Arguably, ice fishing in Alaska has a few reasons why it is nowhere near as popular when compared to the open water season. Two of which are cold freezing temperatures and bitter arctic wind. When most of the population hears “ice fishing”, they conjure up visions of sitting outside on top of a frozen lake slowly turning into a popsicle. Painfully suspending a dangling bait in the brisk arctic conditions through a small hole in the ice, trying to catch a less-than-average size trout does not have the same appealas fly-fishing during the fair weather months of an Alaskan summer. While a portion of this may hold some truth — you may only catch a six-inch fish after all — modern advancements in portable shanties for winter fishermen have virtually eliminated excuses for being uncomfortably frozen while ice fishing.
Ice shanties (also called ice shelters, ice shacks, ice huts and ice houses) for winter fishermen have been around for a long time with the design to get an angler out of the outdoor elements of brisk wind and cold. They can be as small and cheap as a plastic tarp draped over a frame of two-by-fours, or as elaborate as a small cabin with heat, bunks, and electricity. A few lakes in the Interior, where I live, have large, hard-sided ice huts with wood stoves placed on the frozen lakes which are available for rent from both Alaska Department of Natural Resources and the Fairbanks North Star Borough. My first trip ice fishing over 14 years ago occurred because of these rental units being available.
Although the rental units work well and are fairly cost effective, they are static. The inability to move the public rental ice huts or a personally-built hulking wooden shanty to another location on the lake (or to an entirely different lake) limits a fisherman’s options. As my ice-fishing interest grew, I needed to look at other sources for shelter if I was going to stay warm and on the move while out chasing fish in the winter. Thoughts of building my own ice house created issues of how and where to store such a unit, transporting concerns every season, the constructing time and, of course, cost for materials. (Not to mention my lack of carpentry skills). Ideas of constructing my own bulky hard-side hut were quickly dashed once I discovered the many retail-manufactured soft-sided shelters already existing on the market.
Soft-sided, portable ice-fishing shelters are grouped into basically two styles: “flip-over” or “flip-up” and “folding”. Features and cost vary with each unit depending on the size and style but you can expect to see prices range from $250 to $450 for a 3-4 man shelter. The shelters allow anglers really great mobility, changing locations when the bite turns off, quickly and efficiently, thus maximizing actual time fishing while protecting and keeping an angler comfortable. Knowing which option is the best choice for you can be confusing with all the makes and models offered. The main points that should be considered are size, durability, and portability.
“Flip-over” or “Flip-up” types of shelters normally come attached to a plastic sled-like bottom base. This provides movement of the shelter and acts as flooring when the shelter is up. A supporting frame allows for the shelter material sides and roof to be flipped up/over for easy set up. Collapsing the supports and folding the material onto the base allows for quick take down and movement to a new location. Some units are designed for up to four people, with enough space for a heat source and fishing gear.
“Folding” style or “pop-up” hub system shelters are usually bottomless with only four sides and a roof. They are tent-like in construction and normally come with a carrying bag. The shelters can be erected quickly by pulling or popping out the roof and side panels. Flexible rods connected by a system of hubs in the center of each panel form a rigid frame. The shelter’s fabric becomes taunt against the frame and stays formed until the hubs are collapsed inward, which allows for folding the unit up. The majority of the units in this style are made to fish three to four anglers, however larger units available can fish up to eight. Perfect for large group outings on the ice.
I have used several different models of manufactured portable ice huts in the last 14 years and the “pop up” floorless folding units are my favorite for simplicity and portability. They are lightweight, easy to break down and transport from fishing spots, and even easier to transport to and from the lake in a vehicle. I am currently using a Clam Outdoors Big Foot XL 2000 model which fishes up to four anglers with plenty of room for gear and a heat source. The 600- weight denier fabric of the hut is the thickest and most durable on the market, and the shelter features one-inch wide tie down straps (instead of light cord) which is used to anchor the hut firmly during windy days. The unit provides more than enough floor space for three adults with chairs and a heat source (I use a propane tank top heater unit to keep it warm inside).
Most sporting good outlets in Alaska will have several units on display for you to look at and feel, allowing customers to “kick the tires” before they make a decision. Make sure you check the specifications between like models and comparing units for weight, inside floor space, height dimensions and fabric types. Other areas to be mindful of on an ice shelter include doors, windows, anchors and ventilation.
Although fishermen do not need an ice shelter to go winter fishing, I have found from my personal experience that using one certainly has its benefits. When used in conjunction with a heat source, ice shelters provide less stress on fish when anglers are employing catch and release methods. The warmer air inside an ice shelter assists greatly by keeping the fish out of harmful cold air temperatures, which could cause exposure damage to their delicate skin and eyes before being turned and revived for a send-off back into the water. In addition, the warmer air fishing under a shelter keeps ice holes open for continued fishing and also prevents the wet fishing line spooled on a fishing reel from freezing up and “locking up” the reel. Best of all, ice shelters protect anglers from the extremely cold, windy elements going on outside, keeping you fishing longer and much more comfortably during your winter fishing outings.