuickFish 6” both hold up to six anglers

Perhaps the biggest selling point of these cube-style houses is their light weight. Weighing from 15 pounds for smaller models to 40 pounds for six-person shelters, this new generation of portables is perfect for anglers who prefer hiking into areas that are remote or inaccessible to motor vehicles.

Portable houses have been standard gear among U.S. ice anglers for more than two decades, but they’re a considerably newer phenomenon north of the border.

Stu McKay, owner of Cats on the Red resort in Lockport, Man., and a winter fishing guide on the Red River and Lake Winnipeg, says he got his first portable about five years ago.

And he hasn’t looked back.

“My take on portables is they’ve literally revolutionized ice fishing,” McKay said. “That’s the word I’ve been using. So at the end of the day, when you go home, that portable is going with you. They’re affordable, come in all different price ranges and models and manufacturers. Compared to a boat, they’re dirt cheap.”

That’s definitely a selling point, even among the more expensive insulated houses, Brosdahl said.

“You don’t have to spend as much to go ice fishing,” Brosdahl said. “In summer, you need $60,000 to use what I’ve got. In the winter, you can buy all of my stuff for $2,000, not counting the snowmobile. That’s quite a difference.”

McKay says he has his eyes on one of Clam’s Fish Trap “Thermal X” insulated houses. The insulation might add a few pounds to the package, he says, but the comfort would more than make up for it during cold winter days on massive Lake Winnipeg.

Permanent houses aren’t feasible on the big lake, because access is limited and there’s so much area to cover, McKay says.

“If you want to sit in your shorts and watch satellite TV with the furnace blasting, that’s wonderful,” McKay said. “But I’m a little bit more hard-core and want to see if I can produce some fish, and the portable allows me to do exactly that.

“They’re not the Ritz Hotel, but at the same time, they’re such a wonderful little piece of engineering aren’t they?”

In a final note about fishing trends, Brosdahl has spent the past week on the road making store appearances across the Midwest.

The economy might be in the tank, Brosdahl says, but the anglers he’s talked to remain excited about ice fishing.

“There’s just as many people ready to go ice fishing, and people who say if they lose their job, they’ll be bummed out,” Brosdahl said. “But no matter how broke they are, they’re going ice fishing. I’ve heard people in some areas say the worse it gets, the more fishing they’ll get to do.

“They’re tired of hearing about the economy, and they want to go out and have fun.”

Brad Dokken is the outdoors writer for the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald, a Forum Communications newspaper