Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pleasures and perils on the 'Big Windy'

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When I came across an SUV stranded and abandoned far out on Lake Winnipeg (a.k.a. Big Windy) earlier this week, it got me thinking about the pleasures and dangers of being out on the ice.

Over the past decade, recreational ice fishing and general public travel on Big Windy have exploded in popularity.

Technological advances regarding outerwear, fish-finding sonar and portable ice-fishing shelters have opened recreational ice-fishing to thousands of new anglers. Combine these folks with a tremendous opportunity to catch the walleye and you have a perfect day; or on occasion, the perfect storm.

Lake Winnipeg is massive in size and it's full of fish. Commercial fishers have long known this, but it wasn't until the early 2000s that the angling community discovered the secret.

On any given winter day of "reasonable" Manitoba weather, expect a couple thousand people to meander over the snow-covered ice pack in search of world-renowned "greenback" walleye.

I say world-renowned because the Internet has opened up the world to the premier winter walleye fishery in North America. In more recent years, anglers are coming from all over the U.S. and Europe in pursuit of 76-centimetre trophy walleye or 43-centimetre fine-diners. Lake Winnipeg is a gift for all Manitobans to enjoy at its fullest.

But let us remember that this is winter in Manitoba and there are kilometres upon kilometres of wide-open surface on Big Windy. The nickname alone should open peoples' eyes as to what to expect.

It is not the neighbourhood pond. People travelling the lake should always remain aware of the perils that may develop, often without warning.

A perfectly calm day can quickly turn into windy, white-out conditions. It is a horrible feeling to be stuck in a whiteout -- wind and snow buffeting your shelter and all you can see is white stuff flying over a white background.

This feeling of helplessness is compounded when your vehicle is stuck in a snowbank that you didn't see because, well, everything is white.

What do I need, and need to do, to ensure sure my perfect day doesn't get ruined by the weather?

First and foremost, make absolutely sure to check updated weather conditions. If the forecast is for snow or light winds, plan accordingly. If winds greater than 20 km/h are forecast ,consider staying off Lake Winnipeg. If snow and winds greater than 20 km/h are predicted, stay off Lake Winnipeg.

You have been warned.

The increasingly popular four-wheel-drive pickup truck is made to assist drivers in problematic conditions. But what can get you out of trouble can also get you into trouble, especially in such unforgiving places as Big Windy.

There is no doubt 4x4 trucks and all-terrain vehicles facilitate travel on Lake Winnipeg; but only under certain conditions. If the snow is deeper than the truck's axles and too soft to support its weight, tires will break through and the truck will get hung up.

If you're going to travel the lake, use the buddy system. Travel in a convoy with multiple vehicles. Carry recovery straps and shovels in each vehicle. Your vehicle will get stuck, but you'll have other vehicles and people along to help you get free.

Tracked vehicles have definite advantages, the most obvious being they can travel on top of snow, whereas wheeled vehicles usually cannot.

Snowmobiles were invented for a reason -- snow travel. ATV tires can be removed and replaced with tracks for winter use. The newest kids on the market are tracks for pickup trucks or SUVs. Now that is the way to travel.

I have spent a long lifetime travelling the icy surfaces of Manitoba's lakes and rivers. I've witnessed many circumstances that made me stop and shake my head in amazement. Such was the case this week as I cruised across Big Windy's frozen mass in a tracked SUV. Kilometres away from the nearest access point, I came upon an abandoned SUV. This one was on wheels and stuck in snow up to the windows. The snow was cement-like after the recent storm.

I have no idea how long the vehicle has been out there. I don't know exactly why it was abandoned. Was it stuck beyond the capabilities of the occupants to remove it? Did it break down because of the tremendous pounding a vehicle takes on Big Windy?

Hopefully, whoever was in that vehicle made it back to shore. Worst-case scenarios aside, snow conditions guarantee a tow truck isn't going out to rescue that SUV unless someone plows a road to it. That makes for an expensive fishing trip.

However it's decided to rescue this vehicle, I hope strict attention is paid to the weather forecast, equipment and vehicle suggestions for safest winter travel on Big Windy.

Tight lines!

Stu Mackay is founder and owner of a Cats on the Red, a fishing charter and outfitting service. He has spent more than 30 years in the industry and is a nature and landscape photographer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2013 A17

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