Jan 10, 2019

Old School Cool

Not just another “fishing vehicle,” vintage campers on the ice cure cabin fever and help bring home dinner, too

By Tara Porter

Vrrrooommm. Vrrrooommm. What is that…a big block Chevy? Where am I…in the camper? Oh…tip-up!

No, this is not some kind of weird dream. Or is it? It is indeed, a dream made possible by a frigid, ice-making Upper Midwest winter, a pimped out vintage camper, a Bluetooth tip up sensor and, oh yeah, a 10-pound walleye.

Avid ice fishermen understand and cherish the value and joy of a day, or night, out on the ice. Long gone is the image of a lone soul, bundled in a layers-of-wool jumpsuit, trudging out on the ice, bucket/seat filled with waxworms and jigging rods and an 80-pound ice auger in hand to weather the wind and cold in hopes of catching a few fish through that one tiny little hole in the ice.

Sure, you still see a few fishermen beside their cars or trucks with a bucket, but the villages of cozy lovingly built, painted and adorned shanties, insulated and spacious pop-up shelters, and cutting edge Ice Castles – with their posh, cabin-like interiors and sleek, lightweight, efficient exteriors – have become the norm out on the ice, especially on our larger bodies of water. But interspersed throughout these villages and sometimes in a separate enclave, you can find something truly unique – vintage campers, vans and Suburbans re-purposed for ice fishing comfort.


The “tuber” life

Re-purposing is nothing new, but these projects and the people who create and use them have evolved into a thriving subculture. Much like car enthusiasts – who set up and show off their builds, talk with others about modifications and simply enjoy the camaraderie of fellow car enthusiasts – re-purposed vehicle ice fishermen and women love to share their creative and innovative upgrades with each other. Many are camping folk, too, which adds to the allure of this activity. Paying no heed to the long winter nights, it is – for both the winter-weary and the winter-loving – a welcomed amalgamation of social life, resourcefulness and the great sport of ice fishing.

Though not “campers,” it would be impossible to talk about Lake Winnebago ice fishing culture without a shout out to the “tubers,” with their incredibly practical and effective fishing vehicles. I would be surprised to come across someone with an older Suburban or an all-wheel drive Astro van over here that is not a “tuber.”

As a fishing vehicle, they are just cool. And they are, paradoxically, high tech-vintage, combining advanced satellite GPS systems, LCD flashers, smartphone-enabled underwater cameras and fish finders with less cutting-edge buddy heaters connected to 25-pound propane tanks, CB radios, stickered-up rusty bodies and ye’ olde swivel captain’s chairs.

Then there are the holes in the floor into which they thrust long plastic tubes to get a straight, wind free path to the ice and the massive and extremely mobile schools of white bass below the surface. Of course, a gas-powered auger would be difficult and undesirable to use in this application, so the newer propane and electric models seem almost invented for this task.

We just got one this year and I will never use anything else in the camper again. Many tubers feel the same way. These are not just fishing vehicles, they are a cure for cabin fever that can even help bring home dinner.


Finding a great deal

So while the tubers dominate out on Lake Winnebago, you’ll find mostly campers on Fox and Beaver Dam lakes as well as up on Little Bay de Noc near Escanaba in the Upper Peninsula. Being “East-siders” on the eastern shore of Lake Winnebago, we have a Suburban “project” sitting in the yard that we hope to one day make into a tuber and pull our beloved ice camper out on the ice. I’d be much less disappointed in losing a 1995 Suburban than a 2015 three-quarter ton Duramax.

Regardless of how much ice there is, it is never 100 percent safe, so there are risks to life and property. I remember one time we went out on the ice on Lake Winnebago when it was raining. There were feet of ice, but splashing through puddles on a frozen lake is not ideal. But with the right conditions and the right people – and especially if the fish are biting – it seems worth the risk. There’s just something perfect about sitting on a couch in a warm, cozy camper, jigging for walleyes while casually looking out the window to check tip-ups. Sometimes I even bake cookies in the camper and the smell of bacon wafting from a cast iron skillet on the stove after coming in from a frigid morning excursion to check tip-ups and chisel holes is pure heaven. Just as food cooked on a summer campfire with family and friends gathered around is always better than cooked any other way, those ice camper meals are hard to beat.

