As hardcore hardwater enthusiasts there comes a time when we would prefer to fish in comfort rather than sit on a 5 gallon pail in windy subzero temperatures. There are many pop up or flip up style soft wall ice fishing shacks available on the market but for those with better access to their fishing spots or the time to commit to a full season of ice fishing there is no substitute for a hard wall ice house.
There is no cookie cutter design to a hard wall shack; there are several ways to construct a comfortable place to fish, from the simplest wooden box to very elaborate and well optioned designs. The shack owner has to give considerations before beginning a build to ensure whatever the end product is, it meets their ice fishing needs. We will outline things to consider and steps to take before starting your build.
Budget and Materials
This is probably the most important thing to consider before starting a build, how much are you willing to spend? In the traditional sense the ice house is something of an extra, a nicety, but if you’re a dedicated hardwater fisherman who plans to spend many days on the ice, it’s important to be comfortable. A lot of fishermen have no issue dropping $50,000 or more on a boat, yet balk at the idea of spending money on a well built ice house. Wood skids, 2 x 4 framing, and OSB walls work well structurally, but generally these types of ice shacks have a short life span. Dragging them around the lake causes wear and tear, shifting, and pulling, and at times high winds can rip them apart where they sit. If they are frozen in they can incur damage getting them out. Sometimes people burn them on the lake to avoid the hassle of trying to get them off, this is neither acceptable nor responsible as non combustible construction materials end up at the bottom of the lake. Steel skids are a lot more durable and have longevity, but they are heavier and unless you have a welder for a fishing partner that will work for free beer they can be quite a bit more costly. All things considered whatever your budget the end justifies the means, you will just need to maintain your house based on how it’s constructed. Another issue to consider is the spot you will fish. Is the area prone to vandalism and break and enter theft from ice houses? Do your neighbors on the lake watch out for each others shanties? If there are these types of issues it’s a definite deterrent to spending more than you need to just to fish in comfort.
Size and Weight
Do you have an extended family with a lot of kids that enjoy ice fishing, or is it just you and perhaps one fishing partner? It’s important to consider how many people you may want to accommodate while leaving room in the ice house for heat sources and storage. The size will dictate how many holes you can put in your shack for people to fish comfortably without line tangling issues or people tripping over each other. Shacks can range in size from perhaps 8 x 6 for a couple fishermen up to 10 x 20 for a slew of family and friends. Another reason to consider size is the final weight of your build. Heavy ice houses require a lot of horsepower and traction to move around. This might create a challenge for removing them at the end of the season when the lakes are thawing. Smaller, lighter builds can be moved with less effort by ATVs or snowmobiles. Large amounts of snow can also create problems for moving your house around, especially if you need a truck to pull your unit.
Layout and Storage
Spending time in an ice shack is a social event, often more time will be spent sharing stories and perhaps having a few beverages than actual fishing, so it’s nice to have a layout that’s conducive to the people in the shack being able to converse with each other. Sticking a hole in each corner and having everyone with their backs to each other might be functional, but it’s not very social. The shack owner has to find a way to make the shack both functional and friendly. Before starting your build you need a solid plan, whether it’s a hand sketch on a piece of scrap paper, or a computer generated design. There are a few free and simple to use use 2 dimensional house design programs available on the web that can generate an overview. Other things to consider are seating areas. Will you be building hard benches, or just use fold up chairs? It’s important that the seating area is set up properly to the hole you will use in order to fish comfortably. If you are in an awkward position making a good set on a fish might be challenging. Is the door accessible for all coming in and out without having to step over other people’s holes or lines? If you have shelves or cupboards for storage are they in the best spots to utilize free space and not creating a clutter? Again take the time to have a solid plan before starting your build.
Heating and Insulation
There are several methods available to heat your shack; we will look at the pros and cons of some of these methods.
