If you live along the southern fringe of the Ice Belt, or like to take advantage of good fishing at early ice, or you're an adventurer who fishes remote, hard-to-reach waters, traveling on foot is commonplace. Where I grew up in northern Illinois, my ice fishing outings were always on foot. The ice rarely got more than 7 or 8 inches thick in the coldest winters, most years it didn't exceed 4 or 5, and in some years it wasn't even safe enough to walk on. With 3 inches of solid ice it was time to pack the sled and chisel some holes.
Without a heavy gas auger, packing was light — chisel or hand drill, a five-gallon bucket, a couple rods or tip-ups, bait, and a box of tackle and snacks lashed down in a plastic Sno Surfer-type sled. Built for bombing hills, it had sides that angled substantially inward toward the narrow bottom, so it didn't have a lot of flat bottom space and was tippy when top heavy. It wasn't an ideal setup, but it pulled well over a few inches of snow.
Now living in the heart of Ice Country, I still use a pull sled at early ice and later in the season where good spots are short walks from accesses. I currently use a smaller black tub sled — wider, deeper-sided, and heavier than the Sno Surfer type. It's larger cargo-wise than the Sno Surfer, and I can carry my hand drill or a power auger, hub shelter, sonar unit, rods and reels, heater, small cooler, and a small plastic bin with tackle and tools.
Being wider and heavier, my tub sled plows more snow, especially loaded with gear. If the lake surface is bare ice or has a dusting of snow, pulling it is a breeze (if you have cleats on your boots). It gets more difficult when plowing through more than about 3 or 4 inches of snow. It's a solid workhorse option. But if you want to take longer treks to access remote waters, consider systems specially designed for that type of travel afoot, or on skis or snowshoes, or even fatbikes.
"Pulks are efficient for getting to both front-country and back-country lakes, and they're handy where ice is thin and you need to walk," says Grant Schnell, who along with his wife Ashley, own central Minnesota-based SkiPulk (skipulk.com), offering pulk systems and accessories. Gear-hauling sleds have been used for centuries to tote supplies and game. "A pulk is defined as a sled pulled with a harness and rigid poles," Schnell says.
"Using a harness and rigid poles rather than a rope makes the job of pulling much easier," he explains. "There's little to no 'slop' like you experience with ropes. They provide maximum control around trees and slopes, and on larger lakes with longer hauls there's no tugging that you experience with ropes that can wear you out.
"A lot of fishermen use black tub sleds, and they're very durable. They have higher sides so you can pack a lot of gear and they can be heavier than pulk sleds. With some modifications, many of them are compatible with pole-and-harness systems so you can turn them into a pulk system."
Shape is a big advantage to pulk sleds. "Usually pulks and toboggans are longer and narrower, so they're more suited to breaking trails than wider tub-type sleds," he says. "Pelican makes narrower tub-type sleds and another narrow option is Emsco's Sportsman's Expedition."
Ski Pulk Snowclipper with cover
SkiPulk offers a few different pulk sleds. The Snowclipper (56 inches long x 18 inches wide x 7 inches deep) is rotomolded in Minnesota, and has slots molded into the design to allow customization with 1/2-inch plywood or plastic to organize gear. Retractable fins provide excellent side-hill or downhill control with the flick of a ski pole.
The system includes the sled, secure straps, full-length poles, and pole attachment pins and starts at $255. The optional water-resistant Snowclipper cover has a full length zipper and mitten pulls. The upper compression cover helps to lower the center of gravity and stabilize your load, while also allowing you to easily secure large items. It has approximately 9,216 cubic inches of storage space. "The Expedition is larger and longer, and you can pack a lot of fishing gear in it," Schnell says. "The UHMW poly runners are slippery, durable, and help tracking."
The Expedition (78 x 18 x 8) has the largest payload space among their pulk systems. Along with the fiberglass sled come split poles, Expedition Harness, Maxx Waxx, and a heavy-duty water-resistant cover with #10 zippers and large zipper pulls. Starting at $699, it's been used by U.S. Homeland Security and the National Park Service.
