The first iteration of Tom Roering’s amphibious all-terrain vehicle, the Wilcraft, was far from amphibious: it took on so much water that it wouldn’t float.
The year was 1998, and Roering was determined to build a mobile ice-fishing house. He and his family had been building permanent ice-fishing houses for years but had experienced setbacks: vandalism from people breaking in, careless drivers damaging them, mid-winter thaws forcing them to hitch up the houses and chip away frozen muck. The more the issues piled up, the more Roering desired a mobile option. Moreover, he wanted something that would float.
Roering’s goal of crafting a buoyant vehicle that doubles as an ice-fishing house has been close to sinking more times than just that first attempt.
For years, experiments to find the perfect configuration resulted in so many holes drilled into prototype models that they couldn’t float. Eventually, though, those experiments paid off and the original Wilcraft made its debut at the Game Fair in Anoka in 2004. The vehicle was nothing close to what it is now. Powered by an 8-horsepower Briggs and Stratton motor—typically used in commercial lawn mowers—with a mechanical transmission, it had rear-wheel drive and measured in at a humble 12-by-4-feet—a baby compared to today’s 14-by-5-foot models. “It was pretty crude, rough, and didn’t drive well,” Roering says.
Overall it somewhat mirrored the newer models in shape, and performed all the same maneuvers, including climbing onto the ice from open water and lowering the frame onto the ice with a hydraulic lift. But it was slow and clunky and took a great deal of finagling to transition from the ice to the water or vice versa.
Regardless of its shortcomings, the Wilcraft gleaned enough attention from anglers and the media after its first showing that the humble start-up was able to stay viable, if not exactly profitable.
Of those years, Roering doesn’t mince words. “Sales were pretty tough to come by. We were selling them [the original model] for $6,500 to $7,000. Our insurance costs were ‘at risk’ because we didn’t have a track record, and then we had all the overhead of starting a new business,” he explains.
Roering has been a flooring contractor since 1986, and he continued to take jobs up until last summer to support (and sometimes directly fund) Wilcraft operations. For 10 years, nobody involved in the business took a salary. “Savings, maxing out the charge card, home equity loans—it would’ve been pretty easy after year five or six to throw in the towel,” he recalls. “There were times where it was pretty discouraging.”
Even so, Roering’s wife, Connie, kept pushing him to show the Wilcraft at trade shows and sportsman events, and her cousin, Martin Babcock, came on as the project’s engineer in 2003. In late 2005, Roering’s brother-in-law, Dave Plan, joined the team, helping with production and myriad other things, including giving Roering a loan. Also helping Roering keep the faith was the encouragement he received from anglers at trade shows. “‘Give it 10 years,’ they kept saying,” Roering recalls. “And luckily they were right.”
Sure enough, about three years ago—10 years after production began—Wilcraft turned a corner. Sales jumped, and business has been increasing ever since.
Here’s how the Wilcraft works: Unload it from a trailer, drive it onto the ice, find your favorite fishing spot, use the hydraulic lift to lower the vehicle onto the ice, drill your hole, and throw down a few lines. And when you’re finished? “Set your rod down, press a couple buttons to break through [or lift off] from the ice, and fire up the engine,” says Roering.
Like the vehicle itself, the audience for the Wilcraft has also changed over the years—as has the price, increasing from about $7,000 to anywhere from $17,000 to $28,000, due to the new models’ higher engine power and customization options. As the Wilcraft has become more refined, several original
customers have traded up, cracking open a used-vehicle market for the amphibious all-terrain vehicles.
As for who’s buying them, whereas Roering used to sell to middle-aged professionals willing to take a chance on a new product, he now mostly sells to anglers on the brink of retirement, who are eager to take advantage of the vehicle’s relative ease when compared to the laborious set-up and tear-down routines required of permanent and portable ice houses. Counted among his loyal customers are also a handful of paraplegic and quadriplegic anglers, whose additional customization requests Roering was happy to oblige.
Roering’s affability and openness to new ideas and designs have been a major contributing factor to Wilcraft’s growth since it went into production in 2006. In fact, the biggest change to the vehicle’s dimensions came about directly because of a potential customer’s request.
“‘I’ve been watching you guys for years. I’m old and set in my ways, and when I fish it’s just me and my buddy,’” the man told Roering. “‘If you’d entertain this—seats in the back, seats in the front, make it two feet longer, put this amount of room between the holes—I’d buy one.’” So, Roering and his partners contacted their fabricator. “We asked, ‘Would you mind doing this?’ And he said, ‘Sure!’ So we started showing this [at trade shows] and that’s what everyone wanted.”
The freshest Wilcrafts on Roering’s showroom floor in North St. Paul could convince even the grouchiest snowbirds that ice fishing is fun. The vehicles boast 26-horsepower Kohler motors with hydrostatic drive, four-wheel-drive, and 32-inch “Monster” tires. All of these components enable the vehicle to easily climb out from open water onto the ice—a highly important (and attractive) quality for ice-fishing enthusiasts and the safety conscious alike.
“It allows that peace of mind, especially when you’re bringing out your family,” Roering says. “A lot of my customers buy this because they’ve lost somebody through the ice, so that keeps us motivated, too.”
It’s that last detail that demarcates the Wilcraft as potentially being more than just a mobile ice house. Looking toward the future, Roering sees an opportunity for the Wilcraft to thrive in the rescue vehicle market. Build a machine without holes and leave off the canvas flip-top and it would be a logical choice for fire departments and first responders; the deployment is quick and there is nothing currently on the market comparable to it.
A larger presence of Wilcrafts being used for pleasure, though, could potentially negate the need for rescue vehicles at all. In one weekend this past January, three trucks broke through the ice in Lake Madison, South Dakota—an area that, along with Minnesota, Western Wisconsin, North Dakota, Iowa, and Michigan, Roering counts as a mainstay of his customer base. Stories like that are hard to shake, and Roering says that he expects to see ordinances put in place like the one in Dane County, Wisconsin, which states that unless it floats, you can’t bring it on the lake. He shrugs, adding: “It’d be a huge feather in our hat [if they did], and I know it’s controversial, but I’ve heard too many stories.”
Roering isn’t waiting around for policy change, though. Instead, he’s continuing to work toward expanding access to and interest in ice fishing—something that, although not explicitly stated in the company’s pillars (convenience, mobility, safety, and extended season), is an underlying mission of the vehicle.
Although sales of fishing and hunting license sales are down in Minnesota, Roering believes that enthusiasm for ice fishing is alive and well. From portable icehouse manufacturers to high-end rod dealers to new technologies, he sees all kinds of growth in the industry, license sales or no. New products and gadgets, he argues, could pave a path for younger generations to find an entry point into outdoor sports. No matter what, though, Roering feels ready to make the sport more approachable and safe for everyone, one Wilcraft at a time.