If you gathered all of the ice fishing houses in Minnesota and plopped them onto one large lake, you'd create the third-largest city in the state.

Second biggest, if you put just two anglers in each ice house.

Instead, the state's 150,000 or so ice fishing shacks are scattered on frozen water from Baudette to Blue Earth -- often a dozen here, a dozen there -- forming tiny, temporary cold-weather communities at fishing hot spots.

Neighbors greet neighbors, lend bait, share advice ... or spin lies. The scenes -- and conversations -- are uniquely Minnesotan.

The houses are key to this pastime. They vary widely in style, size and opulence -- from rudimentary homemade plywood shanties on wooden skids, to fancy, aluminum mobile homes on wheels, to portable tent-like collapsible nylon houses.

And everything in between.

A housing evolution

Like computers, TVs and automobiles, ice fishing houses have evolved. Native Americans once pulled animal skins over their heads to spear fish through holes in the ice.

Later, sportsmen got tired of freezing while fishing through the ice with a hook and line, so they built crude wood and tarpaper shacks -- something to block the wind.

"In the early '50s when we fished Mille Lacs Lake, we didn't have four-wheel-drive trucks,'' John Breimhorst, 69, of Jordan, said while fishing with his brother, Ed, 66, in John's ice shack on Prior Lake on Monday.

"We bolted 6x6-foot plywood sections together [to make the house.] We carried the pieces up on the roof of our car. It was just a shelter to protect you from the wind. You had to stay pretty bundled up.''

Eventually came permanent wooden houses on skids towed behind pickups -- a staple on frozen lakes for decades.

More recently came two revolutionary developments: Portable nylon-coated houses that allow anglers to move from lake to lake or spot to spot. And permanent houses on wheels -- "wheel-houses" -- that also offer mobility, but often with all the comforts of home. The houses are lowered onto the ice, or raised on their wheels and towed away.

Breimhorst's 14-foot aluminum-sided custom-made wheel-house has a propane wall heater, electric lights, stove and oven, cabinets, a breakfast nook, two fold-up bunks -- and a bathroom. And four ice fishing holes in the floor.

"It's pretty much like home,'' Breimhorst said. "My grandkids just love to come out here and fish.''

There is a cost to such luxury: Around $7,000. Larger wheel-houses go for $10,000 and up. Do-it-yourself kits start at around $3,000.

Not cheap. But you're getting a place to sleep and eat as well as fish. That helps explain why a destination lake such as Mille Lacs usually will have 3,500 to 5,000 ice fishing houses each winter. (That number is down to around 2,500 this winter because of poor ice conditions earlier, and slow fishing.)

"There's a huge trend towards wheeled fish houses -- it's just unbelievable,'' said Henry Drewes of Bemidji, avid angler and regional fisheries manager for the Department of Natural Resources.

They are becoming the standard.

"They're pretty nice, reasonably priced -- for some -- and you can get multiple use out of them,'' Drewes said. "They're commonly being used as hunting shacks in the fall.''

Magic in the house

Jerry Smith, 40, and his son, Tyler, 12, of Stacy, Minn., huddled in their borrowed ice fishing house last week shortly after sunset on Chisago Lake, north of the Twin Cities. A propane stove kept the house toasty warm.

The only sound was the persistent hiss of a propane lantern illuminating the white plastic laminate on the walls. (The 12-volt battery that normally powers lights was dead.)

The 8x12 homemade 10-year-old wooden wheel-house is basic but clean; there's no carpeting or cook-stove or bathroom. There are six small windows, and six ice fishing holes in the green wooden floor. The ceiling near two sleeping bunks extends higher than the rest of the house, so the structure resembles a caboose.

"It's a little rustic ... this one is made for catching fish, not for comfort,'' Jerry Smith said, jigging his fishing rod.

The action was slow: Dad caught a couple of small crappies, which he released. Son checked the other lines, added fresh bait, and chatted with a visitor.

Both love ice fishing.

"There's no telephone, no television, just serenity,'' Jerry said. "You get to spend some quality time with your son. And there's the anticipation when you set the hook of what might come through the hole.''

Said Tyler: "It could be a 2-inch sunnie, or a 13-pound pike.''