Ice-Fishing Transportation: Modes & Mods that Matter
February 04, 2019
It was a big deal to a young kid, that day in 1980 when Dad showed up at our baitshop with a Honda 110 ATC (a.k.a. All-Terrain Cycle) in the back of his truck. Fire engine red, everything about that three-wheeler was magical and mesmerizing. I watched him level out our dirt parking lot by dragging around an old bedspring mattress behind it, as well as pull jonboats through hilly, muddy pastures to reach the sloughs where our crew set hundreds, if not thousands, of leech traps.
What I remember most about that first three-wheeler was how easy it made pulling a homemade sled of ice-fishing gear across the street to West Battle Lake and how it greatly increased our mobility on the ice before Dad felt confident driving the old baby blue Chevy pickup on hardwater. A few years later, he added another ATC, the Honda ATC200E “Big Red,” an electric-start model with rear and front cargo racks perfect for DIY ice-fishing modifications, like providing a sensible place to mount our big, heavy gas ice auger.
I mention all of this to illustrate that ice anglers have been looking for better modes of ice-fishing transportation since day one—and long before I was riding shotgun on those first Honda machines. Case in point: changes in on-ice transportation over the years on Minnesota’s Lake of the Woods.
Ice Transport Evolution: Lake Of The Woods
Hard to believe, but GPS was in use on Lake of the Woods as early as the 1930s. “Ed Arnesen of Arnesen’s Rocky Point Resort tells a story of his father using a team of horses to pull a sleigh way out on the lake,” says Joe Henry, Executive Director, Tourism, Lake of the Woods. “The weather turned brutal and they got stuck in a blizzard whiteout. He told the horses ‘go home’ and they brought everyone back to the resort with their ‘built-in’ GPS.”
Following a couple decades using horse-drawn sleds, Arnesen’s turned to wind sleds in the 1950s, which comprised an enclosed cab, skis, and power via an airplane propeller. Then, in the 1960s, they converted a Ford tractor for on-ice use by putting skis on the front and tracks in place of the big rear tractor tires.
Henry says, “As the interest in ice fishing grew, the need to move people around Lake of the Woods’ ice safely also increased. Technology progressed and over the years resorts experimented with different vehicle types, motors, and parts. They learned a lot along the way and kept refining available modes of transportation. Again, it was all born of necessity: as ice fishing grew more popular, more efficient and safe ways to haul people out to fish houses were needed.”
Each resort tried different approaches. Greg Hennum of Sportsman’s Lodge, for example, stripped down old Army jeeps and trailered aluminum boats with tarp roofs framed by rebar bent to fit into oar locks. Borderview Lodge tried a machine with giant tires called the Rolligon, originally designed for use by oil companies in the Alaskan tundra. Ballard’s Resort tried a hovercraft, which operated on a cushion of air, but found the winds and drifting on Lake of the Woods too challenging.
After years of much trial and error, most resorts found the combination of Geo Trackers or Suzuki Samurais and custom-built, high-tech “people hauler” heated trailers one excellent mode of transport; same for large snow bus-like vehicles called Bombardiers; SnoBear ice buses; and lastly, custom-rigged SUVs or vans mounted on conversion tracks optimized for travel through snow.
First, a Geo Tracker or Suzuki Samurai pulling a people-hauler trailer is affordable, lightweight, durable, and comfortable for customers. And people-hauler trailers are basically a trailer frame with improved suspension, skis strapped to wheels, big windows, efficient heaters, LED lights, and room for six to eight ice anglers or more.
Bombardiers, too, are efficient. “Bombers work well on ice, over snow, and their long footprint skis and track make crossing small-to-medium size cracks a breeze, as well as distribute the weight safely, even with a dozen anglers on board. But the challenge with Bombers is finding them,” Henry says. “They’re no longer in production and you need two, one for parts to keep the second one running.”
Some resorts make their own ice/snow transport vehicles from the ground up, like Arnesen’s Rocky Point Resort, where an entire workshop is dedicated to building and maintaining their machinery. I’ve visited this impressive shop. One of the rigs they self-manufacture begins with a 15-passenger van, which they cut the back off, apply flotation, specialized heat, lighting, tracks, and add numerous other modifications, including a hydraulic door with stairs that make climbing onboard akin to boarding a chartered aircraft.
