Outdoors

Ice fishing has come a long way

Tips for staying safe on the ice

Drew Newhoff smiles as he holds up a crappie caught on an Iowa lake a few years ago. (Doug Newhoff/correspondent)
Drew Newhoff smiles as he holds up a crappie caught on an Iowa lake a few years ago. (Doug Newhoff/correspondent)

When I was a kid some 50 years ago, ice fishing wasn’t especially popular.

Our homemade portable shelters were bulky and heavy. We didn’t have high-tech flashers or high-definition underwater cameras. We did a lot of sight fishing in shallow water.

Our heaters were aluminum pans filled with charcoal. Our rods were stiff fiberglass and, instead of reels, we had pegs on the rod handle where we wrapped our line. We made bobbers out of cork we collected all year long and we used an old, mantle-style Coleman lantern for light.

We’ve come a long way.

Ice fishing these days is almost as comfortable as sitting on the couch with the television remote in your hand. It follows that there is now a legion of hard-water enthusiasts who look forward to December like a Labrador retriever looks forward to chasing a tennis ball.

They’re the ones who are in the garage sitting inside their ice tents in November contemplating innovations or upgrades that will enhance their ice fishing experience and efficiency. They’re the ones who celebrate subzero temps and track the progress of the ice on their favorite early fishing holes.

They’re also the ones who know how enjoyable and rewarding the sport can be with the equipment and technology available today.

However, whether you’re new to the sport or a seasoned veteran, it’s always a good idea to keep in mind a few safety precautions. No fish is worth risking your life. There’s no trophy for being the first one to drill a hole in the ice. As eager as you might be for that first crappie of the season, don’t try to rush it.

Experts generally recommend at least four inches of solid ice for foot travel, at least six inches for snowmobiles and ATVs, eight inches for small cars and a foot or more for medium-sized trucks.

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Ice isn’t always uniform in thickness. Several factors can inhibit development from one spot to another on the same body of water, such as current, springs and waterfowl use. New ice is safer than old ice, and snow serves as insulation that slows the ice-making process.

Here are a few other things to consider before that first venture onto the ice this winter:

1. Start with small bodies of water early in the season. They ice up sooner, they’re easier to access and the fishing is typically best before oxygen levels in small ponds and lakes begin to dissipate because of snow cover and light penetration. If you’re unfamiliar with a particular lake you want to fish, learn as much as you can about possible danger areas from contour maps and local bait shop owners.

2. Cover your safety bases. Take a spud bar along for those early season outings on foot. Test the ice as you go. Wear a standard life jacket or, better yet, an inflatable under your outer clothing. Keep a throwable boat cushion handy. It can not only save a life, but it makes a good seat cushion, too. Throw a set of ice picks around your neck. Hopefully you will never fall through, but if you do they give you a way to anchor to the ice shelf while calling for help. It’s also a good idea to include 50 feet or so of heavy rope with your gear in case you need to pull someone from the water.

3. Fish with a friend. If something goes wrong, you don’t want to be alone.

4. As hunters always say, plan your hunt and hunt your plan. Let somebody know where you are headed and when to expect your return in the event they need to come looking for you.

5. If you’re on relatively thin ice (like 4-5 inches), don’t stay in one place too long with your heater on. Between today’s thermal ice tents and highly efficient propane heaters, it can get T-shirt warm inside an ice tent. If water starts pooling around your feet inside your flip-over model, it’s probably time to relocate. If you’re in a larger portable shack with a full floor and can’t see the ice, move every hour or so.

If you’ve never tried ice fishing, you’re missing out on a winter activity that can be fun for the whole family and almost pandemic-proof. But be proactive in regard to safety and don’t rush it. Let it come.

When the ice gets right, it’s like my lab would say if he could speak.

“Just throw the ball!”

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