Traditionally the majority of ice shacks are heated with wood burning stoves, and a lot of new builds still use a wood burning stove. Wood heat is great; it’s constant, radiant, and dry. If you have wet clothes or boots, they can be dried quickly next to the wood stove. The challenge with wood is it requires a constant supply of logs to operate which means you will be packing wood in every trip. If you have a good wood supply of your own, this is usually not an issue, but if you are buying firewood, it can get a bit expensive. Also wood is best stored outside to conserve space, it’s been heard of that neighbors, even good neighbors, often don’t mind borrowing when they run low, sometimes there might be a box of beer in it after the fact, sometimes not. Good fishing neighbors usually don’t mind helping each other out.
There are also several options available for propane heaters. Tank top heaters work well for smaller ice houses; there are also portable options like the Mr. Heater line that take smaller Coleman style green bottles. These options work well, but to keep cost down if you are using a Mr. Heater style heater be sure to get the converter line to tie them to bigger bottles which can be left outside the ice house. The small bottles burn up quickly and it can get costly.There are various styles of wall and floor mounted propane radiant heaters as well. Some have an external combustion vent which is ideal.
RV style forced air propane heaters are also a good option. The biggest drawback to this style of heater is it requires a 12 VDC battery power supply. If you do have a power supply you will need a charge system such as a generator or perhaps solar to maintain power. Many shack owners use a 12 volt power supply for lighting and have battery power available. A great advantage to this style of ice house heater is they also vent to the outside of the building and the forced air distributes heat to all areas of the house.
This is where real customization comes into play. If you are going to spend a lot of time in your ice house and plan to fish into the darkness or perhaps cook in your shack there are all sorts of ways to customize your build. There are lots of lighting options available; my recommendation is a 12 volt system with LED lighting inside and out. 12 volt LED is simple to install and efficient, bright, and economical. Strip lighting is a good option and draws very little power. Solar power is a good way to power your shack or supplement if you have a built in battery charging system.
There are several styles of propane RV cook tops that can be built in if you plan to have a fish fry on the lake. We have done builds with both double and triple burner cook tops.
For accessorizing your ice house there is absolutely no better system than the Catch Cover accessory line. From ice house holes to rod holders, this is an extremely functional way to manage your fish house. The beauty of the system is all the accessories fit into a common wall disc system, so they can be interchanged with anything from cup holders, to phone holders, to rattle reels, and everything else Catch Cover offers.
Having a neat and organized ice house makes fishing more pleasurable. Rod holders, wall hooks, broom hangers, shelving, and virtually anything that makes your shack more organized and comfortable are great ideas.
Ice House Safety
The most important factor to consider when planning your ice house is your safety and the safety of others. This is one area where people should not try to “cheap out”. Every year we hear stories of some fellow angler that loses his life by doing something unsafe, and the fact of the matter is we all know better. The most common cause of these types of incidents is caused by CO poisoning from operating open flame heaters without adequate ventilation or safety measures. Here is a list of safety tips that all of us should follow, especially those of us who stay overnight in our shacks:
- NEVER use an open cook stove as a heat source
- ALWAYS have adequate ventilation in your ice house when operating any sort of heating appliance
- REMEMBER a wood stove consumes oxygen, in an airtight shack a lack of oxygen can cause asphyxiation
- ALWAYS follow the manufacturer’s instructions for installing any appliance or heater
- ALWAYS have proper safety devices in your shack. At the bare minimum a battery operated smoke detector and if you are using propane a battery operated or hardwired CO/Propane detector
- REMEMBER open holes can be a danger to small children or pets; always supervise your kids and pets when in your shack. Use safety covers if your kids are small enough to slip down the hole.
These are the bare minimums. Other consideration should be given to having a first aid kit and a small fire extinguisher in your shack.
Tight lines and good fishing!
About the Author
Paul is an avid outdoors man who grew up fishing countless Alberta lakes with his father and friends. When he's not enjoying the outdoors he spends his time designing and building custom ice shacks and trailers.