"Safe ice fishing ..." By John Martino

Safe ice fishing enhanced by solid steel By John Martino We all know Indiana winter weather can be a crap shoot, as far as ice fishing opportunities go. Some years safe ice is short lived and other years we can enjoy our passion for months. It all depends on the whim of Mother Nature. Just a few short weeks ago many began to wonder. But for now, it’s on! There are some, like me, who enjoy when winter’s firm grip stills the waters of area lakes, creating a solid covering. Safe ice conditions provide adventurous anglers the opportunity to feel their line being pulled tight by the weight of a good fish. “It sure beats sitting at home,” a friend said last week as he threw a flopping bluegill on the snow covered ice. We agreed it would be hard lasting the winter months without feeling that familiar tug on the end of your line. It’s also fun feeling the snow crunching under your boots as you walk over the water’s hard surface, imagining hungry bluegills, crappies and walleyes lurking right under your feet. And when you do encounter success, few things please the palate like fresh panfish hoisted from icy cold waters. Unfortunately every winter there are moments when I get sick to my stomach, almost to the point of puking. This happens every time I hear of someone falling through unsafe ice and ending up in the hospital, or worse, the morgue. This year has been no exception as one angler lost his life in DeKalb County after plunging through while others were rescued in a Tippecanoe County pond. Make no mistake. Falling through unsafe ice in freezing water is a life or death situation. But before you question the safety and sanity of those who enjoy the sanctity of hard water angling, remember one thing. Even something as simple as crossing a street can have fateful consequences if you don’t pay attention. Over the past several weeks I have been fortunate in sharing fellowship with a good number of hard water anglers. Old friendships were reaffirmed and new ones created. “You know, people always talk about ice fishing safety, but no one ever mentions that,” said Jason Roberts, as he watched me place the long, steel rod back into my sled. He was referring to my ice spud. Safety is paramount when venturing on frozen surfaces. People tout the importance of wearing life jackets, flotation suits and draping safety spikes around your neck. No doubt these are essential items everyone should have. But think about it, they only come in handy after you’ve taken the plunge into freezing water. I don’t know about you, but that’s a situation I don’t ever want to find myself in - ever! Another safety measure is to check ice thickness by using your auger to punch test holes as you venture out, but there are a couple concerns with this. First, it takes time and requires a lot more effort. And who is willing to do that every several yards. Second, you are standing over the hole while you drill, so you’re possibly already over weak ice. So what item can help you avoid that predicament? To me, one of the most important safety items is about 20 pounds of solid steel! That’s right, a heavy, steel rod about five feet in length with a handle at one end and a sharp, chisel point on the other, called an ice spud. Originally developed to carve out holes in frozen surfaces, experienced ice fishermen recognize them as one of the most vital safety tools. “I’ve never thought of that,” said outdoor radio host Bryan Poynter, as we discussed ice fishing safety during his broadcast. “But it makes great sense.” With an ice spud you are using it much like a walking stick and constantly checking thickness several feet in front of you with every step. They are sometimes referred to as ice chisels, ice spuds or more commonly, spud bars and can be invaluable, especially during early and late season. They can be purchased or made in your shop, but regardless, they should occupy a place in your arsenal of hard water equipment. One day several weeks back some friends and I hit two different lakes in one day. These bodies of water were only five miles apart. Ice thickness varied dramatically. One lake was covered by only three inches of ice and the other pushing seven inches. By the way, safe ice is considered to be at least four inches in thickness. Conditions can also vary drastically on the same lake. On one outing several of us stood on safe, clear ice when 50 yards in front of us open water rippled. The next day the area of open water skimmed over and a light layer of snow camouflaged it, creating a dangerous situation for any one unaware. When venturing out on any frozen body of water it’s wise to take the spud bar and strike the ice soundly three to four feet in front of you with every step. My homemade spud will penetrate roughly two inches of ice, or more, with one sharp blow, three to four inches with two good whacks. If the chisel goes through with one strike, I’ll immediately back off. There is no doubt this practice has kept me from going through several times when my ambition caused me to jump the gun. There is no reason to hibernate inside until the sun’s rays again turn warm. It’s not the latest cold snap, like last week, or years of knowledge that makes an ice fisherman. It’s simpler than that. All it really requires is desire, a dose of common sense and attention to safety. If you decide to give hard water angling a shot, don’t be afraid to ask an experienced ice fisherman to take you along. Most are more than eager to share the warmth and friendship only cold weather, safe ice, and a group of friends can provide.