PAUL NELSON FISHING: Ice fishing fatalities are rare, but even one is too much

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The extended forecast for the Bemidji area looks more like it should for this time of the year, with highs in the teens and overnight lows in the single digits through this weekend.

An inevitable early snow storm hit the Bemidji area right before the cold weather arrived, which will slow down how fast the lakes can add ice in the colder temperatures.

Large lakes can open back up with strong winds and unseasonably warm temperatures, especially when the ice is less than a foot thick. This is essentially what happened to create the patches of open water in Upper Red Lake that tragically took the lives of two anglers recently.

There were also a couple of fishermen lost on Lower Red Lake earlier this fall that still haven’t been found, so it has been a rough start to the winter fishing season.

Anglers fishing at night on unfamiliar waters can easily have difficulty knowing the direction in the dark. The shoreline can look pretty much the same at night unless anglers have a distinct feature on shore they can target.

With areas of thin ice on many lakes and little snow until recently to mark the correct path back to shore, one wrong turn can be fatal or at least put anglers at risk of crossing areas they shouldn’t be crossing.

A set of ice picks and/or a floatation vest both significantly increase the chances for survival if the unthinkable happens. When falling through the ice, the first and often the biggest obstacle is getting out of the water and back onto the ice quickly.

Ice picks are worn around the collar, so they are readily available in an emergency. The sharp points are retractable, so they are protected when not in use. Anglers grab one of the ice picks in each hand and jab the tip of the picks into the ice, to pull themselves out of the water and roll away from the hole before trying to stand up.

Ice picks only cost a few dollars and are available at most bait stores or online. They would make a great stocking stuffer for anyone who likes to go ice fishing. They might also save someone’s life if anglers wear them properly whenever they are on the ice.

The best way to keep from falling through the ice is to wait until the ice is thick enough to support you and the mode of travel you are using on the ice. This still doesn’t fully take into consideration the natural variations in ice thickness on the lakes.

The temptation is always there to push the limits of the ice, especially early in the season when the fish are likely to be biting.

Winters are very long in the north country, with plenty of time for most anglers to get their fill of ice fishing, even if they play it safe and wait until there is more ice than needed, to give them a greater margin of error.

The new snow this week adds another dimension to the ice conditions. The snow hides the seams in the ice and covers many of the potential hazards on the lakes and makes them harder for anglers to see.  

People who write about ice fishing and try to promote the sport they love are very aware of the potential risks. There are many things anglers can do to minimize the risks and make the sport pretty safe.

If you think about what ice fishing really entails, it is almost surprising that more people don’t fall through the ice. Fatalities are statistically rare, but even one is too much.

Most of the professional anglers that have been around a while remember Jim Hudson, who was a popular and very successful ice fishing guide out of Bayfield, Wis., who lost his life on Lake Superior’s ice.

Many of the new safety items on the market today were at least partially motivated by the loss of Hudson, so ice fishing safety is personal for most ice fishing pros.

Paul A. Nelson runs the “Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service.” He can be contacted at panelsonbemidji@gmail.com.