In Praise of Bob-Houses

Bob-houses aren’t beautiful, but on the ice they all seem to belong…and where else can you find lakefront home for free?

By Howard Mansfield

Jan 15 2014


An ice fishing shack in Swanzey, NH.

Photo Credit : Brenda Darroch
In Praise of Bob-Houses | How You Can Enjoy a New England Lakefront Home for Free
In Praise of Bob-Houses | How You Can Enjoy a New England Lakefront Home for Free
Photo Credit : Brenda Darroch

How You Can Enjoy a New England Lakefront Home for Free

When winter begins to close in on me, when I feel as if I were wearing a groove indoors, I head out to a nearby lake to talk with the men ice fishing. (It’s mostly a guy thing.) It’s a relief to get outdoors, to drink in the horizon, to look straight across the expanse of flat ice for miles. I set out on snowshoes or skis or on foot, depending on the conditions, to visit the small settlements of sheds that the fishermen pull out on the ice. On this lake they’re mostly small, with just enough room for a little woodstove, a hole or two in the floor so that you can bore right into the ice and fish, a window so that you can see your “tip-ups”–the flags that signal that you have something on one of your other lines–and a bench on which to catch a catnap. “It’s a man house,” says my friend Eric Aldrich, an outdoorsman. “You want one big enough to sleep in.” (That is, in case you’re in trouble at home, which he emphasized he wasn’t–not at the moment.)

Bob-houses are built mostly of plywood, often of scrap, and painted, if they are at all, with what’s on hand. This is strictly “what’s on hand” construction. No one runs a table saw overtime confecting a little Parthenon. You don’t want to get too fancy; it adds weight. A bob-house has to be portable; it has to fit into a pickup truck bed or on a trailer. Lighter is better; simplicity is achieved by subtraction.

No bob-house is beautiful, but on the ice they all seem to belong. Out of season, out by the woodpile or by the pile of things-that-could-be-useful-someday, they seem crude, like plywood privies. But on the ice their roughness is a match to the below-zero winds that get moving across the lake. In New England we call them “bob-houses” (so named for the bobbing of a fish line through an open hole in the ice). Out in the Midwest they favor “ice house,” “fish house,” or “ice shanty,” but shanty has that wrong-side-of-the-tracks, Hooverville connotation.

Fishing seems to be a little beside the point (except for a famous fishing derby). The number of tip-ups you can have is limited, and fish are lethargic in winter. On some lakes you can fish all winter and not catch a thing. “You can be out there all winter and not see a flag go up. All winter,” says Aldrich. “And some doofus gets out there at 11 a.m., sets out a tip-up, and gets a 20-inch lake trout right off the bat.”

On New Hampshire’s big lake, Winnipesaukee, home of the famous ice-fishing derby, some bob-houses have gone beyond “what’s on hand” construction. Some have generators, propane heaters, camping toilets, and satellite television; some are finished with clapboards and even have drapes in the window. Some guys just set up their camping trailers. Years ago there was a village out on the ice that even had its own post office, with mail delivered right to your bob-house.

Aldrich, who used to work for the state’s Fish & Game department, once spent a few days visiting bob-houses on Winnipesaukee. The oddest one he saw was this big white dome with a door cut in the side. What the heck was that? Turned out it belonged to a septic-field designer. While everyone else was struggling to get their bob-houses onto the ice, he just turned his dome on its side and rolled it out. It was perfect–a septic yurt.

On Aldrich’s tour he saw some “shaky stuff,” too, he says. A few guys from the city had moved out of their apartments for the winter. “It’s free lakefront,” he adds. Bob-houses may be the last free housing in America. No one inspects them; no one will tell you that you have to build them to meet “code.” New Hampshire’s rules are few: Put your name and address on the outside, add some reflectors so that a snowmobile won’t crash into it at night, and get it off the ice by April Fool’s Day. All the ice fishermen I’ve ever talked to are happy to be out there, sitting in a meager shed on the ice. And why not? They’re free men in their plywood castles.

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