Hard-water fishing made soft; Montevideo firm finds growing market for its fishing houses

MONTEVIDEO -- Ice fishing used to conjure up images like those of late winter football at Metropolitan Stadium with Bud Grant and the Vikings. Brutal and cold. Welcome to the new century, where it's possible to ice fish in shirt sleeves while wat...

MONTEVIDEO -- Ice fishing used to conjure up images like those of late winter football at Metropolitan Stadium with Bud Grant and the Vikings.

Brutal and cold.

Welcome to the new century, where it's possible to ice fish in shirt sleeves while watching the Minnesota Vikings on satellite TV as they play football in the climate controlled comfort of the Dome.

Bringing that same climate controlled comfort to the ice covered lakes of Minnesota is a fast growing business for a Montevideo company.

"I don't see it slowing down any,'' said Jeff Drexler, founder and president of American Surplus.


For six years his company has been producing Ice Castle and Ice Pro ice fishing houses at the company's Highway 7 shop and store on the east edge of Montevideo. The company has produced over 3,000 of the ice fishing houses mounted on trailers with retractable wheels since its start.

Production and sales have grown from 150 houses in 2000 to 972 last year. Drexler said the company is on pace to produce 1,050 houses this year. A full-time work force of 25 produces the popular ice fishing houses and a line of storage sheds for the company.

The ice fishing houses are sold by a network of 50 dealers scattered throughout the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The houses are becoming familiar to anglers on lakes as far ranging as Devils Lake in North Dakota to Lake Winnebago in eastern Wisconsin. Without a doubt, their most popular destinations in Minnesota are Lake Mille Lacs, Red Lake and Lake of the Woods, according to Drexler.

The houses come in sizes ranging from a cozy, 6½-feet by 8-feet to a motor homesized version that measures 8-feet by 27-feet.

Big or small, the interiors are equipped with all the comforts of home. Ice Castle fish houses can include everything from a cooking stove and oven to bunk beds, electric lighting, satellite television and stereo.

A thermostatically controlled propane furnace keeps the well-insulated houses snug and comfortable no matter how hard the wind whips outside. Some houses are downright homey, with pine wood paneling, matching curtains and a comfortable bench and table arrangement for card games or meals.

Most important, the houses are easy to use, said Drexler. The retractable wheels allow the house to be set on the ice within about five minutes of being pulled to an angler's favorite spot. The fishing holes inside are covered by plastic caps.


There are many different models to choose from, but Ice Castle also encourages customers to custom design their own interiors, according to Drexler.

Many people also use the mobile ice fishing houses as deer hunting shacks in November and as guest cabins at lake homes in the summer. There are even Ice Castle fish houses built with roof top air conditioning units for summer use.

Drexler owes this business venture to a suggestion by the manager of Milaca Unclaimed Freight in Milaca. Drexler was producing storage sheds for the retail outlet when the manager urged him to build ice fishing houses, too.

Drexler delivered his first ice fishing house to the business in February 1999. The house was sold before he could drive back to Montevideo.

Demand continues to grow, according to Brian Larsen, a

sales representative with Milaca Unclaimed Freight.

Larsen said that it is all part of a trend towards making ice fishing a more comfortable sport. "A lot of people don't want to freeze their fingers off for a fish,'' he said.

Larsen said Ice Castle houses are introducing many people to ice fishing who otherwise would never have ventured out on the ice. "We're getting a lot of people who never ice fished before,'' he said.


Drexler and Larsen said there is a strong social element about ice fishing today. Many see the sport as a chance to get away and be with friends. "They like going out and having a good time,'' said Drexler.

There is definitely a trend towards more mobility and comfort on the ice of area lakes, according to Bruce Gilbertson, fisheries supervisor with the Department of Natural Resources in Spicer. He said trailer mounted fish houses, as well as portable, tent style fish houses that can be easily moved are growing in popularity. Gilbertson said he and his staff are seeing fewer of the permanent, plywood sided fish houses that once were so common.

Thanks to more disposable income today, Gilbertson said there is also an evident trend towards ice fishing houses that offer more comfort inside.

Retail prices for the Ice Castle fish houses range from $3,999 for a promotional model to upwards of $15,000. Customer preference and sales are moving increasingly towards the plusher, larger versions, according to both Drexler and Larsen.

Drexler said he believes that the same thing is happening to ice fishing as is already evident among soft water anglers. There are more Minnesota anglers who own boats than ever before. And increasingly, they are investing in larger and more comfortable boats.

Where will it go? Drexler points out that there is something in the neighborhood of 1.5 million fishing licenses sold each year in Minnesota alone.

Tribune photos by Tom Cherveny

Jeff Drexler, owner and founder of American Surplus, is shown inside an Ice Castle fishing house. A cooking stove, table and propane furnace help provide the comforts of home for anglers.


The license plate on the Ice Castle stretch limousine says it all.

Jeff Drexler said American Surplus has been manufacturing storage sheds for 11 years, but started building ice fishing houses on trailers only six years ago. The houses are built in Montevideo, while the trailers are manufactured by Tebben Manufacturing, Clara City, and CNW of Vesta.

Jeff Drexler, right, confers on the shop floor where a full time staff of 25 produces Ice Castle ice fishing houses in Montevideo. The business has produced over 3,000 of the ice fishing houses since February 1999.

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