In the inexhaustible quest for ice fishing ecstasy, I've been lucky enough to hitch along with folks who run some killer ice rides. Piloting one of my favorite mobile mods is Guide Brian Brosdahl, whose Toyota FJ Cruiser becomes a tank when tricked out with conversion tracks from American Track Truck. His rig is unstoppable in all snow conditions, and awesome for shuttling parties of 3 to 4 anglers around the lake.
I've spent plenty of days, too, buzzing around in Guide Tony Roach's SnoBear — an ice utility van that doubles as a heated shelter, complete with holes in the floor. 'Bears can be slow-going and a little noisy, but you never even have to step outside if you'd rather not; perhaps the ultimate in luxury.
Which in no way describes adventures in an airboat, an exhilarating if slightly terrifying experience as you approach and traverse patches of open water on the likes of Saginaw Bay and Lake Erie. For big waters with shifting currents, airboats or similar rides like a Wilcraft could be the safest of all — perhaps even the future of safe ice-time navigation. Besides piloting a chopper into remote Canadian lakes (I once had the opportunity to fly onto an untouched frozen lake in Northern Ontario) you mostly can't beat ice travel with an ATV, UTV, or snowmobile. For each of the past two seasons, I've run a Honda Foreman Rubicon 4x4, a generous-sized ATV with an ample 9.4 inches of ground clearance. I've also run Yamaha and Polaris machines in the past, and love the performance of the Yamahas and some of the Polarises for their 11-inch ground clearance — key for powering through deeper snow and slush and for climbing over smaller heaves or rough trails in the woods.
Other big factors are power and reliability, and for these reasons, I prefer the Rubicon, which has a 475-cc four-stroke engine. It's quiet, efficient, and plenty powerful to pull a large, wheeled fish house.
If budget and garage space weren't concerns, I'd likely opt for a utility task vehicle (UTV) — something like the Polaris Ranger Crew run by my friend and frequent on-ice companion Bill Lindner. His machine is fully enclosed and heated, and rigged with Mattracks, a rubber track system that grips ice and hugs deep snow as well as a snowmobile.
The main issue in the ice belt is ATV versus snowmobile — which one to run based on snow depth, slush, or lack thereof. During the past few seasons in much of the north, we've had so little snow that running an ATV all season has been viable. In North Dakota, Minnesota, and the Canadian North, we're often driving full size pickups and SUVs after about January 1. It's the reason a lot of anglers mount portable GPS and sometimes sonar systems on the dashes of their trucks.
That reminds me of "car door fishing," a laid back method of driving from hole to hole with the truck door open without even setting foot on the ice. It's an easy mobile approach that keeps you out of the wind. I first recall seeing this mode of fishing while hanging with Zippy Dahl and the original Devils Lake, North Dakota, Perch Patrol guys back in the day. With fishfinder balanced between steering wheel and dashboard, you awkwardly jigged out the door while eyeballing the sonar. Hook-sets were clumsy, and grabbing fish at the hole required an odd contortion of your body.
There's something to be said for surrounding yourself with a full armada of gear, keeping it all at your fingertips while you fish or cruise from one spot to the next. As we've suggested many times before, your ice machine is akin to your boat, and that means rigging it out with the right stuff.
While it might have been a novelty to see big GPS units mounted inside trucks a few years back, these days, most serious anglers move boat-mounted units into their mobile ice stations each winter. With dual power ports inside my SUV, I can simultaneously run a big GPS unit, like a Humminbird Helix 10, alongside a Google maps-enabled iPad.
What I love about the new Helix units is their ability to interface with LakeMaster Plus mapping, which allows for satellite image overlays of 1-foot lake contours. This past year the satellite imagery uncovered incredible micro spots — little unknown trenches and tiny clearings amid giant vegetated flats and hidden depressions on vast near-shore sandflats. Moreover, these units have built-in AutoChart functionality, so you can map small or remote lakes in summer and use the depth-contour data in winter.
I still like to car-door fish a few times each winter — especially when I've only got an hour or so to quickly check a lake. Otherwise, I operate out of my ATV, and given the radical assortment of accouterments available now — rigging an ice ride is as fun and customizable as tricking out your boat.
For most of us, rigging begins with electronics. In addition to a Humminbird Helix 7 sonar/mapping unit secured to the forward gear rack with a RAM Mount, I also run an Aqua-Vu Micro 5 underwater camera, also on a small RAM Mount. Side by side, the two LCD screens are not obtrusive, and they're light enough to stay in place, even in rough terrain. Of course, they also pop on and off in seconds with the twist of the RAM. The Helix plugs into the ATV's auxiliary power port, while the camera plays off its own power source — an internal lithium-ion battery that runs for days of intermittent use, barring bitterly cold weather, which drains the battery faster. While driving from lake to lake, I can pop the Micro cam off its mount and charge it in my truck with a USB cable.
On most excursions, while the Helix helps navigate to spots and switches to sonar mode for active fishing, I use the Aqua-Vu underwater camera to confirm the presence of vegetation, rocks, and other cover, and also identify fish species. In addition, I occasionally adjust it for sight-bites in down-view mode. All this navigating and fishing can be done while seated; not because it's easy or lazy, but because everything's at your fingertips and at eye level. It's all about convenience, efficiency, and not having to unpack and reset at each new spot.