“You want to transport people in a warm, safe and efficient manner to fish houses,” Henry says. “So, Lake of the Woods resorts not only take a lot of care in providing excellent modes of transport, but they’ve also become more efficient in how they plow their roads. Snow removal trucks, plows, and big front-loaders have gotten more efficient, too, so what you have are wide roads that, even when big winds come up, still have a couple lanes open for travel, which is important for anglers who drive their own vehicles out to fishing spots. Zippel Bay, for example, uses an airboat to blow snow around to ensure a good ice road.”
Lake of the Woods resorts take ice safety seriously. You’ve probably heard the adage that 90 percent of the fish live in 10 percent of the water. The same can apply when lakes freeze, but ice, snow, and weather make it even more difficult to reach fish-holding spots safely. No fish is worth your life. Consider ice thickness at all times. As a general rule, there should be 4 inches of solid ice for fishing on foot; 5 to 7 inches for ATVs and snowmobiles; 8 to 12 inches for a small vehicle; and a foot to 15 inches (or more) for a full-size truck.
Also pay close attention to pressure ridges, ice heaves, cracks, and other anomalies. Experienced ice anglers constantly drill test holes to determine ice thickness on travel routes, whatever mode of transportation they use. Still, there’s no such thing as 100 percent safe ice. Hence a growing contingent of ice anglers turning to amphibious modes of transportation for on-ice travel, who maybe don’t benefit from fishing in a place like Lake of the Woods where seasoned professionals monitor ice safety several times a day—typically from early December through the end of March with their extended walleye season.
Go-Anywhere Ice Machines
With warmer-than-average weather over recent winters, many anglers have begun to re-think how they travel on ice, even in the Ice Belt’s northern tier. More anglers are parking trucks on shore, and turning to ATVs, UTVs, snowmobiles, or vehicles designed specifically for ice fishing.
One such example is an amphibious ice fishing vehicle called Wilcraft—a unique machine with humble origins in a North St. Paul, Minnesota, workshop. The Wilcraft allows anglers to cross sketchy ice (even water) to reach ice suitable for fishing on foot—or remain under the vehicle’s insulated enclosure and safely fish through holes that open up in a hull that is lowered or raised by 12-volt linear actuators.
“Wilcraft began in 1998 to make ice fishing easier, more mobile, and safer,” says avid ice angler and Wilcraft inventor Tom Roering. “We saw ice conditions changing, and now, 20 years later, the ice season is shorter. There’s less good ice early and late season and there are longer midwinter thaws. The use of permanent houses and full-size vehicles is more difficult. The sport has moved toward more mobility. Our goal was to build a machine that addressed these issues.”
After countless prototypes and hundreds of hours of testing, Roering came to market with the Wilcraft (Water-Ice-Land-Craft) in 2006—a machine that operates safely on minimal ice, water, or a combination of both. Wilcraft vehicles feature an open floor plan; quick-set insulated enclosure; fishing holes through the floor; electrically retractable wheels; thick aluminum construction; insulated floor; EFI engine; hydrostatic drive; and super high flotation tires.
“Its flotation characteristics and minimal weight are valuable given the shorter ice-fishing seasons,” Roering says. “Given its weight distribution, the Wilcraft has a lighter footprint than an average angler walking on the ice.”
The first Wilcraft machines were belt-drive, but now have a hydrostatic drive design. “The new hydrostatic design is a sealed system that’s reliable and intuitive to operate by moving the flow control lever. It also allowed us to introduce a 4-wheel-drive option,” he says.
He also increased the Wilcraft length from 12 to 14 feet. The new Wilcraft EXT allows more fishable space at 14 feet long with 57 inches of width and over 6 feet of headroom with the enclosure up. Water displacement has also increased and there is a larger, fishable footprint on the ice. It’s heavier due to the added length and 26.5-hp EFI engine, but the machine can still operate on ice barely suitable for fishing on foot.
