The sound of a hand auger resonated through the solid ice as it chewed its way through the lake’s recently frozen surface. Dressed in their warmest attire, people stood over holes holding short fishing rods. It is a scene played over and over this year.
As far as winters go, this one has been a dandy. The previous two years offered little for those who enjoy coaxing tasty fish from small holes cut in the ice. But this season has thankfully offered ample opportunities.
“It sure beats sitting at home,” a friend said as he threw a flopping bluegill on the ice.
On this particular day, several of us hit three different lakes in a single day. 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 feet 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.
Obviously winter weather patterns play a huge role in the amount of time we have suitable, safe ice. Ice fishing opportunities vary from year to year. There have been some seasons when ice anglers barely had several weeks to ply frozen surfaces. It looks like this year we are in for a long run.
Over the past three weeks I have had the opportunity to make numerous trips to many different bodies of water, sharing fellowship with a good number of people. Old friendships were reaffirmed and new ones created.
“You know, I’ve read several different articles on ice fishing safety, but no one ever mentions that,” said Paul Youngdale, as he watched me place the long, steel rod back into my sled.
Make no mistake — 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 items everyone should use. But think about it: They only come in handy after you are already in subfreezing water. Personally, I don’t want to be in that position to begin with.
So what item can help us the most from plunging through? Solid steel! That’s right, a heavy solid steel rod about 5 feet in length with a handle at one end and a sharp, chisel point on the other.
These important tools are called ice chisels or more commonly spud bars. A spud 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.
As mentioned previously, it was several weeks back when some friends and I hit three different lakes in one day. These bodies of water were all within the same general area of Indiana. The ice conditions varied dramatically with one lake covered by only 3 inches of ice and another pushing 8 inches.
Conditions can also be greatly different on the same lake. On one particular day several of us stood on safe and solid 8 inches of ice when 50 yards behind us open water rippled stirred by a stiff north breeze. Even though we stood on solid footing, within the next day the area of open water would skim over with ice and have a layer of snow camouflaging it, creating a dangerous situation.
When venturing out on any frozen body of water, I will take my spud bar and strike the ice soundly 3 to 4 feet in front of me with every step. I can penetrate roughly 2 inches of ice with one sharp blow, 3 to 4 inches with two 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 I jumped the gun this season. Sure, you can also check ice thickness by using your auger to punch test holes as you venture out, but there are a couple problems with this. First it takes time and requires a lot more effort. Second, you are standing over the hole while you drill it so you’re possibly standing directly over weak ice. With an ice spud you are using it much like a walking stick and constantly checking the ice in front of you with every step.
There is no reason to hibernate inside until the sun’s rays again turn warm. It’s not the latest cold weather or years of knowledge that makes an ice fisherman. It’s simpler than that. All it really requires is a little desire and an 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.
PASSING OF A FRIEND
We make a lot of friends throughout our life. Many take different paths and we either keep in contact only occasionally or lose touch. In the end, there are only a few we’ve known and seen our entire life, kind of like from crib to coffin.
I never know what to say, or think, when I learn of the unexpected passing of a good friend. Such was the case last week with the loss of Jerry Bryant, longtime co-owner of Bryant’s Outdoor Store. At only 57 years old, Jerry had a passion for life. He could always be found in his store (unless he was at lunch) visiting with customers or sharing a friendly conversation with others who would stop by just to hang out.
I have always had a special place in my heart for locally owned and operated outdoor stores and bait shops. But this goes a little farther for me. Both Jerry and his identical twin brother, Billy, and I have been friends since childhood, growing up in the same north end section of Kokomo. Our paths crossed frequently, in part because of our lifetime friendship and because that’s where I have always purchased my live bait. So our contact was frequent.
I will miss our conversations about hunting, fishing and life in general. But on the other hand, I have a feeling Billy will be spending more time at the north side business. There is no doubt we’ll have those same discussions about hunting, fishing and life in general. And in some odd way it will feel like Jerry had never left.
John Martino is the Tribune’s outdoors columnist. He may be reached by email at email@example.com.