I usually operate with a spare set of electronics stowed inside a Frabill portable shelter towed behind an ATV, or within the gear trunk on the back rack. Last winter, Bill Lindner and my other friends at Lindner Media showed me some items from Excel-Outdoors, one of the more innovative manufacturers in the mobile rigging game.
Bucket brigade anglers will like Excel's Bucket Caddy. Mounted to the rear receiver on your snowmobile or ATV, the Bucket Caddy clutches a pair of 5-gallon buckets, and keeps them firmly in place with "wobble-stop" hardware. The Caddy provides an exceptional solution for toting one Frabill Aqualife Bait Station, and a second utility bucket for odds and ends or loose rods and reels during short trips. It also keeps minnow water out of your shelter tub.
For additional tackle storage, it's wise to use the ATV's rear vehicle rack for mounting a larger gear tote. I use a Moose Utilities Deluxe Lounger Trunk for protecting a small arsenal of ice rods, including several walleye sticks to 33 inches. The Moose trunk has dual locks, plus side storage on each end for smaller tackle boxes, snacks, or compact electronics. Moose also offers a variety of trunks for even more gear space, as well as plows, winches, lights, and small trailers.
Most major ATV and snowmobile manufacturers have their own lines of accessories. Honda and others make heated grips that can be useful for long runs or a quick warmup. Cargo accessory nets are nice for keeping maps, towels, or other small items. The Sportsman Headlight Pod Bag from Polaris stores small items in the dash, where a transparent enclosure keeps them visible — great for viewing paper maps or for stowing phones, keys, or handheld GPS units. Fender Bags add even more storage space. Excel-Outdoors makes storage solutions, including rear- or front-mounted cargo baskets, trunks, and racks as well as cutting-board attachments for on-ice cookouts.
Many anglers fashion their own rod-rack systems, utilizing cut PVC pipe or re-purposed rod racks. My preference is for portable rod bags stowed inside gear trunks or a portable ice shelter in tow. My favorites are a 40-inch bag from Croxton Pond and Frabill's Rod Safe, a hard-sided case. Alternatively, Kolpin's Stronghold Ice Rod Boot mounts directly to an ATV or sled rack.
When a buddy showed me his Jaws of Life Ice Auger Carrier last winter, I knew it was a winner. Another Excel-Outdoors innovation, the Jaws of Ice Auger Carrier mounts quickly and easily to nearly any forward or rear gear rack. Rather than using bungees or other strap systems, this carrier has rugged locking mechanisms to pin your auger in place. The frame is made of tough powder-coated steel, along with high-density polyethylene locks. Snap the auger in place to lock it down, then pull the release knobs to open and release it. It holds your drill tightly, so it won't jostle or bounce around on the roughest rides.
I've also used Moose Utilities' Ice Auger Carrier. It's simple to mount, forward or rear, and keeps augers up to 10 inches battened down. Note, however, that these carriers don't work with composite Polaris racks. Moose's carrier has two simple supports — powerhead and base — each secured by a heavy-duty bungee strap. Other options include Johnson's Cargo Snowmobile or ATV Cargo System, the Digger Anchor Auger Carrier, and Kolpin KXP Ratcheting Rhino Grips.
Lights, Audio & More
If it's not already standard equipment on your ice ride, I recommend installing at least one 12-V power socket for GPS and other accessories. Although some lighting accessories can be direct-wired, it's handy to have power ports for spotlights or to charge mobile devices.
Some of the newer LED lighting accessories fill a variety of uses — locating lost gear, tying knots, and travel visibility. I've used LED lights from Kolpin, including their small Bullitt LED Light, which mounts anywhere on your machine, and kicks out 900 lumens. Polaris and Rigid Industries make several rectangular light bars, around 12 inches long, that work great for nighttime rigging or for illuminating your fishing area. It's good to bring your portable spotlight on nighttime excursions, most of which plug into 12-V power ports.
For folks who like to listen to tunes while they fish, you can rig your ride with portable, waterproof, Bluetooth speakers connected to your own music library. Polaris has a Bluetooth speaker that mounts either above the speedometer or on a bar on your ATV, UTV, or snowmobile.
All the fun stuff aside, it's wise to rig for safety. I always find room in my storage trunk for a first-aid kit, as well as a throw rope and a spare Frabill Ice Safety Kit — wearable ice picks, boot safety studs, and a whistle.
While not as affordable as we'd like ($450), a Nebulus Emergency Flotation Device should be standard equipment on questionable or shifting ice. Nebulus is a compact and portable life-saving raft that instantly inflates with a ripcord, allowing an individual to initiate a solo rescue without waiting for backup. It's small enough to fit in my rear cargo trunk. Fully inflated, it can support up to three adults and a submerged snowmobile or ATV.
From a practical perspective, I also suggest rigging your ride with a power winch. I put a Warn ProVantage 3500 Winch on my ATV and have used it a bunch of times — both on the ice and off.
The deal is to arm your ice ride with the same eye to individuality as your boat. You need reliable, comfortable transportation, ample tackle and storage, electronics for navigation and fish-finding, and a few more goodies to make the experience just a little sweeter and safer. Good tunes included.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt, an astute multispecies angler, often covers gear and equipment topics for In-Fisherman publications, on ice and open water.