Angler Matt Zeadow purchased a Wilcraft EXT for ice fishing and duck hunting. But the main reason was a terrible tragedy that changed his perspective on ice-fishing safety. “I lost a close friend who put his truck through a weak spot with 21⁄2 feet of ice everywhere else. I was knee-deep in the search and discovery and found him with my underwater camera. After that, I said, ‘That’s not going to be me.’ With the Wilcraft, I can fish on minimal ice, in big winds, and in extreme cold. I put the cover on, turn on the heater. I’m warm, comfortable, and safe.”
With a design similar in philosophy to the go-anywhere Wilcraft, Brainerd, Minnesota’s Power Lodge carries the Ontario-manufactured amphibious Argo. “A lot of guys like the Argo,” says Power Lodge’s General Manager Jim Meister. “They’re not a great trail machine but they get you places you can’t get with other machines. Argos are available in six-wheel or eight-wheel, with track kits and soft cab enclosures. You can mount a trolling motor on the back of some of them. They’re a true amphibious vehicle with flotation, important if you’re worried about ice safety. The 6x6s are shorter and give you better turning radius; the 8x8s give you more storage and room for anglers. There are different editions, like camo for hunting and fishing, as well as models with a winch and other accessories. They’re tough. You can do just about anything with them given their surface area and flotation. And with the track kit, they operate well in deeper snow, too. They have sort of a motorcycle-style steering—handlebar with twist throttle, forward, neutral, and reverse—and e-brakes—high and low range. They’re designed to get you places that other machines can’t. They have a lot of torque but not a lot of speed. Ideally, a guy would have a Ranger for trails and an Argo to go everywhere else. That would be an awesome arsenal,”
One Dealer’s Perspective
Meister stays abreast of the latest transportation and transportation-related accessories each year. He says there’s growing participation in ice fishing throughout the Midwest, especially Minnesota. As such, he says they sell a lot of UTVs, ATVs, snowmobiles, and accessories for all forms of on-ice travel. But according to his sales numbers, the most popular form of on-ice travel are undoubtedly UTVs (a.k.a. side-by-sides).
“The UTV market has been growing every year, he says. “Our most popular have been the Polaris Ranger 900s and new 1000s, especially the Ranger Crew XP1000, which has crew seating for up to six anglers. Most ice anglers are looking for that extra seat in the middle, which you get with the full-size. That’s preferred for taking out more friends or family fishing. But the Sportsman 570 has been popular, too.
“Many customers also invest in Ranger cab kits: windshields, roofs, windshield panels, doors, and heaters. When you’re moving from spot to spot, comfort is key. You’ve also got heated seat kits and heated steering wheels. Tracks are popular, too. Unless you’re fishing a popular lake that has plowed roads, getting out to spots can be treacherous at times with standard wheel kits, so track kits are useful. The Polaris Prospector Pros and Camso (formerly Camoplast) make a good track kit for non-Polaris products, but we recommend Polaris because of their warranty. You can go to any Polaris dealer if you have a problem and they can fix it,” he says.
Part of Power Lodge’s business is also retro-fitting older UTVs and ATVs with tracks, a route many ice anglers are going. “It depends on how old it is, but even if you have a smaller bore ATV, Camso came out with a kit that’s designed specifically for these machines. Prior to that, nobody had anything for the 350- or 400-size machines. It’s a thinner track but it gives you the option to put tracks on an older, smaller machine.”
Besides dealing Polaris, Power Lodge also carries Can-Am and Tektron Offroad, the latter the new rebranded name for Arctic Cat off-road machines, with the exception of snowmobiles, which are still branded Arctic Cat.
Although snowmobiles like the Arctic Cat Bearcat, Ski-Doo Skandic, and Yamaha Bravo have long been synonymous with ice fishing, Meister is bullish on some of the newer Polaris models to hit the snow. “When it comes to ice fishing snowmobiles, the Polaris 550 Voyageur 155 gives you a lot of room to mount stuff on the back, which is what a lot of guys are looking for, from cargo racks to ice auger mounts. Otherwise the new Polaris 800 Titan has a wide track and high and low range—one of the best utility sleds out there. Some of the Polaris Adventure machines have a utility rack and wide track, too. Likewise, Ski-Doo’s Tundra line has a lot of cargo space and is great in deep snow.”
