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BRAD DOKKEN: Ice fishing? Watch out for slush

Slush has been on my mind in recent days, thanks to the storm that dumped upwards of a foot of snow across vast parts of the region. If you ice fish, you'll understand my concern. The snow that fell this week might be good for skiing and snowmobi...

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Slush has been on my mind in recent days, thanks to the storm that dumped upwards of a foot of snow across vast parts of the region.

If you ice fish, you'll understand my concern.

The snow that fell this week might be good for skiing and snowmobiling -- snowmobiling on land, at least -- but it couldn't have come at a worse time for lakes that were just setting up with ice safe enough for walking or light vehicles such as snowmobiles and ATVs.

That's because snow provides a blanket of insulation that hampers freezing and puts weight on the ice, forcing water up through any cracks that might have formed.

The result is slush -- lurking just under the snow and out of sight -- and it can make getting around on the ice an absolute nightmare.

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On this count I speak from experience.

One of the worst slush encounters I ever experienced occurred in the winter of 2001, when ice fishing experts Chip Leer and Tommy Skarlis hosted several media and fishing industry types for a few days of adventure near Thunder Bay, Ont. Leer and Skarlis were partners in a venture called Fishing the Wildside, and their mission was to promote ice fishing.

The trip they'd organized was quite a production, and we tackled the Ontario wilderness with snowmobiles and portable shelters to fish Nipigon Bay of Lake Superior; Jessie Lake, a wide spot on the Nipigon River between Lake Nipigon and Lake Superior; and Lac des Mille Lacs, a big, shallow, bog-stained walleye lake about an hour and a half west of Thunder Bay.

There was a lot of snow that winter in northwestern Ontario, and slush pockets were abundant on the lakes we fished. Problem is, slush pockets don't look like slush pockets until you hit them and water fills your tracks.

By that time, you're already in trouble if the slush is deep enough.

A beautiful March day was taking shape when we hit Jessie Lake to do battle with the lake trout that inhabit its considerable depths. I was driving a snowmobile, carrying a passenger and towing a portable fish house when I saw the slush-filled tracks from one of the other sleds in our crew that had been traveling ahead of me.

My only option to avoid getting stuck was to shut my eyes, hit the throttle and yell at my passenger to hang on as slush flew in every direction.

We made it, but the snowmobile was going about 1 mph by the time we cleared the 50-yard patch of slush and hit better ice.

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You'll have to trust me on this if you've never experienced it yourself, but navigating slush definitely gets the adrenaline flowing.

That was nothing, though, compared to what we hit the next day on Lac des Mille Lacs.

It all started when we decided to try a new fishing spot and steer our sleds off a well-packed trail -- and right into some of the nastiest slush imaginable.

There wasn't any danger because the ice was still about 3 feet thick under our feet. Problem was, our feet were immersed in about 2 feet of slush and water, as were our snowmobiles that now appeared hopelessly stuck.

Fortunately, there was a good-sized crew of us to push and pull and sweat and swear. Just as fortunate was the temperature, which was warm enough to keep the machines from freezing into the ice.

I can still see the swirls of coffee-colored water flying up behind the spinning tracks as we worked to free each of the mired-down snowmobiles. It reminded me of the wash a propeller leaves behind a boat in open water.

It took about an hour, but we finally freed the half-dozen or so snowmobiles from the slush and back onto the trail and a drier part of the lake a few miles away.

We even managed to scratch out a few walleyes despite the ordeal.

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There've been other slush encounters since then, but none that can match the scope of what we battled that day.

Later, we decided Lac des Mille Lacs must be French for "Lake of Many Horrors."

We were able to look back on the encounter and laugh, but it was anything but funny at the time. And had circumstances been different, it could have been dangerous.

A snow-covered lake is a beautiful sight, but heavy snow and thin ice can mean nasty slush lurking below that blanket of white.

That's definitely something to think about this winter.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: FISHING
Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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