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Fishermen treading on thin ice

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NEIL W. JOHNSON
December 23, 2011
— Chances are thin that it'll be a white Christmas this year,

What's thinner yet is the ice that area ice fishermen are finding on their favorite waterways this winter.


Temperatures locally and throughout Wisconsin have fluctuated this month, but they've generally been higher than average.


Under those conditions, authorities and fishing guides say early ice formed and deteriorated on waters as chilly nights gave way to rainy afternoons and temperatures in the 40s.


That's meant thin ice and unstable ice conditions statewide. It also has contributed to one reported drowning in northern Wisconsin when a man reportedly fell through while ice fishing on a flowage in Marinette County.


On Dec. 11, a Clinton man was ice fishing 130 yards offshore at the Charley Bluff area of Lake Koshkonong when the wind shifted and broke up the ice around him.


The man wound up trapped on a floating ice island.


The Milton Fire Department rescued the man with an inflatable raft. While the man wasn't hurt, the Rock County Water Rescue team later had to use an airboat to retrieve his ice fishing gear.


Milton Fire Chief Loren Lippincott said the man, an experienced ice fisherman, had tested the ice with a metal punch and reported the ice to be about 3 inches thick.


Most area authorities suggest people stay off new ice early in winter until it's about 4 to 6 inches thick. Even then, wind or fluctuating weather conditions can wreak havoc on the ice.


Local fishing guide Shawn McCarten said some area ice fishing fanatics have, in the last few weeks, taken to ice on small ponds and protected bays of larger area lakes. Elsewhere, ice has been scant and, in some cases, unsafe, he said.


"In a lot of places we've had just a skim of ice, an inch or two," he said.


McCarten believes it could be another week or two before the first ice is stable enough for ice fishers to safely go out on larger local waters like Lake Koshkonong or Lake Geneva.


For anglers hoping to nab buckets of pan fish before a hard freeze locks up waters and slows the feeding of fish, it's tempting to go onto ice before it's truly safe.


"People are really anxious to get out there," McCarten said. "There's these hardcore fisherman that like to brag about getting the first big ice bucket of fish."


McCarten admits he's been on ice that was thin enough it bowed under his feet. He's even heard of ice fishermen who go to more extreme lengths, such as strapping boards to their feet to spread their weight out on ice that otherwise would be too thin to hold them.


"That seems to be more of an ego thing," McCarten said. "I don't know. Does anybody need some fish that bad?"


Lake Koshkonong often has relatively stable ice areas in it shallow bays by mid-December, but that's not the case this year. And with early ice, a solid freeze isn't always a sure thing.


Lippincott said Koshkonong has a series of springs that bubble up even in winter. That can lead to weak spots or thin ice, even when adjacent areas could have a foot of solid ice.


Birds in the unfrozen centers of lakes or ponds are a threat, too. McCarten said geese and ducks act as mini aerators, circulating water and breaking up ice from the center in.


Snow hasn't been an issue this year, but it actually insulates ice and prevents it from freezing solidly. There's also always wind and wave action to deal with.


"The wind's almost your worst enemy. It really eats away the ice," McCarten said.


Lippincott said the recent weather pattern of cold nights and mild days has made for a freeze-thaw cycle that destabilizes ice even as it forms on water.


"If you have that great fluctuation back and forth, it affects how the ice is building," Lippincott said. "It can catch you off guard. One minute you're doing fine and the next minute there's a gaping hole where you used to be able to walk."


Bob Clark, co-owner of Trep's Bait and Tackle in Edgerton, said most local waters now have scant ice, and at Koshkonong there's just a skin of it in the shallow bay areas.


"It's definitely too early. It's just been one of those years," Clark said.


He predicts the lake now needs about five days straight of freezing temperatures with cold nights before it's ready for safe ice fishing.


That means local anglers will just have to bide their time.


"You got to deal with what Mother Nature gives you," Clark said.


ICE FISHING SAFETY TIPS

Noisy ice doesn't necessarily mean dangerous ice, and there's no such thing as truly "safe" ice. But there are some rules of thumb that can keep ice anglers out of trouble on early winter ice.


Here are some ice fishing safety tips from Edgerton Fire Chief Brian Demrow:


-- Never go out on the ice alone. Make sure you or someone you're fishing with is familiar with the body of water you're on. Know the depth, current and locations of bottom springs or other features that could affect ice thickness and quality. Bring a cell phone or an emergency radio.


-- Solid ice is generally thick and clear. Four to six inches of ice is considered thick enough to support people and light gear. To test thickness of ice, use a metal punch or "ice spud." Stay off ice that's less than two inches thick, or ice that's cloudy or milky in appearance.


-- Watch the weather for temperature swings, rain, snow or changes in wind speed and direction. All of those factors could trigger changes in ice conditions. Extreme cold snaps can weaken ice as much as warm spells.


-- Snow acts as an insulator on ice, making it warmer and weaker. It also conceals from view thin or deteriorated ice.


-- Bring a throw rope and carry ice picks in an easy-to-reach pocket in case you or someone else falls through the ice.


-- Wear an inflatable personal flotation device under your clothing.



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