MONTEVIDEO, Minn. — In the beginning, there were buckets and jig sticks turned upside down.
And that was good, but ice fishing has gotten much better thanks to innovations in everything from cold-weather clothing and electronics to portable and wheeled fishing houses.
One of the biggest game changers in ice fishing continues to lead us out of the cold in style.
Montevideo Ice Castle manufactures 32 to 36 of its popular RV/Fishhouse units each week, on track to match or exceed the 1,600 units produced last year.
“This is our maximum right now, and I’m okay with that,” said Brett Drexler, son of Ice Castle founder Jeff Drexler and current president of the company. Ice Castle relies on a workforce of approximately 160 workers to produce its 50 different models.
Demand continues to grow, Drexler said. Everything from the COVID pandemic, which caused a nine-week work suspension last year, to supply chain issues, is making things difficult.
There is currently a six to eight month wait for Ice Castle models with hydraulics to lift and lower the units, and a four to six week wait for hand crank models. This is the longest ever for products.
Drexler said the expectations were frustrating for Ice Castle and customers.
“Customers get excited when they order it,” he said. “They want it and they want it fast.”
Used by their owners as both an ice fishing wheelhouse and a summer motorhome, approximately 90% of Ice Castles leave the Montevideo manufacturing facility with air conditioners installed.
Company founder Jeff Drexler said he launched his first ice castle with an air conditioner years ago at the Minnesota State Fair and the reaction was uniform,
“Everyone thought we were crazy. ‘Why do you want an air conditioner on a fish house?’ “, He said, laughing.
Jeff Drexler built his first fish house in 1997. Drexler worked for a company that made manufactured homes. He started his own company, American Surplus, in 1993 to produce garden sheds.
Drexler said he sells many of his hangars through Milaca Unclaimed Freight in Mora. The owner suggested that he build a fish house.
He built a 6½ foot by 8 foot box on a trailer.
“Nothing in it at all, basically carpet and four holes,” said Jeff Drexler.
They’ve come a long way since then: today’s models range in size from 6 ½ feet by 8 feet all the way up to 8 feet by 32 feet. They are customized with everything from private bedrooms to dinettes.
Model prices range from $9,500 to $64,000. The majority of sales are for models in the $20,000 to $40,000 price range, according to Brett Drexler.
The most popular model right now is the 8-by-21-foot RV Extreme 2 Hybrid. It is designed for a family of four or five, with sleeping quarters in the V-nose and several sleeping areas aft.
Regardless of the model, ice castles have changed ice fishing in many ways. Families use them for weekend “ice camping” adventures in the winter. Surveys of some of the state’s largest lakes have shown increased winter and night fishing pressure due to the growing popularity of wheelhouses.
Still, it’s hard to know the impact of the wheelhouses in terms of overall fishing pressure on the state’s lakes during the winter, according to Jack Lauer, southern Minnesota regional director of fisheries at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. . Wheelhouses are part of a plethora of advancements, from electronics to portable homes, that have expanded opportunities for anglers, he noted.
Wheelhouses certainly opened up ice fishing to more people. Drexler said customers come from all ages. Many are purchased by families. He knows more moms and dads and their kids are spending time together on the ice because of them.
There are private Facebook groups for ice castle owners that share information and ideas on how to enjoy their units.
There is also a growing secondary market. Entrepreneurs produce everything from rattle reel mounts to magnetic fish-catching “dashboards” designed for use in ice castles.
Looking ahead, Drexler said the company is looking to develop a bigger footprint in the summer motorhome market. It produces models without holes in the ground for sale in warmer weather conditions.
The units ability to lay flat on the surface makes them popular as an RV for many, especially seniors. No stairs are necessary.
Drexler predicts that demand for ice castles will continue to be strong, and not just because more and more people are discovering them. The lives of Ice Castle owners are changing, he noted. Some pairs reduce their numbers to a smaller pattern when they become empty nests. Others will increase in size as their family grows or they have more time for hobbies.
Overall, he said the trend is for larger units.