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Brad Dokken: Night on the big lake puts wheelhouse craze in focus

Wheeled ice fishing houses have become all the rage in recent years, and it's not unusual for owners to spend days at a time on the ice. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

LAKE OF THE WOODS, Minn. - I fished in a wheeled ice fishing house for the first time last winter, but I’d never stayed in one until last Sunday night on Lake of the Woods.

The mercury dipped into the -25 F range, but fortunately, the furnace and the generator cooperated, and the house was warm and comfortable.

The wheeled fish house phenomenon arguably is the biggest development to hit ice fishing since the advent of the GPS and whiz-bang electronics. On any given winter weekend in northern Minnesota -- or any other part of the Ice Belt, I would imagine -- it’s not uncommon to see a steady stream of these fishing palaces on wheels rolling down the highway towed by four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Lake of the Woods and Upper Red Lake are just two of the destinations catering to the wheelhouse craze with resorts and outfitters that plow ice roads and places for wheelhouse owners to set up on the lake.

Both lakes are conducive to wheelhouse fishing because setting up in one spot and waiting out the fish -- as opposed to moving every half-hour or so -- is a productive technique. The infrastructure provided by resorts and outfitters further adds to the attraction since options for moving are limited.

Walleyes on Upper Red often bite best through the ice after dark, and while Lake of the Woods isn’t known as a “night lake,” we caught a few walleyes, a burbot and even a line-tangling perch Sunday night into the wee hours of Monday morning.

I’ve stayed in several resort “sleeper houses” over the years on Lake of the Woods, and having that much action after dark was new to me. The water was as clear as I’d ever seen it on the Minnesota side of the lake, so that likely was a factor.

The wheelhouse owner was about halfway through a two-week stint on the ice, interrupted only by occasional trips into town to shower and stock up on necessities such as gas, propane and bait.

Fishing was consistent enough that he had no reason to move the house.

He’d planned the vacation for months. And while most people in this part of the world might choose to head south for winter vacations, he was content to spend it on the ice of Lake of the Woods.

The three of us who joined him from Sunday afternoon through midday Monday were the latest in a rotating cast to stop in for a couple of days of ice time. There were five of us -- including an 8-year-old and a 14-year-old -- and while we weren’t exactly swimming in space, there was adequate room for sleeping and fishing.

We weren’t roughing it, drinking coffee from beans ground right on the ice Monday morning and streaming Netflix on a big screen TV by setting up a cellphone hotspot to access the internet.

Dinner on Sunday night consisted of frozen pizzas baked in the wheelhouse oven, and breakfast Monday morning -- cooked and eaten while fishing and catching walleyes -- consisted of bacon, eggs and moose sausage.

Such is the state of ice fishing in the 21st century; it’s a far cry from the days of sitting on a bucket.

Despite the subzero temperature, we landed a bonus Sunday night by stepping outside to watch the lunar eclipse and the “blood moon” that lingered for an hour or more as the moon took on a reddish hue.

We could only stand the cold for minutes at a time, but a better vantage point than a frozen lake on a clear night would have been difficult to envision.

Darkness prevailed.

The owner of the wheelhouse still has a few more days to spend on the ice before returning to work, but if last weekend is any indication, he’s in no hurry to get back to civilization.

Wheelhouses might limit the places to fish for anglers who own them, but there’s no denying the comfort they offer.