Thick ice opens up a world of possibilities for ice anglers. When there’s a foot or more of good, solid ice, suddenly your truck can become your on-ice boat, transporting you to hot spots all over a lake.
However, traveling on ice can be treacherous, particularly if there is slush or deep snow. If you drive a truck, snowmobile, or ATV into such a place, you may spend your day trying to get unstuck while never even wetting a line.
The problems start with snow.
Snow insulates ice, causing ice to thicken at a slower rate. The weight of all that snow pushes down on the ice, sometimes causing it to “flood,” which forms slush when snow meets water. The insulating properties of snow sometimes prevent slush from turning to ice, even in sub-zero temperatures.
Before you hit the ice, check with a local bait shop to learn about current ice conditions. If you know it’s going to be slushy, you might be better off fishing on a different lake or altering your travel plans.
If there’s a plowed road on the ice, you may be in business. Plowed roads form travel arteries on the ice. Do the plow operators a favor and don’t drill holes near roads, which could flood them. If things are really slushy, you might opt to get as close as you can to your spot, park on the side of the road, and then hoof it from there. Sometimes that’s the safest bet.
If it gets cold after slush forms, often the snow will be crusty on top, but slushy below. It’s hard to walk through. One option is to wear snowshoes, which might keep you from breaking through the crust.
However, if you do break through with snowshoes, remove them immediately, because they’ll just make walking even more difficult. If you’re planning to fish despite the slush, wear insulated, knee-high rubber boots and try to get out of the water when you fish to keep your feet warmer. Find some crusty snow you can stand on. Or sit down and rest your feet on a block of wood, a bucket, or anything out of the water. Your feet will stay much warmer.
If you’re traveling on ice by machine, be aware that some are better than others. An ATV likely will struggle on its own in deep slush. Tire chains help immensely. Tracks are even better.
A snowmobile is usually a better bet. In some instances, you may be able to stay on top of the crust (if one exists). Otherwise, you’ll leave a wake of slush. Mountain-style sleds with long paddles, wide tracks, and wide skis may help you stay on top. If you do break through, stay on the throttle and try to power through the mess.
If you’re unsure of the conditions, make a test run with just your snowmobile or ATV first – before hooking up to a heavy ice shack and all your gear. And rather than pulling a heavy sled loaded to the gills with fishing gear, consider making multiple trips with light loads.
Although plowed roads are a wonderful thing on the ice, one disadvantage to them is often it’s impossible to get off them because of the high banks along the sides that often become rock hard.
If you have your own plow, you might be able to plow yourself an “off ramp.” Otherwise, you might have to flag someone down with a plow, slip that person some cash, and ask him to make you a place to get off the road.
I don’t own a plow, but I have brought a snowblower along with me in the past. It can help if you need to get through a deep spot, but you’re not likely to be able to snow-blow a path through the side of a road.
If you plan to go off-roading in your truck, bring some tools along. Four-wheel drive is pretty much mandatory. Tire chains are a godsend. A heavy-duty chain or tow strap can get you out of a jam. You’ll definitely want at least one shovel if you get stuck.
Keep a lot of weight in the box of your truck for better traction. Tire traction pads or even branches from shoreline trees shoved under tires can provide traction if you get stuck.
A heavy-duty come-along or winch can help you out of a bad situation, but you’ll need to attach it to something. Another vehicle may work – if you can get close to the mired truck. Another possibility is to slide a stout log down an ice hole and use that as your anchor point.
Be resourceful and consider tools that could help you out. A metal ice scoop can move snow or slush in a pinch. An ice auger can auger out crusty snow underneath your vehicle (be careful!). Pouring sand out of a sand sausage can give you traction.
As you travel on the ice, keep momentum going, but don’t go so fast that you can’t see upcoming drifts or slush patches. Try to stay on open, windswept areas where the snow is shallower. Avoid points where snow may pile up and any yellow (slushy) patches of snow.
When you get to your destination, keep your momentum going, drive in a circle, and park in your own tracks, especially if you’ve been spinning your tires. If possible, take two vehicles so you have another that can pull out the first.
I know how frustrating it can be when you’ve driven a long ways and you want to fish, but ice conditions are challenging. Sometimes you just have to know when to say when. It can take all day to shovel out a stuck vehicle, and if it’s slushy, you might get soaked in the process. And shoveling all day is physically exhausting.
But consider other dangers as well. A snowmobile track packed full of slush in frigid temperatures could freeze, stranding you. And many times, I’ve gotten a snowmobile buried in slush while the snow was so crusty outside the track that it was difficult to lift it high enough to hoist the track onto the snow beside the machine. But I had to do it, or the machine would have frozen into the ice!
The older I get, the more cautious I become, because I’ve shoveled out a lot of vehicles, stood in a lot of knee-deep slush, and freaked out at the possibility of a lot of frozen-in snowmobiles.
If you’re venturing onto the ice, be careful, bring self-rescue equipment, and don’t be too proud to ask for help.
And as frustrating as it may be, sometimes the smart move is to know when to try a different lake or to cancel your outing for the day.