Nelson: Ice fishing

Jerry Nelson Special to the Farm Forum
Farm Forum

The Arctic cold that has been punishing our region has claimed a victim. One morning last week, I discovered that my car’s battery had gone to that big recycling center in the sky. The starter could only manage a feeble moan, which is probably more than what I could have done under similar circumstances.

I jumpstarted the car and drove to Bunker Auto. Bunker’s the kind of place where you can get a cup of coffee or a gallon of antifreeze, a slice of pizza or a transmission filter. Since the mercury was lolling well below zero, I asked the guys at Bunker’s to install a new battery for me. I could have done the swap myself in our driveway, but value non-frozen fingers over do-it-yourself pride.

I hung around Bunker Auto’s shop during the battery transplant. They had several cars in various stages of repair, including a 1956 Cadillac that has been masterfully repainted yet has no seats.

Near the Caddy sat an odd conglomeration of steel cables and winches and frameworks. This hodgepodge of iron had been mounted on a small trailer. A friendly guy, whom I learned was Tim Bunker, explained the purpose of this curious device.

“That’s our ice fishing rig,” Tim said. “We use it to fish out cars and pickups that have gone through the ice.”

I was intrigued by this super-specialized service, so I chatted a bit with Tim and his brother, Tom. Tim said that he’s “just a farmer,” but seems to know an awful lot about the operations at Bunker Auto.

“We started pulling vehicles out of frozen lakes in the mid 1980s,” said Tom. “There was no special reason for it other than we had a tow truck.”

In the beginning, the Bunker brothers used a simple A-frame doohickey to hoist submerged vehicles from beneath the ice.

“The A-frame didn’t always work so well,” Tom said. “We had problems keeping it in place. We made a lot of modifications over the years as we developed our current rig. And we decided to make things easier on ourselves by mounting it on a trailer.”

“We need at least a foot of ice under us to pull out a vehicle,” said Tim. “We check the thickness of the ice with a chainsaw. We’ll plunge the chainsaw into the ice and can tell how thick it is when water comes up with the chain.”

I asked how they hook onto submerged vehicles.

“Pickups are usually easy,” said Tim. “Most of them have a ball hitch in back that we can snare with a cable loop. But cars can be tricky.”

“Cars often end up on their roofs,” said Tom. “If the water is less than 20 feet deep, we can usually hook onto the vehicle with the help of our underwater camera. If it’s deeper than that, we hire a diver. We often have to drag the vehicle along the bottom for 100 feet or more to get it to good ice.”

I wondered if our recent spate of subzero temperatures had slowed their fishing enterprise.

“Not really,” said Tim. “The one thing that has given us the most business is GPS. A guy might find a hot fishing spot and send its coordinates to a buddy. The buddy might get off his night shift and use his GPS to drive straight toward the spot. But you can’t see ice heaves at night, so he’ll drive over one and break through. We’ve even had guys use their GPS to drive right into open water.”

“Our two biggest customers are heave runners and shore huggers,” said Tom. “You should never try to cross an ice heave. And many don’t realize that ice can thaw from the bottom up at points in the shoreline.”

I asked about some of their more challenging retrievals.

“Sometimes the ice is so rotten that we have to wait until it melts to get at the vehicle,” Tom said. “We built a redneck pontoon, which is just a bunch of empty barrels welded together. A couple of years ago we used the pontoon to fish out an airplane that had crashed into Lake Thompson.”

“The airplane was still in surprisingly good shape when we got it to shore,” noted Tim.

“It’s always difficult when a vehicle settles on a submerged stump or rock pile,” said Tom. “Situations like those are never pretty.”

Did they have any advice for ice fishermen?

“Stay away from ice heaves,” they replied. “And make sure that your vehicle has full coverage.”

Wise words. Considering the risks, I’m going to continue to obtain my fish the way God intended: from the frozen food section.

If you’d like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at His book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at and at booksellers everywhere.

Jerry Nelson