Ever do something really dumb?  All of us have, and more than once, but the stupidest thing I ever did in my life happened on an ice fishing trip.  It happened about 40 years ago when a partner and I drove to a good sized farm pond that had some lunker bluegills.  We stopped at the shoreline, dropped our rods and gear and I walked out about 3 feet and bored a hole to see how thick the ice was.

A few turns and the auger went through, showing ice that was about 3 inches thick, maybe a little less.  We should have walked away, but those juicy bluegill fillets beckoned, and finally I said “Let’s walk out well apart and keep our feet well apart, too.  I think it’ll be okay.”   So, out we went, stepping slowly and carefully while the ice made noises beneath us, drilled our holes, and caught about 20 dandy bluegills apiece.  But I couldn’t enjoy the experience.

I was nervous throughout and constantly thinking “This is stupid.”  So, we bucketed our catch and walked back in.  I remember looking down as we eased toward shore and was horrified to see that the ice was actually bending under my feet.  But we made it, and I made a mental promise “Never again.”  What would have happened if one of us had broken through?  That person would have died.  We had no rope, no ice picks or screwdrivers, no rescue gear at all, and the ice would certainly have been wet around the hole, making it impossibly slick.  For 20 bluegills I might have left my wife a widow and my kids orphans.

There’s an obvious moral to the above story.  Ice fishing is a reasonably safe sport if you follow the rules, but I’m guessing that it’s the most dangerous of winter sports, more dangerous than hunting, which is a relatively safe occupation.  And if you’re going to do it, as I always do, try hard to fish with a friend or several friends, and make sure you have at least 50 feet of rope coiled in a bucket with a loop tied in both ends.

Have those two screwdrivers in a shirt pocket, too.  Jabbing them into the ice will give you traction to pull yourself out, and it’s wise to carry a loud whistle, and a cell phone in a plastic bag.  All of it weighs little, and can save your life.  Personally, unless it’s been a bitter cold winter and the ice is a foot thick, I carry 100 feet of rope and if I’m fishing alone, tie one end to a solid obstacle near shore and the other around my waist.

And I ALWAYS walk out a few feet and drill a hole to make sure the ice is plenty thick, six inches minimum.  It’s said that 4 inches will support a man and I’m sure it will, but even a pond can have springs that eat out ice from below or currents that do the same if there’s a creek running in.  The extra inches provide a margin of safety.

What do you do if a partner goes in?  Get him out and to the truck as soon as possible.  Strip off his clothes, hopefully while another friend is driving to the nearest hospital, rub him down with a towel, shirt, anything, loan him your thick coat, and give him a warm drink if you have one.  That means something without caffeine or alcohol.  With luck you’ll be pulling into the Emergency Entrance well before his uncontrolled shivers turn into mental confusion, apathy and speech that’s slow and slurred.

Again, ice fishing is a fun and productive sport, and reasonably safe most times.  But a catch of walleye, perch, crappie, or bluegill isn’t worth your life.  No fish is.

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