ESCANABA -I've never claimed to be an accomplished ice fisherman. My experiences over the years centered around there being a frozen surface thickness that would take half a tank of gas from a power auger to get through. I wasn't always like this but given the history of people and equipment going through, especially at first and last ice, I always thought it best to err on the side of caution.
I also used to marvel at the person who every year seems to brave conditions and venture out across the ice to see if there, well, is enough ice.
Most everyone else follows the tracks of the initial explorer and continues along that line until things get a little crowded. The shacks or places scarred with frozen over holes branch out to other places but seemingly track back to the original trail, sort of like a trunk line highway.
My son, on the other hand, is one of those who figure that no reports of anyone going through the ice means it is good enough to support him, his friends and their gear. I see it as a clear indicator as to why I am losing more hair or at least why I'm getting grayer.
Fishing always seems to be better again with first and last ice.
No one has been able to explain why, but the results are there and reports from the bait stores and fishermen are good. Perch have seemingly made a comeback this winter with some nice size catches, both in quantity and size, being pulled up. There are also some nice walleye and northern being taken. Most of the action has been north of Saunder's Point in Gladstone and shore to shore across. More fishermen are going out off the Gladstone Yacht Harbor and shanties are inside the Escanaba Marina. I'm sworn to secrecy as to what lures my son and his friends are catching them on except that minnows are involved.
It would seem everything is right for you to go get out and enjoy hook and line through the ice. For those of you who are still a little nervous or consider yourself still a novice, I found some interesting tips that may give you a little more piece of mind.
Fist of all, as in any venture outdoors, make a plan. Tell someone where you are going, when you are going and when you plan to return. If your plans change, make sure that interested parties are notified.
If you fish anywhere near a channel or river mouth, consider that ice thickness may vary and what appears to be thick and solid in one spot, could be thin and weak just a few feet away. In areas where pipe outlets or docking systems appear, look for diamond shaped "thin ice" signs or lights near the surface that are there to indicate power is on.
Ice color is another indicator.
Gray, dark or porous (spongy looking) ice usually indicate poor conditions. Spoiled ice can also be slushy and thin. Surface ice that is clear with a hue of blue is usually pretty good, again depending on thickness.
If you are venturing out as "the first guy", take a "spud" with you to tap and test as you move along. Don't go alone. Use the buddy system and keep a distance of at least six feet between you and your partner. Carry a length of rope just in case and a personal floatation device will not only help keep you afloat if the unthinkable happens, it will serve to keep you warm as well.
Those using shanties or driving on the ice on or in a vehicle should follow some simple established guidelines as to what thickness is safe.
According to the Fishermen's Guide for Ice Fishing Safety:
"If you're getting there by ATV, you'll need no less than 5-inches of clear ice to do it safety. Cars and light trucks require 10-12-inches in ice thickness, and snowmobiles need 6-inches. If you're leaving your car on the ice, especially at the beginning or end of the season, move it often. Parking heavy vehicles in one place over a long period of time weakens the ice. Also, never park near cracks or pressure ridges."
If you do go through, there are some other tips to aid in your survival:
Consider carrying some "picks" in your coat pocket. These could be made of anything either off the shelf at your local sporting goods store to a couple of old screwdrivers that you ground to a point. Once through, work back towards the edge you fell from as it will be thicker that the surrounding area.
If you have used the buddy system, your partner should not run to the edge, but instead use the rope you brought with you to connect and then he should lay back on the ice as far away as possible to work as an anchor for you to pull yourself out. Once out, roll away back in the direction from where you started before attempting to stand.
If you have access to either a radio, cell phone or signaling device, activate it immediately. The longer you take to react with help means the chance of hypothermia can increase before you are safely out.
If you fall through, get to a place that is warm and dry as soon as possible, and get out of the wet clothing. Even in a warmer environment, the moist clothing will continue to wick away body heat. Regardless of how you think you might be, seek help as it is always easier to call off emergency responders than to get them to a scene after things have turned for the worse.
These tips are intended to get you thinking about safety first and are not absolute. If you don't believe them worth your time, I can only suggest you go to the meat department of the local grocery store and buy your fish off the shelf.
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Tim Kobasic is outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Tails & Trails Outdoor Radio aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet Saturday mornings.