It’s one thing to postulate that ice fishing is trending heavily toward tactical mobility and lighter gear in order for anglers to make the most of shorter seasons of ice. You hear it all the time.
But it’s another thing to quit your high-paying job, borrow money from a bank and build a manufacturing plant to make absurdly lighter, more agile fish houses with hopes of winning big-time market share.
Welcome to Core Ice, the venture of two 30-something engineers who left secure positions at Toro Co. and Polaris Industries Inc. Their product, new this season and featured last week at the St. Paul Ice Fishing and Winter Sports Show, is a hybrid skid/wheel house that doubles as a motor sports “toy hauler.”
What sets their rig apart, the founders say, are ultralight materials and sleek, spartan interiors that contradict today’s popular custom houses outfitted with heavy, lush, cabinlike interiors.
“This is the winter their dream becomes a reality. Or a nightmare,’’ said Wayne Carlson, a Core Ice pitchman.
Jesse Gamble, a University of Minnesota graduate, said he met his business partner, Kyle Bjorkman, a few years ago at Toro. They were on the same project to engineer a smart control system for a commercial lawn mower. Bjorkman would later leave for Polaris, and the two men kept in touch before leaving their respective corporate bubbles as founders of Litchfield-based Core Ice.
“We wanted to create our own product for an enthusiast market,” Gamble said. “We weren’t best buds, but we were good friends and we wanted the challenge.’’
Jeff Bjorkman, Kyle’s father, is the company’s third principal. He brings a wealth of manufacturing expertise as a retired vice president of operations at Polaris. His role at Core Ice is more advisory than day to day.
Gamble said the thrill of starting your own company is putting your gut instincts to work on high-stakes decisions. In corporate engineering settings, where projects are analyzed and executed by waves of people, that’s not always possible.
“We gave up good jobs, so it’s the difference between being on shore and walking onto thin ice,” Gamble said.
Not an Ice Castle
Ice Castle Fish Houses Manufacturing Co. of Montevideo, Minn., hit a profitable nerve in the ice fishing culture after it set out in 1993 to transform stodgy ice shacks into upscale houses, complete with satellite TV, ornate cabinetry, other cozy comforts and maintenance-free aluminum siding. Just as revolutionary, the fish houses doubled as offseason campers or pull-behind RVs. As of this year, all-time Ice Castle sales topped 20,000 units.
The company’s overwhelming success demonstrated that Minnesotans are willing to spend a lot of money on ice fishing, especially on high-end equipment that can serve another purpose. That’s where Core Ice is coming in but with a product so nimble that it actually floats in open water.
To prove it, Gamble and Bjorkman removed the wheels from one unit and pulled it across a lake last summer behind a pontoon boat. And at the ice show last weekend, the Core Ice booth drew a crowd when three college students stood on the roof of one unit to show that a fish house weighing 1,200 to 1,450 pounds can also be strong.
Gamble said competitors’ units typically weigh 3,000 to 10,000 pounds and are generally transported onto the ice by trucks weighing another 7,000 pounds.
Mark Harmon is a former sales and marketing manager at Ice Castle who now works at Core Ice. He differentiates the Core Ice customer as someone who desires a nimble setup built for hole-hopping — a rig capable of handling deep snow and relatively thin ice to extend the season.
“We are going to kind of sneak around and outflank the market,” Harmon said. “You can run and gun all day in our house.”
Consider that an upright case of beer applies 1.8 pounds per square inch of ground pressure. An average-sized man applies 8 pounds of pressure and a half-ton pickup truck applies 45 pounds. By comparison, the largest Core Ice fish house on skids applies eight-tenths of 1 pound of ground pressure. Gamble said the houses can easily be pulled across a lake by a small snowmobile or compact ATV. And that’s the size of recreational vehicle that fits inside the house when it’s towed over the road on retractable wheels.
At lakeside, the vehicle unloads from a ramp-style door. If the fish aren’t biting at the first stop, the rig can be moved without repacking all the gear. It’s also not reliant on plowed ice roads.
A 2013 report by the American Sportfishing Association ranked Minnesota No. 4 in total annual expenditures by anglers. The report provided no breakdown for ice fishing but estimated $2.4 billion in yearly spending by 1.56 million license holders.
Gamble and Bjorkman aren’t sharing details of their business plan, but their approach suggests that Minnesotans and ice anglers in other states are willing to invest in high-grade equipment. The smallest Core Ice unit is priced at $12,500, but larger units with options will sell for more than $18,000.
Gamble said that’s not a good value for a fish house used for two or three months out of the year. But he’s counting on the broader proposition that the rig can be used year-round as a general-purpose trailer, off-road vehicle hauler, motorcycle carrier or mobile hunting shack.
Moreover, from their own involvement in outdoor recreation, they see consumers who are willing to pay for long-lasting, rugged, high-performance equipment.
Bjorkman is a motor sports enthusiast who has raced snowmobiles and high-powered dune buggies. Gamble is an avid big game hunter and prairie dog shooter. They both fish and thrive on other outdoor experiences, but they leaned on pro fisherman Gary Parsons as their ice angling consultant.
The key to their product, Gamble said, is a proprietary panel that sandwiches high-density foam between a duo of fiberglass skins. One of the skins comes from Italy’s advanced marine industry. Core Ice manufactures the panels at its Litchfield plant with a precision milling tool. The finished panels fit together like Legos, Gamble said, without the use of a conventional studded frame.
Inside, the fish house looks more like a trailer than a cabin, but it contains a smart setup of hanging rails, fish holes, LED lighting, satellite TV and a well-concealed furnace.
“We did our factory setup before we ever advertised that we existed,” he said. “What I heard a lot of people say at the ice show was, ‘Wow, you really put some thought into this.’ ”