All this joy does not need to cost a fortune, either. We bought our 1971 Aristocrat Lo-Rider for $400 on craigslist six years ago and it was actually in pretty good shape for its age. It had never been updated, so all the vintage interior remained including the upholstery. There was a little water damage and it needed new tires, but it was without a doubt a great find.

I recently looked at a similar sized and aged trailer that was not in full working condition or cosmetically decent. It needed a lot of work. They were asking $2,500!

There are still some bargains out there, but with the vintage trailer movement gaining ground, it might take some patience. Some projects can get costly too, especially if there are leaks anywhere, so it pays to shop around. In all, we probably put about $1,500 into the camper and it didn’t take much to cut holes in the floor.


Modern amenities

Sometimes “vintage” just means old, unsafe or lacking in modern amenities. Ours has the original propane furnace, but the tanks are outdated. So it’s a challenge getting them filled, and the location of the furnace right inside the door has made it difficult to keep the pilot lit on the often windy lake. And then there was the time a pillow fell in front of the furnace and caught on fire. It created quite the blaze when we had to throw it out the door onto the ice.

I have not yet seen a camper with on-board bathroom facilities, which is a unique challenge to camping on the ice. We bring along a pop-up shanty with a buddy heater and a bucket, and it does the job, but our “outhouse” is definitely where the comforts of home stop.

Challenges aside, one of the great things about re-purposed vintage campers is that no two are alike and you can find, or create, pretty much whatever will meet your needs. It’s custom without the hefty price tag or the cookie cutter options. Ours only sleeps four, but we have friends who have more commodious accommodations in their fish campers. One has a dually that sleeps 10 and has a big screen TV.

Our camper has an updated cedar paneled “cabin” interior and original crank-out windows which, while a neat feature, tend to frost up. Another friend’s camper, which he and his brother made from an old pop-up, sports a wood-sided cabin top, complete with energy-efficient panoramic windows which do not frost up, making them perfect for spotting tip-ups.

I like that our camper has retained some of the vintage feel while still providing the kind of comforts that makes staying out on the ice fun, just in case the fish are not biting. We use a generator for things like phone chargers, our kitchy patio lights, a waffle iron, a radio and a TV and DVD player, which is perfect for watching Grumpy Old Menat 2 a.m. while waiting for that ever exciting walleye night-bite tip-up.

These amenities are important, because though I’d love to say that we have caught tons of fish in the camper, we haven’t. I think our total through the jigging holes is at about five. And on those late night tip-ups? We might be closer to a couple dozen, but that’s part of what makes ice camping fun...the possibility of it being more than just camping and watching DVDs until the wee hours of the night. The possibility that you might haul that 30-incher out of the ice in the middle of the night. Or the possibility that you might catch dinner in the camper, fillet it right there and cook it less than two feet away from where it was caught.

Comfort, camaraderie and catching fish is the perfect antidote for our long, cold winters in Wisconsin. It’s a great way to meet new people and get the kids out of the house and outdoors. We have several friends and relatives that all have re-purposed campers now, and much like groups will camp together in the summer, we gather on the ice and fish together.

If you like ice fishing, or even the idea of ice fishing, an ice camper or vehicle will make you love it. If you have the coin and want to go fancy, go ahead and get an ice castle-type rig, but also consider creating something unique and quintessentially Wisconsin by pimping out a vintage camper and use it all year long.

Your fish camper won’t look weird at the campsite or on the ice. They are truly versatile accommodations. Remember, we don’t live in a state so closely aligned with glacial history just to sit in the house all winter.