Shopping for Shelters
By Dave Genz
I don't know about you, but I like information that helps me make a good decision. When I'm shopping for a vehicle, I want to know what features each one has. But it's probably more important to consider what I use a vehicle for, and what I expect out of it. There's no way for the sales person to pick one out for me.
The story is the same when it comes to portable ice-fishing shelters.
You are the only one who can do the best job of choosing among the many choices on the market today. I have people ask me--at sports shows, in-store promotions, and even out on the ice--to tell them which one they need. After doing this enough times, I feel ready to write down my advice on how to shop for shelters.
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The 'Base Camp' Consideration
There are a lot of analogies for one of the most important concepts to consider. You see it in the summer, when big houseboats are lumbering across the lake, towing several smaller fishing boats behind. Big-game hunters are familiar with the idea of having a base camp, then venturing deep into game country and setting up temporary spike camps.
Ice fishing can be an adventure, especially on larger bodies of water. Everybody knows how important mobility is to my system. Being able to drill a lot of holes and check a lot of potential spots is usually the key to catching fish consistently. My favorite way to maintain mobility, even on really cold days, is to set up a base camp and then fan out to fish.
The beauty of my base camp is that it's also a place to fish. I don't like to waste time, so I choose a large shelter that sets up fast and easy. The larger Clams and the Fish Trap Voyager, in my opinion, fit the bill perfectly, because they go up easy on cold days. There are other models, so you'll just have to check them out and decide what you like.
I pick a spot that's likely to hold fish, drill holes, put up the house, get the heater going, and "camp" is made. If you fish with friends, or take your kids along, some of them might want to fish in the "cabin," so they can stay warm and spend some time skating, playing catch with a football, and whatever else they dream up.
Another reason I stay away from heavier, more permanent houses for my base camp is that "camp" can be moved in a matter of minutes if the holes are unproductive, or you decide to move the pivot point to another section of the lake. This same type of house, in fact, can be the "one and only" for some anglers, who fish a favorite lake and know the spots on it. You know what you expect from ice fishing. If you don't typically move much, but like the flexibility of moving when you feel like it, and don't like to spend a lot of time setting up, then these same choices can cover all your needs.
But if you like to cover water…
After the base camp is set, I personally like to cover water. My term for it is "making more casts," even though we're drilling a hole for every cast we make. Especially during the day (when iced-over fish are not likely to be actively foraging), my belief is that we have to go to the fish, get right over them, then tempt them into biting.
It was for this style of fishing that I made the first Fish Traps, a shelter that carries all your gear and sets up in a couple seconds. You can put the walls up around you to shut out the wind (and the light), give the hole a fair chance to produce, then flip the walls back down and be on to the next spot. If it's easy to move, you'll do it.
If you've looked at the Traps, you've seen that they come in different sizes. I'll try to help you understand the possible roles for each, so you can make a good decision based on your own fishing style. (Again, there are other brands. You have to decide which you like best. A tackle shop that has them set up is a perfect place to comparison shop.)
For instance, there are two "one-person" models, the Scout and Pro. The base (plastic sled) is oriented the "long way" on the Scout, and "sideways" on the Pro. On the Pro, the poles telescope, making them a bit longer, and you end up with more space, both side to side and in front of you. It's easier to fish two lines at once, if that's important to you. There's also more "elbow room," if that's important to you.
The Scout, though, actually sets up faster, because you don't have to telescope the poles. And the smaller interior is favored by some people, because it takes less to heat it. If you fit well inside of the Scout and typically fish only one line at a time, it might be your best choice. On many days, your body heat alone is enough to keep you toasty, especially if you've been walking and drilling holes right before you settle in.
Because the sled is the same (just oriented differently), storage space for gear is the same on the Scout and the Pro.
The "two-person" model is called the Guide. But many big guys like to fish out of one by themselves, enjoying the extra room. Still, you can fish two people comfortably out of it, easily bringing all the gear you need. (It's funny how this works, but you find that each Trap has enough room for all your gear, because the amount you bring changes depending on how many people are coming.)
For the person who is going to fish alone sometimes, and other times bring their son or daughter, or wife, or a friend, the Guide is a perfect choice. Plenty of room to fish two lines at once. More room for gear. Just remember the golden rule that you don't have to try to fill the plastic sled to overflowing with stuff. It's not the weight of the shelter that restricts your mobility, it's all the stuff you load into it.
The Fish Trap Voyager, the "three-person" model, can be a great base camp, but it can also function well as a mobile house. Bring this one out when you're fishing with at least two people, so you can help each other pull it from spot to spot. And it tows beautifully behind a vehicle, snowmobile, or ATV. It takes more heat to keep it toasty, but you have plenty of room inside to put a bigger heater.
So you can see it comes down to personal decisions when choosing a portable ice-fishing shelter. Personally, I don't even try to make a single choice. I bring along a combination of shelters that's ideal for each trip. Because they're affordable, you may end up owning a couple, especially if you want to try the base camp concept, using the smaller shelter as your mobile unit to make a lot of casts.
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