by Chris Rogers
Daring fishermen, officials, share tales of wisdom and folly
Over the past few weeks, the ice has thickened on many local backwaters and ice fishermen have flocked to hunch over fresh-cut holes. In some places, people have even driven on the ice, fishermen report. Like all magic, though, the spell that turns watery sloughs into solid footing is not without treachery. Thin spots have cracked beneath many unlucky anglers over the years. Trucks, snowmobiles, fish houses, too, have been swallowed by the frigid river. Getting wet at this time of year is, at best, highly unpleasant. So how do ice fishermen judge the frozen crust they venture onto?
Along Prairie Island Road, Winonan Bryce Maus pulled the collapsible cover of his ice fishing shelter over him with a swoosh last weekend. This year's sudden and bitter cold snap froze the backwaters rapidly, he said, peeling back his glove to fiddle with his tackle with a bare hand.
Maus made his first outing of the season three weeks ago and was pleased that the beginning of ice fishing season lined up so nicely with the end of deer hunting.
When asked about how he decides when it is safe to go out on the ice, he explained, "I'll check and see where other people are out." Maus drills holes to measure the thickness of the ice, as well; four inches is his rule of thumb for walking on. "It doesn't make sense to be unsafe," he said.
Maus was not the first to set out on area ice this year. Thus, he could use other fishermen as a guide; but someone has to be the first to test the ice, and not everyone is as patient.
"Yeah, I'm one of those kooks," joked local fishermen Bob Byro when asked if he was one of the first out on the ice. Byro began ice fishing four weeks ago, one week earlier than Maus. His rule of thumb is two to three inches. If it is that thin, "then you pack light," said his angling partner, Dylan Hartzell. Hartzell explained that in order to get out on two-inch-thick ice, he will leave his heavy gas-fired auger and ice tent at home, bringing only a hand auger and a plastic bucket.
Byro and Hartzell often use a spud bar to help them gauge the ice as they go. Wooden poles with metal points, spuds are essentially walking-stick sized chisels that ice fishermen tap along the ice in front of them. Once one learns how hard to tap it, a spud will tell a person if the ice an arm's length away is safe, or not.
"If the spud doesn't go through, then we walk on it," Byro explained. "If it goes through, then you take soft steps backwards." He grinned.
DNR Game Warden Tom Hemker said the official guideline is not to walk on ice thinner than four inches. He also advocated use of a spud, and advised ice walkers to practice in a safe place to get a feel for how much force it takes to break through three inches of ice.
Hemker, Maus, Byro, and Hartzell all agreed that anglers need to be especially careful of hidden dangers. It is not just the thickness, it is the structure of the ice, Byro said. In spots the ice can be "honeycombed," creating thick but weak ice. A tell-tale sign of weak ice is slush, cautioned Hemker and the anglers. Using a spud is best, though, because you never know what sort of ice may be underneath monotonous snow cover, they said.
Springs, river currents, and even the added water movement caused by large schools of rough fish may weaken the ice above them, unbeknownst to fishermen. "You have to know about the springs," Byro said.
Both Byro and Hartzell have fallen through the ice at one point in their lives. Hartzell while ice skating as a kid; Byro went in while fishing but pulled himself out and made it back to his truck. "I stripped off as much as I could and turned the heat up as much as I could," he recalled.
Hemker advised people who do fall in to roll onto the ice, so as to distribute their body weight and wait until they are in a warm, dry location before stripping off their wet clothing. As wet as it is, it still retains some body heat, he said.
Of course, southerners and the uninitiated always ask, "Why go ice fishing in the first place?"
"It beats sitting at home," Hartzell said. "You can't do anything about the cold and snow, so you just do it," Byro explained.
Hemker said five inches is recommended for snowmobiles and ATVs, 8-12 inches for cars and small trucks, and a foot to 15 inches for full-sized trucks. Until "roads" are established, responsible outdoor enthusiasts drill holes to measure the ice all along the route they plan to take before driving their vehicles on the ice, he said. He cautioned outdoor enthusiasts about trusting the tracks of others. Daring and irresponsible snowmobilers sometime rev up their sleds to dash across areas of weak ice or even open water. Slower snowmobilers who follow in their tracks can wind up in a terrible predicament.
Hemker also noted that in recent years, there have been an increasing number of stationary ice houses falling into the river. Maybe it is due to warm wind hitting the side of the shelter and melting the ice beneath it, but somehow, the ice around the all-winter-long shelters is weakened over time, he explained. At some point, the shelters left up too long bring about their own downfall.
Safely perched above the water, going out on the frozen Mississippi River can be the highlight of winter. Testing one's luck on the ice or cutting corners may be tempting, but the risk of falling in, "is just not worth it," said Maus.