The Best Ice Fishing Vehicles of 2023
Ice fishing vehicles that will get you through various ice conditions and safely access early and late-ice conditions.by Lake-Link Staff
When it comes to getting around on hardwater, it's been a crummy year across much of the Ice Belt. In northern areas there was a good freeze after Thanksgiving, but subsequent dropping temps, followed by lots of snow in many areas, developed slush and water under the snow.
Not ideal for getting on top of fish.
This winter, many Ice Belt fisheries saw anglers fishing spots closer to shore they could walk to-and in some places, especially out East-fishable ice was short-lived and anglers resumed open-water tactics.
Of course, the farther you go north, the better the ice is, whether we're talking Minnesota, Wisconsin, throughout the Dakotas, or Ontario and other Canadian provinces. In these regions, many anglers are driving full-size vehicles on plowed roads while southern Ice Belt anglers struggle with how to get to the fish. Even Minnesota south of Hinckley, with its many metropolitan ice fishing lakes, is only starting to see full-size vehicle traffic.
You've probably heard the adage that 90% of the fish live in 10% of the water. The same applies when lakes freeze, but ice, snow, slush, and weather conditions dictate what spots can be reached safely. The bottom line? It's pretty hard to catch fish if you can't get to them.
What is Safe Ice?Ice thickness has always been the biggest factor in reaching fish during the winter months. As a general rule of thumb, 3- to 4 inches of ice is required for fishing on foot; 5- to 7 inches for ATVs and snowmobiles; 8- to 12 inches for a small vehicle; and 12- to 15 inches (or more) for a full-size truck or larger permanent shelter aka "hard house" - also referred generically as "Ice Castles" in reference to one of the first permanent fish-house builders to emerge years ago.
Ice anglers must also pay close attention the reality of pressure ridges, ice heaves, cracks, slush, water on top of the ice, and other anomalies. Fact is, there is no such thing as 100% safe ice. Experienced ice anglers constantly drill test holes to determine ice thickness on travel routes, whatever mode of transportation they use.
And with constantly-changing weather patterns over the past 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 using ATVs, UTVs, snowmobiles, or other vehicles designed specifically for ice fishing. Sometimes fishing by truck just isn't worth the risk…
Here's a look at some of our favorite modes of ice transportation, each with its own merits.
(1) ATV with Removable TracksFor Garrison, North Dakota-based ice angler, Ty Macheledt, choosing an ATV with tracks was not only the best possible solution for fishing Lake Sakakawea and the walleye-filled prairie potholes of western North Dakota, but also for use as a family emergency vehicle.
Macheledt reports season has been an especially good one for walleyes in his neck o' the woods. "I can reach spots that other anglers simply can't get to. Then, when winter's over, a half hour or wrenching and the tracks are off and tires back on. Then I can use the ATV around the property during the spring, summer, and fall, too. You don't get that with a snowmobile," concludes Macheledt. "Plus, I can haul out a small hardhouse when we've got good ice."
(2) Utility or High-Performance SnowmobileNorthern, Minnesota-based veteran ice fishing guide, Brian "Bro" Brosdahl has tested and utilized every ice fishing vehicle imaginable over the past several decades guiding hardwater.
"For me, nothing beats a good utility snowmobile that I can reach spots with no matter how much snow we get. And some of the lakes I fish are only accessible via narrow snowmobile trails, which aren't accessible via ATVs," says Bro.
Bro has also "tricked-out" his snowmobile with an electric winch, mounts for his auger, Humminbird MEGA Live forward-facing sonar pole and MEGA 360, as well as a RAM-mounted Humminbird Helix fishfinder with LakeMaster VX Premium mapping to keep him oriented from his drive-on spot, as well as clue him into where the fish are located with its color-contoured HD mapping and aerial photography. For 2023, Bro's rig is also outfitted with Otter Outdoors hardboxes for additional ice fishing and emergency gear storage.
Bro's not the only ice fishing guide sold on tricked-out snowmobiles as the best way to quickly get on and follow fish no matter the snow conditions. Check out Great Lakes-based guide, Ross Robertson's rig in this cool In-Fisherman video.
