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Although Lake Mendota appears to be frozen, anglers can’t be too careful

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Ted Peck
December 22, 2013

Conventional wisdom says Lake Mendota freezes over sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

This is wisdom of the ages, passed down from old guys who used to fish here long before my first trip on this ice 35 years ago.

It appears this crown jewel of the Madison chain locked up all the way across earlier this week. You can see a lot with a good pair of binoculars. But binoculars aren’t capable of 3-D interpretation.

The plane of frozen water appears unbroken, save a couple of pressure cracks. Like most lakes, Mendota has several spots that freeze over later than most of the lake.

There is no way to tell 10 inches of good ice from 1/10 inch from shore with binoculars. This is where the old adage about fools walking in where angels fear to tread screams scary and appropriate overtones.

Falling through the ice is never an enjoyable experience, even if the water beneath your boots is only knee deep. Breaking through into knee-deep water is only an uncomfortable inconvenience that may cost you a boot. Breaking through into water over waist deep may cost your life.

Looking back over the years I can recall five instances of unscheduled, neck-deep immersion. In all but one instance, I was out of the water in less than two minutes. Twice the dunking was in water way over my head.

The time that almost killed me came in water less than waist deep over Mississippi mud that had no hard bottom. It seemed like 20 minutes before the mud’s suction could be broken, enabling the body to get horizontal and execute a graceless, drunken-seal flop on to ice that would support 200 pounds of terrified soul.

An auger and at least $100 worth of gear are still buried in that mud. Nobody was within earshot to save me or mark the spot for a future attempt at salvage. This happened 30 years ago.

If it weren’t for a loving wife and two young children at home I might have given up. Thoughts of death by hypothermia were foremost and very real.

Unfortunately, time and desire have a way of erasing hard-earned wisdom. The two times I went in over my head—at Lake Summerset and Apple Canyon Lake—came after this nearly fatal event.

Every ice fisher has read articles with bullet points warning of thin-ice dangers and how to effect self-rescue. This advice doesn’t come immediately to mind when the path to winter fun becomes a trap door.

The first response is a heart-in-the-throat gasp. Those who are fortunate enough to pop back up are clinging tightly to life—and typically their fishing gear. It only takes a nanosecond to realize these treasures aren’t helping your chances for survival.

Panic is a real possibility. Panic also translates into death. You only have a couple of precious minutes to regain composure and take action. Hopefully, you’re fishing with a buddy or within screaming distance of help.

If you are going to survive, the first thing you must do is get horizontal. Ice adjacent to your point of entry won’t support concentrated body weight. But if you can spread the weight out by getting horizontal your chance of survival increases dramatically.

A pair of screwdrivers on a tether around your neck is worth their weight in gold right now. So is a PFD if you had the wisdom to wear one. The screwdrivers are standard equipment on my ice fishing parka. The PFD will remain part of essential gear until several outings on a body of water convince me the ice is at least four inches thick. It will become part of the package again when the first cardinals announce spring is on the way.

Those who carry a throwable PFD that doubles as a comfy seat on the ice bucket are truly wise.

Wrapping 50 feet of inch nylon rope around your bucket might enable you to save the life of another. Praying for a length of rope won’t do much good if you don’t bring the means to answer prayer with you.

There have been several reports already this winter from ATV’s, snowmobiles and vehicles going through the ice. I suspect there will be at least a couple more before Old Man Winter has ice locked down.

Ice fishers tend to view this possibility like ducks aware a falcon is watching their flight from a vantage point overhead. Every duck thinks the webfoot nearby is the target.

If you are passionate about ice fishing, odds are you will eventually become an unwitting member of the Polar Bear Club. According to the calendar, winter just arrived yesterday.

The great white season will stick around for a while. With some common sense maybe you can too. Merry Christmas to all—and to all a good bite!

Ted Peck, a certified Merchant Marine captain, is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at tedpeck@acegroup.cc.



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