Vehicle at the bottom of the lake: Now what?

Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald on

Published in Outdoors

"If we've got ice we can work on, I prefer to work on the ice because I can put my machine up," Thompson said. "The other way, we drop down, float them up with lift bags, get them to the surface and then we just tow them to shore with boats."

Side- and down-imaging technology such as Humminbird's Onix and Solix units has made the job easier, Thompson says. In one case, a boat that sank to the bottom of Pelican Lake in 34 feet of water was more than half a mile from where they'd been told it was, Thompson says.

Watching the electronics revealed not only the outline of the boat and how it was situated on the bottom of the lake but also showed a big fish about 2 feet above the sunken craft.

"It just makes the job so much easier to have these new electronics," Thompson said. "We would have been diving for days."

From mid-January until ice-out, driving too close to shore, especially in areas where cattails cause conditions to deteriorate, or anywhere there's current are among the more common reasons people run into trouble, Thompson says. Fish such as tullibees, which tend to school up high in the water column, also can weaken the ice.

Going too fast on the ice with larger vehicles is a problem any time of the winter, he says, and not because of traction issues.

"We still have people out there who feel the faster you go, the less problems you're going to have," Thompson said. "And it's just the opposite. You're creating a wave under there, and that's what destroys the ice. If I see someone going hell bent for leather across the ice -- well, you're an idiot if you do that, you're stupid -- I'm going to find a different route to go."

Here are some do's and don'ts for driving on the ice from Gary "Seal" Thompson, owner of Tri-State Diving in Detroit Lakes, Minn.:

--Do test the ice before venturing out to make sure it's thick enough to support the weight of whatever you'll be driving. Remember milky or honeycomb ice isn't as strong as clear, black ice.

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--Don't drive too fast on the ice with larger vehicles; keep the speed to no more than 10 or 15 mph. "We still have people out there that feel the faster you go, the less problems you're going to have, and it's just the opposite," Thompson says. "You're creating a wave underneath there, and that's what destroys the ice."

--Do avoid areas with cattails, which can weaken the ice, and current areas where the ice is always thinner.

--Do call authorities and your insurance company immediately after dropping a vehicle through the ice. As owner of an extraction business, Thompson says it's easier to work through the process if he has a claim number before starting the job.

--Do use the same GPS you used to mark the location of the sunken item -- if you used one -- when going out to find and retrieve the item. "You're always going to be more accurate," Thompson said. "Even if it's the same (GPS) brand, if you're punching the coordinates in, it's not the same as having the unit you're out there with. ... The coordinates might be off 15 or 20 feet. If you use the same one, you're going to be a lot more consistent."

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