(3) Wilcraft (Water-Ice-Land-Craft) VehicleWith origins stretching back to the workshop of North St. Paul-based ice angler, Tom Roering, the amphibious Wilcraft was conceived almost 30 years ago. In a nutshell, 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 12v linear actuators. After countless prototypes and hundreds of hours of real-world testing, Roering came to market with the Wilcraft (Water-Ice-Land-Craft) in 2006-a machine that ice anglers can easily and safely operate 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; .100 aluminum construction; insulated floor; EFI engine; hydrostatic drive; and super high flotation tires.
"The Wilcraft's flotation characteristics and minimal weight are very valuable given shorter ice fishing seasons. Given its weight distribution, the Wilcraft has a lighter footprint than an average angler walking on the ice," explains Roering.
And Roering's machine is not only good for ice fishing, it also makes a double-duty amphibious waterfowl hunting blind.
(4) Ultimate Outdoor Vehicle (UOV)With manufacturing located near Brookings, South Dakota, the Ultimate Outdoor Vehicle (UOV) floats on early- to late-ice and offers in-vehicle ice fishing holes for three people. Powered by a 19hp Briggs & Stratton engine with full hydrostatic drive, the manufacturer claims it's an easy-to-operate vehicle. It's a fully-enclosed with windshield that folds down for transport. Rather than tires, the UOV features 7-inch custom-made rubber tracks with steel links embedded for durability and a marine-grade aluminum hull. Weight is 1000 pounds. Optional add-ons include a second battery for running electronics and accessories; vertical ice auger rack; 5-gallon bucket holder; 20 lb. propane tank mount; 2000-pound Champion winch; rear step with handle; and swinging door for easy step-in access.
(5) SnowdogThe most readily available vehicle in the trifecta class of ultra-lightweight, single-track-based on-ice vehicles-which also includes Husky and Tinger machines-the Snowdog is retail-ready for transporting a solo angler via sled with seat option behind a Briggs & Stratton powered single track system. It will also haul additional sleds of passengers and ice fishing gear. At just over 200 pounds, the Snowdog is a good match for fishing smaller lakes, metropolitan fisheries, or reaching spots closer to shore with impressive hauling capacity. In terms of cost, you're looking at much the same price as a used snowmobile-and they require little space to transport, easily fitting into the back of a truck, even an SUV.
CLAM's Matt Johnson and their Pro Staff have been running Snowdogs for a couple years, using them across the Ice Belt-including Lake Superior-for many of their events.
*It should be noted that the Husky version of the Snowdog isn't in production for 2023 due to supply chain issues between Canada and the Ukraine.
Tinger requires the purchaser drop in his/her own Honda or Briggs engine-and isn't ready to ride from a dealer.
Final ThoughtsPersonally, our Lake-Link staff has run the gamut of used ATVs and snowmobiles and have started looking for something new and reliable. The kid brother to Bro's Ski-Doo, the sport-utility Tundra snow machine is designed as more of a "trapper" style utility sled for use in deep snow and reaching off-trail ice fishing destinations.
Although it's not cheap, the 2023 Tundra model retails new for what some used high-performance and trail snowmobiles are fetching on Craigslist and FB Marketplace. Do any searching at all and you'll find that used utility sleds are almost impossible to find, especially during winter.
But we have to admit, machines like the Wilcraft and Ultimate Outdoor Vehicle are pretty attractive when you consider what you're getting-basically, a fish-house and an on-ice vehicle all rolled into one. Of course, that comes with a price tag. But with permanent, hard-houses fetching considerably more than what they were a few short years ago-as well as limited places where you can safely fish out of them-the portable fishhouse/on-ice vehicle might be just the way to extend the ever-shortening season across the Ice Belt.
In a perfect world, we'd be able to afford it all-a snowmobile for deep snow, an ATV with track kit for 'year round use, and a machine with built-in fishhouse. But that's just not the case. Depending on where, when, and how you ice fish, any one of these options will be right for you. Fact is, there is no "best" ice fishing vehicle that will do it all…
The decision is yours-good luck and great fishing!