Ski Pulk Paris Sled
The Paris pulk sled (59 x 20 x 6) is made from high-density polyethylene. Its wide rims provide torsional rigidity and its design has proven effective in hundreds of expeditions from the South Pole to the Canadian Rockies. This system includes a sled, secure straps, full-length poles, and channel kit and starts at $205.
SkiPulk also sells channel kits, poles, and harnesses, along with removable fin kits that you can install on your sled. Schnell says you can attach the pole channel kit to the rigid lips of smaller tub sleds like those offered by Shappel, Clam, and Otter. And if you're into fatbiking, they sell a Fatbike Pulk and Hitch. On their website, SkiPulk offers guides and tips for selecting sleds, harnesses, and poles, as well as tips for building your own pulk.
Several manufacturers sell ice-fishing sleds in a range of sizes, from the largest models suitable for pulling behind snowmobiles and four-wheelers to smaller options that work for hand-pulling. Again, narrower sleds and those with angled fronts push less snow, making it easier to plow through or over snow. Adding tracking kits or stabilizer fins improve stability, keeping the sled from wandering on slippery surfaces or slopes. Many smaller tub sleds of this type can be converted to pulks.
Clam offers FT Series sleds, with more of a box shape and flat angled front. The FT7 ($49.99) measures 46 inches long x 34 inches wide x 13 inches deep, and at 11 pounds it has lots of cargo space. The Nordic Small sled, made of 100-percent polyethylene, weighs 14 pounds and is longer and narrower (52 x 27 x 16) than the FT7. The oversized front scoop rides up and over deep snow, and with an 18-inch nose and tail and 12-inch sidewalls it has 10 cubic feet of storage ($69.99). Add Hyfax Molded Runners for superior tracking and strength. clamoutdoors.com
Otter Pro Mini
Otter offers Pro Sleds and Sport Sleds. Pro Sleds are made of rotomolded polyethylene with a 5/16-inch bottom. The raised back helps secure cargo during travel and raised front helps ride over deeper snow. The reinforced outer lip increases strength and support to hold ties and rope better and enhances sidewall. The two smallest versions of interest to hand-pullers are the Otter Pro Mini (43 x 23 x 10.5) ($49.99) and the larger Otter Pro Small (55 x 27 x 13) ($79.99). Otter Sport Sled Small (43 x 21 x 9) also features rotomolded construction with uniform thickness. It's the same length as the Pro Mini, but a couple inches narrower, a benefit for pulling through snow. It also has a raised back for cargo security and reinforced outer lip ($44.99). otteroutdoors.com
Eagle Claw Shappell Jet Sled Jr.
Eagle Claw Shappell offers Jet Sleds of several sizes, smallest the Jet Sled Jr. At 42 x 21 x 8, it weighs only 6 pounds and is priced at $29.99 for the black model and $39.99 in two camo options, All Terrain and Winter Camo. The Jet Sled 1 measures 54 x 25 x 10 and weighs 11.5 pounds ($49.99 to $59.99). Jet Sleds are made of polyethylene, with molded runners for strength and stability. Their Kodiak line is a heavy-duty version of the Jet Sled, 25 percent heavier and with 1 inch higher sides. The Kodiak Jr. ($36.99) and Kodiak 1 ($59.99) are sold in black color only. shappell.com
A unique option for hand-pullers is the StrikeMaster Glide-Lite ($89.99), which has a compartmentalized rather than open design. Its rotomolded plastic body has vertical rod holders in the base for quick access, and a removable seat cover that fits on 5- or 6-gallon buckets. The main compartment stores a flasher, underwater camera, and other gear. strikemaster.com
Whether you pull a sled 50 feet or trek 50 miles into the remote back country, there are plenty of sleds and sled systems available to fit your needs. After all, didn't someone once say getting there is half the fun?