For ATVs, he calls the Polaris 570 Sportsman “the best bang for your buck,” which starts at $6,699. “Polaris also makes a more affordable Sportsman 450, which has a ProStar 500cc, 4-Stroke SOHC single cylinder engine with plenty of horsepower, excellent suspension, high payload capacity, and a high hitch towing rating,” he says.
Accessories & Mods
“I think a lot of people are unaware of how you can modify your machines,” Meister says. “Dealers are privy to these things and can help make ice fishing more enjoyable with the recommendation of a few accessories. We try to educate people and let them know what’s out there and what we can get you.”
No matter what kind of ice fishing machine you run, one requisite piece of gear is an ice auger rack. While many anglers make their own, there are more commercial auger carriers on the market each year. “The Jaws of Ice auger rack from Excel Outdoors has been popular,” he says. “They mount to just about any on-ice vehicle, and they’re probably the sturdiest and most durable auger mount you can get."
Other accessories gaining popularity are heated hand grips, windshields, track kits, winches, gun carriers, rack extenders, and RAM mounts that allow you to mount more equipment, like ice-fishing electronics, including flashers, graphs with chartplotting/mapping capabilities, Aqua-Vu underwater cameras, GoPro cameras, and additional LED lighting.
“We’ve installed all brands of ice fishing electronics on machines, but Humminbird has been our most popular,” he says. “We sell a lot of Humminbird Helix 7 and 9 units, as well as LakeMaster mapping chips for Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Canada. More anglers are pulling the units off their boats with all their summer waypoints, mounting them on their UTV, ATV, or sled, and then they’re ready to go come ice. There’s also the safety factor of having good mapping and GPS on your machine.”
He says that more anglers are also installing additional lighting. “Last year we outfitted a Ranger Crew side-by-side with Auxbeam LED light bars: one on the front, two on each side, and one on the back. They light up the nighttime, which can aid in navigation and make night-fishing more fun. Auxbeam lights are great for the price. And they’re low draw. Combine them with the new batteries they’re putting in Rangers and you’ll be surprised by their run-time. Those batteries run a bunch of accessories.”
Another add-on Meister recommends is a quality winch. “There might not be a ton of places to attach to out on the ice, but if you do get into trouble, you can hook up to another vehicle, shack, or whatever, and you’re more likely to pull yourself out,” he says.Trailers
Any mode of on-ice transportation requires a quality trailer to haul it. Meister is a fan of Aluma products, whether they’re fully enclosed or of the open utility type. “We like Aluma Trailers because they’re all aluminum, which means they’re lightweight, tough, and rust resistant—plus, they come with a five-year warranty,” he says. “We also carry snowmobile trailers, too, all available with accessories like side kits, salt shields, spare tires, ratchet systems, and more.” Another way to haul machines is in a “toy hauler” fish house like those available from Yetti, Ice Castle, Firebrand, Glacier, Lodge, and Custom Cottages.
I’ve always subscribed that you can’t own too many trailers. While FLOE makes both open-bed and enclosed versions in a variety of sizes, I’m on my fourth year pulling a FLOE CargoMax sport utility trailer around the country—with an ATV or kayaks in it during warmer months—and my 2000 Arctic Cat ATV and ice-fishing gear during the winter. Constructed of a lightweight, strong aluminum frame and impact-resistant polymer body, it’s one heck of a trailer. Once I reach the lake access, I back out my ATV, pull the trailer off my truck by hand, reattach to my ATV’s hitch, load up with portable fish houses, my kids and dog, and other ice-fishing gear, and we’re quickly out to the spot for a day of fun. It’s one of the best ice fishing gear investments I’ve ever made—and it’s covered by a 10-year warranty. Since I bought mine, FLOE has expanded the line to include 8-, 9.5-, 11-, and 13-foot versions to accommodate ATVs, sleds, and larger UTVs. If you’re in the market for a trailer upgrade, or could use another all-purpose model to add to your arsenal, they’re worth a look.
*Jim Edlund, Becker, Minnesota, is an avid angler and freelance writer. He frequently contributes to In-Fisherman publications.